An interesting discussion took place over lunch here at the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto last week. The topic: literary license. The talk was sparked by The Lifespan of a Fact, a book co-authored by essayist John D’Agata, who teaches at the University of Iowa, and his former fact checker, Jim Fingal, that was published by W.W. Norton in February. It all started in 2003 when D’Agata wrote an essay for Harper’s about the suicide of a teenager in Las Vegas. Harper’s ended up pulling the piece because it was riddled with factual errors, but D’Agata resold the essay to The Believer, where he met Jim Fingal, who became his fact checker—for the next SEVEN YEARS. The result is The Lifespan of a Fact, a curious juxtaposition of the original text of the essay alongside the correspondence between D’Agata and Fingal about whether the information in the essay is factual (for the record, some of the correspondence was fabricated specifically for the publication of the book, so the book itself is as spurious as the original essay). For example, in response to the line, “It’s estimated that only 40 percent of suicides are the result of chemical imbalance”), Jim responds, “No source for this, and I couldn’t find anything that says this.” Dispute over the first line of the essay runs on for two pages.
D’Agata defends his factual “errors” by claiming that he is an essayist, not a nonfiction writer. But what is the difference? That is what Grottoites heatedly disputed over tuna sandwiches and tofu stir fries last week—the distinction between fact and fiction, between essays and nonfiction, and whether there should be a new category altogether, one for stories that are 98% true. (If all the facts in a story are true except for the details about the weather, the color of a car that was parked in front of a train station, and the name of one of the characters, should the story still be labeled fiction?)
In one camp are the journalists who believe that no work should be labeled nonfiction unless it is 100% factual. That includes calling a red car red and not blue. The assumption is that an essay—unless stated otherwise—is nonfiction. In the other camp are the memoirists, who, having learned that it is nearly impossible to write an autobiography that is dramatic enough to sell without fudging some of the details, are a little more lenient about the “truth.” One Grotto memoirist said she thinks it’s okay to say a conversation that took place on a telephone really took place in a restaurant (assuming that the location of the conversation bears no significance on the story and that the transfer of the conversation is merely to add some color.) Another writer disagreed, stating that that is taking too much literary license. Barring extreme cases like James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces and Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea, both of which fudged much more than details, most memoirists agree that is okay to:
1. Recreate dialogue to the best of your recollection
2. Fill in details that cannot be verified, like what clothes people were wearing, what the weather was like, and what color car drove past
3. Condense time. Many memoirs take a story that really took place over several years and condense them into fewer, so as not to bore the reader with the passing of too much time during which nothing significant happened.
4. Change the chronological order of events. The point of this is not to exaggerate events but simply to create a narrative that has a strong arc.
5. Disguise characters. In other to protect the privacy of friends and relatives, memoirists often disguise characters by changing their names, their physical characteristics and even their backgrounds or nationalities.
6. Combine characters. Not all memoirists agree on this point (or any of these points for that matter), but some authors combine similar minor characters into one. For example, in my own memoir, I dated several male models. In one scene, I combined two of them into one. Everything that happened is true, and combining the two men does nothing to change the truth of the scene or even to heighten the drama, it just allowed me to add a little more color.
The big difference between memoirs and essays? The disclaimer. Most memoirs have a disclaimer at the beginning stating that the author condensed time, changed the names of characters, or wrote the story “to the best of his/her recollection.” Essays do not. And that was the mistake of D’Agata—to pass off what may be “true” in the metaphorical sense as “fact” without adding a disclaimer. Jonathon Burnham, a senior vice-president at W. W. Norton, points out to NPR writer Travis Larchuk that, “The expectations are different for newspapers, magazines, literary journals and books.” The disclaimer is, according to Burnham, “an almost essential piece of qualifying information that alerts the reader to the fact that not every single word in this book is true.” Like Craig Silverman points out in an article on the Poynter website, newspapers used to use a phrase in the headlines of newspaper articles that weren’t verified: “Important if true.” Maybe it’s time we brought back.
What do you think? Should “truth” be limited to the “facts” in essays and memoirs? Is it okay to fudge details as long as a disclaimer is attached? Do you assume, when you read an essay, that every word is factual? Or do you think it’s okay for essayists, like memoirists, to take some literary license in order to create more colorful, dramatic pieces of writing?