Thursday, January 12, 2006

Creative Non-Fiction or Making Stuff Up

The controversy over James Frey's book, A Million Little Pieces points to an interesting question in the literary community and publishing world that has been going on for years.

When writing non-fiction, how much can you make up?

Non-fiction writers do have to make decisions about things like the details of incomplete memories. Significant events in our lives are not always remembered in complete detail, and sometimes we remember things incorrectly, so there should be a little leeway here.

Conversely, some recollections are too unwieldy to write about in an effective way, they have to be pared down to an easier to follow narrative which doesn't necessarily include all the details.

But at least in both these cases the basic facts are verifiable, though someone, like a family member might remember certain details differently. (A recent debate broke out in my family about whether or not we ever owned a chihuahua, which only one family member seems to remember)

More questionable are things like using composite characters (as is often done in film retellings of "true" stories).

Can a number of different individuals in your life who imparted a certain type of wisdom to you be morphed into one person? After all, non-fiction writers often use psuedonyms to protect the privacy of people in their lives anyway. This one I admit, is a bit more questionable.

But these ones, in my mind, fall into the category of potentially allowable alterations.

However, in the case of Frey, even though he claims that only 5% of the book is untrue or inaccurate, it's not all so "innocent" (I would contend) as the above practices.

The New York Times reports today that he writes about three months spent in jail and the consequences of that incarceration, but he never spent three months in jail! That's not a creative flourish or a filling in of unremembered details, that's just making stuff up.

So, while I would agree with those who argue that not everything in non-fiction has to be completely true and accurate (heck, even our history books could probably not meet that standard), there is a limit to how much you can make up in a work like a memoir. If you say you went to jail, you very well should have gone to jail, unless it's clear that you mean "jail" as a metaphor.

Reminds of one of my favorite lines from Barton Fink:

Well . . . actually, no Bill . . .

Barton looks nervously at Audrey before continuing.

. . . No, I've always found that writing comes
from a great inner pain. Maybe it's a pain
that comes from a realization that one must
do something for one's fellow man - to help
somehow to ease his suffering. Maybe it's a
personal pain. At any rate, I don't believe
good work is possible without it.

Mmm. Wal, me, I just enjoy maikn' things up.
Yessir. Escape...It's when I can't write, can't
escape m'self, that I want to tear m'head off
and run screamin' down the street with m'balls
in a fruitpickers pail. Mm . . .

He sighs and reaches for a bottle of Wild Turkey.

. . . This'll sometimes help.


Blogger angelmeg said...

I wonder if the book would have been considered so ground breaking if it was marketed as fiction?

My guess is that he probably wouldn't have gotten a publishing deal.


2:32 PM  

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