Fictional Bits Within Nonfiction

It doesn't come up too often, but there are times when a nonfiction writer wants to write a short fictional piece, perhaps a paragraph or so, right in the midst of a straight, nonfiction narrative. He or she may want to lapse into fiction to protect someone's privacy (or forestall a libel suit); to make the same point better, more colorfully, more entertainingly, more emotionally, and thus more memorably; or to get at the "whole truth," the "larger truth," the "greater reality" by introducing some subjectivity—fiction. Recall, however, that Alastair Reid of the New Yorker thought he was doing just that.

We can use pure fiction in the midst of nonfiction provided we flag it. We must alert the reader that we've crossed, or are about to cross, over that fuzzy border into fiction territory. We must, for we have a contract with the reader, and without our beloved reader, we writers would whistle in the wind.

Writers have found several flag signals to alert the reader, some more subtle than others. The more subtle, the more artistic, the more artistic, the more dangerous. A balance must be struck between not wanting to be too obvious, too intrusive about it, and wanting to be sure that the code of ethics is not violated by being so subtle that the reader fails to see where the nonfiction leaves off and the fiction begins.

One subtle yet clear way is to italicize the fiction parts. A writer may "get away with" the fiction-i.e., be within the bounds of ethics— if he or she merely uses italics to flag the fictional parts, but it would be more professional and ethical to also make some reference outside the italicized portion to the "previous speculation," or "that fictional look at the future," or some such supplemental signal.

Sometimes the fiction will be in the form of a short internal monolog. The reader who stops to think about it will, of course, realize that the writer could not have known exactly what the person was thinking, but it's more ethical to use additional flagging or warning devices, such as "she may have been thinking," "he could well have thought to himself," "perhaps she said to herself that day," or "perhaps he said something to himself like____"

We can use words like "probably," "possibly," or "apparently" periodically to reinforce that we are using speculative writing— fiction. Even though you think you've set it out clearly enough earlier on, your implicit contract to deal honestly requires that you remind the reader that you've slipped out of nonfiction territory into the land of fiction.

I've talked so far only about those regular nonfiction articles in which fiction, true fiction, is inserted, for whatever motivation, into the nonfiction narrative. Creative nonfiction articles and books may do that too. The same contract stands—you must be honest with the reader.

It is easy to violate unintentionally our implicit contract in creative nonfiction writing, which in some critics' minds is always right on the edge, if not over the edge, of fiction. Obviously, it's impractical to flag every place where we're being "creative" and not "factual" (because we're always true to the facts while presenting them in a creative way). But we've got to honor our contract and tell the reader what we're up to.

The lead editorial in the New York Times (October 5, 1986) gave us a fine example of a major newspaper using a creative nonfiction technique. Try to identify the technique, and consider whether the readers were adequately informed that the Times—("All the News That's Fit to Print")—was playing with fiction.

The President, Imagined

No, says a spokesman, the President won't have a news conference before he leaves to meet Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik. It's a special shame, and not just because Mr. Reagan has averaged only seven a year. Rarely has the public so needed to hear from the President.

Then what's the next best thing? A simulation. It's easy to imagine reassuring Presidential answers to three urgent questions.

Q. Mr. President, you've left much confusion about your policy on lying to the public. Did your Administration lie in order to promote news articles that would rattle Libya's Colonel Quaddafi?

A. Well, it has never been our policy to mislead or lie to the media, ever. If a misguided official might have done so in this matter, I regret it and want now to reaffirm our commitment to truth. We know how freely Communist... (and the answer went on).

Q. Sir, you took an unusually stubborn position on sanctions against South Africa, even after Congress passed them. Now both houses have overridden your veto, will you carry out the law ungrudgingly?

A. Well, I'm not happy about Congress taking over executive branch responsibility for conducting foreign policy. But the law stands higher than. (and the answer went on).

Q. Mr. President, some of your supporters think you made a bad deal for a Soviet spy and fear you'll come back from Reykjavik empty-handed.

A. Well, it's way too early to second-guess a deal because so far, there is no deal. What there is between. (and on). Thank you, Mr. President.

I have to admit that when I first skimmed (too rapidly, perhaps) that editorial on the morning it arrived, I thought it was truly a typical Q & A exchange with a Times reporter, or perhaps at a presidential press conference. After a while, it dawned on me that the whole exchange was a cleverly written bit of creative nonfiction intended to make me think it was just that—temporarily. The danger of inserting that bit of fiction into a paper noted for its careful handling of news is that it will be taken for "news that's fit to print."

I went back to see whether the editor had lived up to what I believe about running up flags for the reader, warning of any such change away from the expected course. Yes, they certainly had tried to warn me in the head: The President, Imagined. "Imagined"—that was the first flag (although it fluttered by me at first reading). The first paragraph sets me up beautifully; it's straightforward narrative reporting.

The second paragraph hints broadly enough with "A simulation," but I skimmed right by it—we're always reading about simulations. The editor, still worrying about whether the warning is clear (but without ruining the fun by being too obvious), says that "it's easy to imagine____" Looking back through it, I realized what had been done to me—and I loved it. I thought, however, that the editor hit me too cleverly when the editorial ended with an italicized, "Thank you, Mr. President." That looked so familiar, so real, so nonfiction, that I took in the line, the hook, and the sinker. Had the editor not flown all those warning flags, I would have had an excellent example of how even the great New York Times had slipped up—but it hadn't and I didn't. It did provide an excellent example of responsible, ethical, creative nonfiction—and an example of how a reader, given half a chance, will not read something the way you intended. Ethics require open-eyed caution.

In a book-length work, some writers will put a short (and sometimes a long) statement up front, even as a foreword, that explains how the research was conducted, and just how much fiction is involved. This enables readers to carry that understanding with them as they work their way through the words. Gay Talese added a five-page section (titled "Author's Note") at the end of Honor Thy Father explaining his relationship with the Bonanno family and how he went about researching and interviewing for that book about the

Mafia. Such a statement must be made somewhere, and must, in itself, be honest and clear. Statements of this kind can include details about the writer's research methods: if he interviewed by tape, by notes, by memory; how long he was in the field with the subject or the characters; whether he had full access to diaries, journals, daybooks, ships' logs, etc. They may also talk about the writing, especially about the fiction techniques used, addressing such issues as how valid were any conversations used; on what did they base any internal monologs; whether the central characters had read the manuscript and if they approved of it in whole or in part; whether the central characters had the right of text approval.

In short, our professional ethics demand that we be honest with the readers, honest with the characters involved, honest with ourselves, and that we, in general, lay our cards on the table for all to see. Without that honesty, there may be creativity, lively writing, and many other good things—but not honorable and esteemed creative nonfiction.

0 0

Post a comment