Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Thin Line Between Fact and Fiction

 "Creative non fiction is a slippery slope" writes the sub-editor in Tim Garton Ash's piece on the Polish writer Ryszard Kapuscinski, which goes to show that sub-editors rarely seem to have read the piece they're summarising. It's a fascinating piece in that Garton Ash picks apart the different approaches to veracity for non-fiction writers. Kapuscinski, it seems, made things up, misrepresented people and incidents and generally acted like a novelist whilst being lauded for his reportage. Are his works essentially works of elaboration and fiction? or are they acceptable "factions", with a little "colour" added for artistic reasons, and not taking away from their essential truths? Garton Ash places himself in the middle. There is not a "slippery slope" (sub editor take note) but a "vitally important line...that writers of non-fiction should strive never to cross. If we do cross it, we should put a different label on the resulting product."

Garton Ash is a historian, and in terms of history, I'd agree with him. After all, as a witness after the fact, the historian is entirely dependent on his source materials. Not so, the travel writer, the war reporter or the political journalist; particularly in areas of the world where access itself is not easy, where - if you like - the lie is a surer survival mechanism than the truth.

It's only the written word that has to deal with these problems it seems - films and TV dramas can get away with the loosest of disclaimers that "this is a true story", or that "this drama is based on real events, but some of the characters and scenes have been changed for dramatic purposes." Even a fiction, such as David Peace's "The Damned United", comes unstuck through its use of real characters within an inaccurate universe. It looks like a novel, it calls itself a novel, but the novelist got chastised for making things up - not just the scenes that he could never get from his research, but the real events that the story was based on. (He was elastic with his timescales, "for dramatic purposes.") I guess part of the problem is that the book might physically look the same whether its a fiction or a non-fiction.

Yet part of the problem, I think, is that we are no longer in Defoe's world - where his (mostly made up) Journal of the Plague Year pretends to be journalism, and his Robinson Crusoe is presented as if its a real autobiography. One is tempted to say that Defoe got to the New Journalism a couple of hundred years before Tom Wolfe.

And in many ways, it is not the writer who is to blame here. The 24 hour news cycle has reduced print journalism in many ways, with the news only happening when the camera is there.The foreign correspondent is now probably looking for two stories - the short gain of that day's news, but the long gain of the book. Read Robert Fisk for instance and you find autobiography, personal memoir, history, reportage and political analysis all within a few pages. The reader has to take such writing at face value - stripping out any hyperbole of style and ego, and trusting in the eye witness accounts. Over the last twenty years or so, there has been a sense that non-fiction is what matters, far more than fiction. Whilst fiction (particularly British fiction) has retreated into storytelling and the past, non-fiction is what leads the line in each new issue of Granta for instance. You can't quite imagine a major magazine leading, as Life Magazine once did with Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea", with a major work of fiction, yet serialised non-fiction books remain high on the masthead.

What Garton Ash makes clear (and having not read Kapuscinski I must take his word for it) is that in reading Kapuscinski "we keep crossing from the Kenya of fact to the Tanzania of fiction, and back again, but the transition is nowhere explicitly signalled." We are not quite in the unverifiable fictions of Defoe here, but clearly we are somewhere. Kapuscinski died in 2007 so can't now speak for himself, and it seems that it is lesser writers who are now fact-checking his stories, in a much different context than the one in which he lived. Reading his Wikipedia entry he had ten pieces in Granta over the years - and it does seem to me that its partly that market - for a non-footnoted, non-fictional exotica that Granta has always specialised in - that is more to blame than a particular writer. Any editor could have highlighted that "transition" that Garton Ash talks about, or insisted it was clearer - yet we live in a culture that wants the authority of the factual, yet is often unwilling to accept the necessary framework (footnotes, peer review, whatever) around it. Or rather, we lived in that culture. It is hard to imagine that outside of North Korea and Somalia that there are many places in the world where tourist-reportage would now be difficult to undertake; and, moreover, the "open" culture of the internet may not replace the legendary fact checkers of the great American newspapers, but it can put even the verifiable truth into a sort of purgatory of doubtful veracity.

Moreover with 24 hour news cycle and the instant communications of the internet the non-fiction explorer/traveller now makes do with his special contacts in silicon valley or his exclusive access to Google HQ. It seems to me that the type of reportage that was one of the triumphs of 20th century media is unlikely to be repeated in the 21st, whether its because war reporters are now seen as "fair game" or because of the practice of "embedding" with the invading (Western) troops. With an army of armchair internet sleuths ready to fact-check or (since the internet is not in itself a verifiable source) "opinion check" each and every piece of reportage out there perhaps the age of the adventurer-reporter is coming to an end. Instead it is fiction, with, its need to provide a believable (if not verifiable) truth to its readers, which will re-take the moral high ground.

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