Lying, F-ing Lying, and Creative Non-fiction

Fair warning: this is me ranting. I’m not intending to be polite, nice, reasonable, or even accurate, but at least I’m going to tell you so first and I’m going to go on for a good long while below the cut.  Ready? Okay, here we go.

I hate “Creative Non-fiction.” I hate what it has done. I hate what it means and what it opens the door to. Let me explain….

I read a book recently that is just one of many examples of Creative Non-fiction. It reads like a novel–albeit an uneven and occasionally badly-written one. It used fiction techniques and narrative style to make dry facts more dramatic and readable. It’s not a horrible book, but there is something deeply wrong with it–it’s untruthful. It’s full of facts, but those facts… well.. they aren’t given in an honest and open fashion. The facts given are colored and hand-picked and massaged into the shape the author wants. That’s not unheard of in a non-fiction book, especially one about people or events that are a bit confused, controversial, or historical. But the thing that really puts my nose out of joint is the way it’s done, without adequate or even noticeable admission that there are more facts, that there are other sides and colors to this story. What’s most distressing is that the author doesn’t own up to that until the end and when he does, he doesn’t provide the facts he chose to leave out in his footnotes or end notes either. He doesn’t provide quotes or context or even decent citations for his references, much less standard MPL or APA citations so I can go look things up myself if I should feel the urge. No, he just gives the titles or archives he used once, then refers to them by initials ever afterward with nary a page number to cover his ass. It really pisses me off and it makes me wonder if he really did the research he claims to have done. Maybe he just read a couple of books, cribbed the rough story, and made the rest up… (I don’t really think he did, but it gives me a very bad feeling nonetheless.)

I read another book a while ago that used a lot of the same techniques. It was a pretty good book, but the technique annoyed me a bit then too. However, the author was meticulous about his notes. He gave excellent citations and context in his footnotes as he went and he gave a great deal of additional detail at the end as well as being upfront about the fact that he dramatized and “imagined” some bits from evidence and facts known at the time and afterward. He was being “creative” but he was honest about it. He massaged the story, but he didn’t lie about that. The fictionalizations annoyed me, but it was all so enthralling otherwise that I read it like a thriller. Good use of fiction techniques in non-fiction. But I wouldn’t call it “Creative Non-fiction.” Why? Well…

Back when I was in Journalism school we used the term “creative non-fiction” to mean “bad reportage.”  It was a slur we pinned on people who didn’t fact-check or–even worse–made “facts” up.  See: I graduated at the end of 1990.  Right after a certain story broke big and about a year/year and a half before it was exposed as a total and complete fraud.  It wasn’t the first time and it wouldn’t be the last.

Do you remember “crack babies?” The poor, wailing, “Children of the Damned” who were destined for a living hell of a life because their black, inner city moms smoked crack?  The New York Post did a two-part article by that title in 1990.  It was nominated for a Pulitizer.  It was all a bunch of lies.  The author made it up based on a rising hysteria about the public health cost of drug abuse in the 1980s.  The reporter went to a halfway house and watched the kids there scream and wail because they were scared and hungry and had colic.  The reporter claimed these children were all the victims of their mothers’ drug abuse, but that a caring housemother was nursing them with “hugs, not drugs.”  Ronald Reagan called this woman “an angel.”  But all she was really doing was cuddling colicky kids.

The medical study that set the whole “crack baby” idea in motion turned out to be so tragically flawed and outright wrong that it set a new standard for bad science.  But that was okay because it made us all aware of a scandlous situation in public health care.  But it didn’t.  It was a lie: another study with a better sample and methodology showed there was no difference in response or temperament or the amount of screaming done by babies who’d been exposed to crack cocaine versus babies who hadn’t.  They had problems, but they weren’t unending screamers who would nothing but drains on society.  The reporter built on the more dramatic idea–the “socially important” and politically correct one at the time–even though the kids were just acting like any other upset babies.  And yet… we still believe in “crack babies.”  Thank you New York Post and your “creative non-fiction.”

Oh god the list goes on of the “creative” ways non-fiction has been abused  since I was in J-school.  There are so many:  Scott Beauchamp who fabricated “first hand accounts” from Iraq; Mike Barnicle who wrote a news feature series for the Boston Globe about two kids who didn’t exist suffering from cancer they didn’t have; Michael Bellesiles who wrote a book about the history of guns in America based on sources he made up; former President Jimmy Carter–Jimmy Carter for gods’ sakes!–whose book on Palestine featured doctored maps and fabricated “facts”; the CBS news showing fake emails and documents to prove then-President Bush II had been given preferential treatment in the Air National Guard (he probably did, but for gods’ sake–find the real documents, you morons!); Joseph Ellis of Mount Holyoke College who used tales of his entirely fictional military career in Vietnam in his history lectures; Jay Forman whose spoof article on “monkey fishing” was put forward as fact (anyone should have spotted this one); Alex Haley who settled for $650,000 over parts of his famous book Roots that were plagiarized from The African–a similar book by another author–but the publisher reissued Roots after the case without a disclaimer or credit to the other author; and Micah Wright who wrote an anti-war book about his experiences as a US Army Ranger though he’d never been in the military.  People seem to think that if the reason is good the facts don’t matter and  then it’s just a small step to this:

Remember James Frey?  That guy whom Oprah praised one week and then eviscerated over his “memoir” A Million Little Pieces a couple of weeks later?  The book wasn’t so much a memoir as it was a sack of lies and exaggerations strung together on a very thin thread of his actual life while stealing from the real-life tragedies of others.  Yeah.  Of course you remember.  You might even remember that he actually published a second “memoir” that was even more fictionalized than the first since it was based on a circumstance and character that never existed.

