Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

The lie that tells the truth

February 05, 2006|David L. Ulin | David L. Ulin is book editor of The Times.

WHEN the Smoking Gun website first reported inconsistencies in James Frey's memoir "A Million Little Pieces" last month, it looked as if we might finally have an opening to discuss the most interesting development in contemporary writing: the emergence of nonfiction as a literary form. Yet four weeks later, we are still fixated on the state of the publishing industry and the tenuous relationship between truth and illusion in a culture that seems willing to believe anything as long as it comes in a neatly digestible package. To be sure, these are important issues, but the Frey fiasco raises a more elusive question: To what extent (if at all) is invention, or re-imagining, allowable in a nonfiction work?

Creative license has long been an issue in the world of literary nonfiction, a topic of debate at writers' conferences and graduate-school seminars. Where exactly is the line, nonfiction writers ponder. How much leeway is there? Ten years ago, Annie Dillard admitted that the anecdote with which she opens her Pulitzer Prize-winning meditation "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek" -- "I used to have a cat," she had written, "an old fighting tom, who would jump through the open window by my bed in the middle of the night and land on my chest .... some mornings I'd wake in daylight to find my body covered with paw prints in blood; I looked as though I'd been painted with roses" -- was a contrivance; Dillard had borrowed it, with permission, from a graduate student and reconstructed it as her own.

Vivian Gornick too has acknowledged "composing" certain aspects of her 1987 memoir "Fierce Attachments," recasting bits of dialogue and creating an encounter with a street person. For Gornick, there's a difference between what she calls "personal narrative" and straight nonfiction or journalism, although even journalists have been known to stretch the facts in service to some larger truth. I'm thinking now of Hunter S. Thompson, who in 1972 invented a story that Democratic presidential hopeful Edmund Muskie was experimenting with an exotic Brazilian drug named Ibogaine. "It is entirely conceivable -- given the known effects of Ibogaine -- that Muskie's brain was almost paralyzed by hallucinations," Thompson riffed in "Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72," "that he looked out at the crowd and saw Gila monsters instead of people, and that his mind snapped completely when he felt something large and apparently vicious clawing at his legs." That may be gonzo excess, but it reveals, more viscerally than any piece of straight reporting, the extent of Muskie's disconnection on the stump.

For writers like Dillard, Gornick and Thompson, what's at issue is emotional truth, the need to re-create the sensibility, the tenor, of an experience in a reader's mind. This is the essence of literature, which like all art, operates at a level beyond the rational, according to rules of its own. In literature, truth is not so much known as it is felt, and empathy is as important as understanding. In literature, the logic of the story can sometimes trump the logic of the world. If this sounds disingenuous, it's not meant to -- on the contrary, it's what makes art resonate.

To tell a story is in a very real way to cast off the veils of genre and simply see what works. That's particularly the case in the nebulous category known as creative nonfiction, which exists somewhere between truth and invention, in a territory that's still taking shape. You'd be hard pressed to find a work of creative nonfiction that didn't involve some degree of reinvention, whether in the construction of scenes (description, dialogue) or the interpretive filter every writer brings to his or her version of events. Is this dishonest? No more so than memory, with its vagaries and false turns: a narrow, flawed and ultimately subjective window on the world.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|