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When Should We Limit Literary License?

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?

13 comments to When Should We Limit Literary License?

  • Kristan

    I agree completely with the 6 points outlined above, about what is appropriate to fudge/blur in memoir. However, I'm not sure I'd agree with the guidelines/reasoning of "to create more colorful, dramatic pieces of writing."

    IMO, it shouldn't be about color or drama. It should be about clarity and effectiveness. To me, "fact" shouldn't be sacrificed simply for excitement. It should be sacrificed when it obscures "truth." When the real details become too overwhelming for the reader to keep track of. The point is not to make the story more entertaining — it's about helping the reader fall into the story, get immersed, and fully understand.

    But that's just my take.

    • meghancward

      Point VERY well made, Kristan, and I should include that in my post. You're 100% right about that, and I dislike that D'Agata freely admits he made a gazillion changes to his essay solely for the purpose of heightening drama. It's shocking, actually, that he thought it was okay to do that in an essay without any kind of disclaimer (as in "based on a true story").

  • I agree with the 6 points above, too.

    I believe that the format makes a large difference in how we discern fact from fiction – if the article or essay is published in the newspaper (exceptions are op-eds and letters to the editor), then the writer should strive to be 100% factual and certainly rely on fact-checkers.

    If you are writing a blog, book, or within another format which is not culturally-accepted as authoritative, a disclaimer is necessary. First and foremost, the disclaimer protects the writer. No harm in that. Second, it contextualizes the writing in an uncertain environment. And third, I think a disclaimer is a mark of respect to readers. It's an admission of honesty, even if the writing itself isn't 100% honest (added color, drama, compression of events, etc).

    • meghancward

      All wonderful points, Danielle. I agree with everything you said. And the medium does make a big difference. People expect truth from a newspaper, as they well should. I guess you shouldn't expect truth from The Believer, though!

  • Great list. Memoir is story-telling, and I think small changes, composites, and the like are some of the tools an author uses to make a real-life story into a compelling narrative. This is especially true with humorists. Nobody's expected to believe David Sedaris was forced to wear nothing but corduroy or that his friends really were that cruel.

    A memoirist is– like a novelist,–an entertainer. Nobody wants to be like that awful bore at parties who says, "I remember when I met Celebrity X. It was on a Tuesday in April–no. maybe it was a Wednesday–at exactly noon–no, I think it could have been 12:30, and it was raining. Well, drizzling, really–something between a heavy marine layer and thick fog…." Snore.

    But Danielle makes a good point saying there's a difference between newspaper journalism and creative nonfiction. You have to be clear about what the reader should expect.

    • meghancward

      I totally agree, Anne. I think how much should be fudged for clarity and how much for entertainment is up for dispute. Kristan has a great point in that small changes should be made primarily for clarity and not to heighten drama. On the other hand, we all do appreciate a good story, even if the details aren't 100% accurate.

  • Like sestinas and villanelles, those precise poetic forms that yield astonishing beauty and power when their strictures are adhered to, essays and memoirs must be factually accurate. The truth cannot be bent to serve the interpretative drama of story — that's fiction. The challenge for the nonfiction writer is to find the heat in the truth and work within the form to make a compelling statement or case. Yes, it's hard to make facts or the mundane gripping, but that is the form, the straightjacket of truth that confines the nonfiction writer, that's what provides the challenge and reward for writer and reader. If the writer wants more freedom, then write fiction — and say it's free verse at the outset. Discipline is good. In the essay form, it helps yield work of firm authority.

    • Beautifully said, Kate. Thank you for this thoughtful comment. I still think, though, that as long as there is a disclaimer, the above aberrations from the facts usually considered fair play in memoir.

      • there's a really thin line between writing your own memoir and writing someone else's, since you can't really define yourself without the ones around you, don't you think?

  • candice michelle

    I think there is nothing wrong with taking artistic license on a situation. This has happened hundreds of times in literature and

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