After the fact, Frey claims his two books were attempts “to play with the idea of what is fiction and what is non-fiction, ” according to an interview published by USA Today on May 12, 2008.  Personally I don’t think he had any such thought at the time.  I think he just didn’t care.  Since he’d originally submitted the book as fiction 17 prior times according to several interviews with agents and editors in New York right after the controversy broke, I think his goal was to get published and making his wretched little novel into a sad little memoir was more salable.  He lied.  He exaggerated.  He stole, he twisted, he manipulated and he made things up.  To be published and admired.  His work is considered Creative Non-fiction because he used the techniques of fiction to tell what was supposedly a true story.  But it wasn’t.  It was lies and in some cases it was lies that hurt people.  Way to get creative, there, dude.

But Frey is not the only one.  Famed memoirist Augusten Bourroughs has recently been accused of making things up, or exaggerating, and stealing events of other people’s lives for his own.  Did he lie?  I don’t know, but it certainly looks that way.  What about others though?  Sadly these two aren’t the only cases of lying through your keyboard’s pearly whites.  Remember Steven Glass, reporter for the New Republic who was finally canned after years of memos about his bad fact checking after he completely fabricated a story about teenage computer hackers?  I’ll bet you do–they made a movie about him.  How ’bout Jayson Blair of the New York Times who in one year stole half-a-dozen or so of his stories from a Hispanic colleague and made  up about half of the rest?  We don’t even need to go into the hundreds of plagiarism stories that have come out in the past five years or so, let’s just stick to the ones that “got creative,” “exaggerated, “played with,” and outright fabricated “facts.”

Lately reporters have been particularly in the limelight for this fun practice, but it’s not new.  Here’s another one: “Jimmy’s World.”  You may not remember this one since they did their best to bury it, but I think  of it as the tip of the Creative Non-fiction iceberg.

In late September of 1980 the Washington Post printed a story about an eight-year-old heroin addict named Jimmy living with his addicted, welfare mom in the slums of our nation’s capitol. The author, Janet Cooke, won a Pulitzer for it.  It was heartwrenching.  It was sickening.  And it was a lie.  She made it up from a lot of thin facts and half-truths because she thought the idea was more important than the facts.  The same thing the Post did ten years later to try and grab that same prize.  The really interesting part of Cooke’s tale of creativity was that she was brought down, not by the story, but by her bio–just as James Frey was brought down by his arrest report–which was also a bit “creative.”  She claimed to have a BA from Vassar and an MA from Toledo.  Actually she’d spent one year at Vassar and had only a BA from Toledo and no MA at all.  Her former colleagues on the Toledo Blade saw the story and blew the whistle on her bio, but the truth has a funny way of making other little truths come to light and a full investigation turned up the fact that there was no eight-year-old heroin addict in D.C.  Not a single one.  It was dramatic and it was important and it was still a lie.

That’s how it starts–just a little exaggeration for the sake of a better job.  And before long, you’re polishing up the facts and pushing them around, jazzing them up so they play better in Peoria–or the Post.  Or in a $25 hardcover.  And whenever we give more money and more attention to these bad liars by making movies  about them and paying top dollar for their “novels,” and “life’s stories” we encourage others to think it’s okay to write bad fiction and claim it’s the truth.  If you’re going to write fiction, learn to do it well and label it what it actually is.  And editors and publishers and Hollywood moguls should not reward this kind of fakery.  If it’s a bad novel, don’t tell the writer it would play better as fact.

At the time of the Frey controversy, a group I was working with online got to discussing it and I was thoroughly disgusted even then.  One of the other members said he didn’t understand why anyone was upset since surely we all know memoirs are exaggerated.  Yes, exaggerated.  Of course they are.  They are your memories of events.  But there’s a limit to how much any sane person can believe that they were in Cleveland when they were actually 400 miles away, as was the case in one of Steven Glass’s stories.  Or that they were the unheralded third victim of a train wreck that killed their High School sweetheart–whom they didn’t even know and didn’t go to school with, much less date–and her sister (yeah, I’m talking to you Mr. Frey).  Or that they actually talked to an eight-year-old heroin addict in the slums of D.C. (same to you, Ms. Cooke.)

