Lawrence Weschler on the Fiction of Non-Fiction

Friday, December 24, 2010


Joseph Mitchell and Ryszard Kapuscinski were both non-fiction writers who cut their teeth as reporters but went on to create some of the most celebrated narrative non-fiction of this century; full of indelible characters, plots, settings and dialogue. But both have also been dogged by accusations that they committed journalistic sins by doctoring dialogue, manufacturing scenes and creating composite characters. For Bob these were unforgiveable transgressions but Lawrence Weschler, himself a celebrated author of narrative non-fiction, argues that the problem actually lies with Bob’s rules of truth and consequences.

Comments [9]

Ben Hauck from NYC

Ken, great points. Thanks for giving me more clarity on the piece! :)

Would Weschler take issue with labeling reality TV as "reality TV," as opposed to, say, "virtual reality TV," "irreality TV," or something else, given the editorial creation of stories? (Many stories are the products of editing in reality television and didn't happen as told.)

My hope? Yes!

A separate issue: Weschler will presumably put in quotation marks what he *remembers* someone says. The issue I have with that approach is when he writes in quotation marks words that the person WOULDN'T say. For example, in college, I didn't write my formal essays using be-verbs. However, I didn't told my teachers that I was writing that way, and it wasn't very obvious. If Weschler quoted me but added be-verbs to his quotations, he would misrepresent me. Maybe not significantly to him, but significantly to *me* and to my speech patterns (which may not be obvious to others).

Another example, I don't use the phrase "the fact that." Another? I tend to use the word "whom" when I speak. If I were misquoted using "the fact that" or "who" instead of "whom" ... Weschler, I'd shake my fist at you for misrepresenting me because of your "misshading"! :)

Jan. 05 2011 12:11 AM
Ken from United States

To Ben Hauck: Interesting comments, but I think you are talking about something very different from what Wechsler was referring to. Yes, we all perceive and understand reality slightly differently, due to selective recall, attention, intelligence and comprehension, etc. This explains why eyewitness testimony can be so unreliable, for example. However, Wechsler is talking about writers who INTENTIONALLY rearrange or spice up facts, quotes, etc. to create a more exciting piece that is presented as "nonfiction". With the former, all the variability in reporting is due to unintended differences in recall, etc., which is essentially unavoidable with human reporting. With the latter, however, the variability can be due to that PLUS intentional differences in how the events are rearranged or otherwise changed, which is clearly avoidable. As prior posters indicate, spicing up the facts may illustrate important and interesting larger points (i.e. "TRUTH"), but novels aim to do essentially the same thing and no one confuses novels with nonfiction. Thus, both types of writing should be considered fiction. Without knowing whether a "nonfiction" piece has been spiced up, it is very difficult to clearly recognize what actually happened so the audience can determine for itself the larger meaning of the events.

Jan. 04 2011 02:33 PM

Love this. Very relevant to today.

Jan. 01 2011 08:50 PM
Ben Hauck from NYC

Lawrence Weschler's comments, especially in this passage ...

"Everything, everything is selection, is shading, is trying to figure out what ordering things should go in, and so forth, is, is imputing significance to a whole series of granular facts, and so forth. That happens all the time!

"And the people who I cherish are people who can tell me stories that illuminate the world for me in an accurate way."

... remind me of the teachings of Alfred Korzybski and general semantics. Korzybski tried to teach his students to realize that the word was not the thing described, that words and things were fundamentally different entities. Words were like maps, things were like territories, and as he famously put it, "The map is not the territory." Korzybski applies these teachings to all sorts of people, but particularly to the "unsane" (which basically all of us exhibit in varying degrees).

What Weschler describes sounds a lot like what Korzybski describes as the abstracting process--the process by which we intake information with our nervous systems and piece the information into words, eventually to make inferences about what we observe. According to Korzybski, we can never truly know what is going on because our nervous systems never can detect everything that happened in an event; we always make amounts of inference; and these observations seem to me to correspond with Weschler's take on "imputing significance on granular facts."

So, what Weschler says isn't ideologically new, but it's quite nice to hear a refreshed take on an old, helpful reminder to aid critical thinking.

Ben Hauck

Dec. 29 2010 05:55 PM
Thatwood B. Telling

"The people who I cherish are people who tell me stories that illuminate the world for me in an accurate way..."

That's all good and fine. I cherish them too. But I do expect those who do so by making stuff up to call it fiction.

The problem with Weschler's rationalization is that his idea of 'accurate illumination' may not be the same as mine or yours. What yardstick do we have for judging accuracy in a new story if all information we've gleaned from the old stories (those we hear from people as well as read in books) comes from sources who feel the same way Weschler does? How did we form our perceptions of the world-- how it works, what's true and what's not-- if not from stories that may or may not be accurate because their authors goosed the facts to serve their vision of the Greater Truth?

By all means, I hope story tellers continue to make up stuff. All I ask is that they label it correctly as fiction so I can make up my own mind as to whether or not it reflects reality.

Dec. 29 2010 12:33 AM
david levy from montreal

Lawrence Weschler on the Fiction of Non-Fiction - where/how might i get hold of the transcript?

Dec. 27 2010 05:41 PM
Eric Hamell from Philadelphia

Weschler's remarks are an exercise in doublespeak.

Words have meanings in the minds of readers; so does punctuation, such as quotation marks. An author is expected to respect these meanings when using them. The trouble with appealing to a "higher truth" is that the author is arrogating to timself the right to decide what that truth is, even if the events with which te's taking artistic license do not, as they actually occurred, substantiate that purported truth. Journalism is thereby transmuted into propaganda for the author's world view, without notice to the reader.

Dec. 26 2010 12:50 PM
Christopher Wood from Scituate, MA

I agree with Mike Peterson's first paragraph! (LOL)

Ordinarily, I enjoy "On the Media" and especially the work of Bob Garfield, but man, this story had to be the most pretentious, self-absorbed story I've ever heard on this show.

But then again, it was a nice trip down Memory Lane back to my university literature classes with some shmoe straining to put his nose up the pedantic professor's you-know what!

Happy New Year!

Dec. 25 2010 06:41 PM
Mike Peterson from Lebanon, NH

This conversation reminded me of those freshman year courses where the instructor holds out the piece of chalk and says, "If I let this go, will it fall?" and then insists that you don't KNOW for SURE that is will fall. Maybe this time, it won't. It's a good way to impress freshmen but it's a silly argument.

I've been on both sides of the interview pad and I know what it is like to pick up a newspaper as if it were ticking. I've read interviews with myself that make me wonder if the reporter was even in the room. One award-winning columnist even spoke reverently of my mother's birth in County Wicklow, which I do not believe is on the southside of Chicago.

It's all well and good to say that good journalists will get it right, but it assumes a world of good journalists and we know this is not the case. Theoretically, there's a chance the piece of chalk will hang suspended in the air. But that theory is of no value in the real world, and neither is Weschler's theoretical view of reporting.

Dec. 25 2010 12:00 PM

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