Ideas and ideals, no matter how lofty, do not excuse faking facts (or memos), trampling on true tragedy, self-aggrandizement, or fictionalization of events that never happened.  And certainly you don’t get a bye on doing it just so you can get a $1.5-million book deal (which is what was supposedly paid to Frey for his recent novel) or a Pulitzer prize.  It doesn’t matter if the stakes are smaller either–like you just want to write a clever story but you know it won’t play as fiction, so you’ll say it’s fact, or the facts are bland, so you’ll jazz them up and not tell anyone you gave them that extra coat of “creativity”.  It’s still lying and claiming it’s the truth.  It opens the door to bigger lies and to the habit of dressing the truth up in whore’s clothing and pimping it on the streets until it’s too worn out to recognize any more.

Yeah, I know, everyone in the blogosphere does it–I do it: hell I tell lies for a living!  But do they all claim that it’s the unvarnished truth?  No they don’t.  Most will tell you flat out that they are polishing up the  truth a bit, painting it for dramatic effect.  And the guy on the internet was right: we don’t expect memoir to be perfectly factual because it’s not within our human grasp to strip our perception from our experience.  But we don’t say we were in prison for two months when we were actually released after a mere five hours.  Not if we’re sane that is.   And we don’t relate speculation on the private conversations of famous men who were never recorded having those conversations as fact.  And we don’t make up the suffering of children in hopes of grabbing a prize.

But here’s the real damage done by the sort of Creative Non-fiction that tweaks and remodels the truth.  Just before Frey’s story broke, a writer I knew was talking about writing her own memoir.  She’d been on a pilgrimage through Spain, walking day after day with thousands of other pilgrims along a track of shrines and other religious sites.  She wasn’t a Christian, but the experience had brought her some great spiritual moments and stimulated a lot of ideas about spirituality and the confluence of history in her mind.  She was thinking of writing about that, but she thought it wouldn’t be interesting if she spoke about herself.  She wanted to write it as “creative non-fiction” and spice it up by substituting a fictional character for herself whom she could make “more interesting.”  I didn’t see why she would want to do that.  Her story was good and though it would take a lot of craft to make it compelling, it really didn’t need someone else in the starring role.  The writer was the perfect character already–someone who wasn’t already prepared to believe and have a great revelation; just an ordinary American woman who discovered something about herself and the world.  It was uplifting, quiet, and joyful. But I don’t know if she ever wrote it, because she didn’t believe she was grand enough to be the star of her own story.  She didn’t want to write a novel, because she was afraid it would stray too far from the truth, but she thought it would be all right to change the facts to produce a “greater truth.”  Except that it wouldn’t have been the truth anymore.  There might have been facts, but the story itself would cease to be true and that would have been a tragic way to reveal the depth of her experience.  It would have made it less, not more, important and it would never have rung as “true” as it did from her own mouth.

So let’s dump the “creative” out of non-fiction and write decent truth.  Or go whole hog and write fiction.  The cross-breed is not a winner; it opens the door to a million little lies and turns fact into fiction and denigrates them both.


About Kat Richardson

Writer, editor, eccentric pain in the tail, bestselling author of the Greywalker novels.
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5 Responses to Lying, F-ing Lying, and Creative Non-fiction

  1. Zita says:

    Bravo, Kat. I agree 100%. It’s hard, though, when we see people we admire doing these things–teachers, political leaders, journalists (as you’ve mentioned)–whatever happened to leading by example? And yet, a lot of people don’t see the harm. For example, take a group of engineering students who were recently caught cheating. They saw no harm in “copying” the answers to a test instead of learning the skill required to figure out the answers on their own. The math is too complicated and time consuming to do during a test. So they (if they’re not caught) graduate without ever learning that skill, and they get a job building bridges. And they are assigned to do the specs for a new bridge, so they fudge, as they’ve done all their lives, and their supervisors, who think they’ve hired fully trained engineers from a reputable university, are too busy to check the work, and a bridge gets built that cannot bear the stress of the structure. It collapses during construction. (This actually happened in Vancouver–the Second Narrows Bridge collapsed due to a “faulty engineering calculation” and 19 workers died as a result) So we have proof of the damage cheating can cause. But every year, the next crop of students copy their answers on the lab test, because they don’t want to waste their valuable time learning to figure out the answers themselves.

    Sorry about the rant back 🙂 You can probably tell this is a personal peeve for me, too. Bravo, again.

  2. Adele says:

    Good rant, interesting and informative.

  3. David says:

    Ohhh. interesting blog you have. There was a book published recently (I wont advertise it) about a high -profile murder case in Ireland that was marketed as creative non-fiction! How insensitive can one get.

  4. Hey Zita: I have some of those peeves too. I know humans are essentially lazy, but there’s just too much that can go wrong or lead to injury for others if you don’t do the actual work–be it engineering or writing. This attitude that it’s OK to fake it, steal it, fudge it, copy it, etc is all over the place lately.

    Adele: thanks.

    David: Ahhh… yes. That’s the sort of situation in which being “creative” is especially damaging. People begin to believe the gussied up version and forget the reality. It’s quite a different kettle of fish to say “this is fiction based on fact” than it is to say “this is fact dressed up like fiction.”

  5. Cynthia says:

    Thanks for this. I totally agree. What I can’t understand is why people who write this crap get the multi-million dollar advances from publishers while authors of excellent fiction don’t.

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