< Lawrence Weschler on the Fiction of Non-Fiction


Friday, December 24, 2010

That Steinbeck lapsed into fiction is perhaps not surprising. He was, after all, a fiction writer. But two other giants of narrative nonfiction, Joseph Mitchell and Ryszard Kapuscinski, had cut their teeth telling stories as reporters, and evolved into writers of celebrated long-form nonfiction stories that felt like novels, full of unforgettable characters, scenes, dialogue, and even plot, Mitchell doing so as a longtime correspondent for The New Yorker, and Kapuscinski as a Polish foreign correspondent by day and author of portraits like The Emperor, about Ethiopia’s Haile Salassie, by night. But both have also been accused of borrowing from fiction’s freedoms, cleaning up quotes, collapsing scenes and creating composite characters to make their stories sing. That, for me personally, was too much, and with a heavy heart I had disowned them. But Lawrence Weschler, professor at New York University and a master of narrative nonfiction himself, thinks my rules of journalistic truth and consequences are misguided.

LAWRENCE WESCHLER: And I would start out by asking you is anybody ever not making stuff up? When you pick up the newspaper and read about a news conference, let's say, somebody went to that news conference. You are not reading the entire transcript. Believe me, you don't want to read the entire transcript, I mean, not even the official transcript. I'm talking about everything else that happened that day. You are relying on the reporter to select the important things and to put them in a particular order. You are assuming that his editor has gone and reshaped those things. That is all fictional activity, in the sense that it is composing, it is making up a world. We should at least start with that. Something I often think about is Borges, the great Argentinean writer, who says that there are two universes. There is the universe of material reality, of bodies, of places, and there is the universe of words, and any attempt to shape a representation, of one in terms of the other is provisional at best. It is falling apart as we speak. It is something which he calls a fiction.

BOB GARFIELD: All right, so stipulated, journalism is by its very nature subjective.

LAWRENCE WESCHLER: I would stipulate it is more glorious than that. It is narrative. It is storytelling. We are made to tell stories.

BOB GARFIELD: Let's speak about Joseph Mitchell, who -


BOB GARFIELD: - I must say was one of my great heroes, and wrote about these just absolutely indelible characters. And, lo and behold, come to discover sometime in the '90s, at least in my case, that these remarkable characters weren't individuals. They were -

LAWRENCE WESCHLER: Not all of them were. There were a few composites. And, and in particular, there was one book in particular, Old Mr. Flood, which was quite consciously a more fictional exercise. But most of the stories he told were, were not composites. I mean, Joe Gould, I would argue, the single greatest piece of American narrative nonfiction of the 20th century, Joe Gould was by no means a composite. Having said that, there’s all sorts of fictional devices that Mitchell uses, to extraordinary effect and, I would argue, in the service of, of the truth of the story.

BOB GARFIELD: So what’s the difference between truth with a lower-case “t” which I think would rule out fabrication and truth with a capital “T” that permits it?

LAWRENCE WESCHLER: Well, let's take the example of Joe Gould’s Secret. When you read that text, there are these 20-page conversations that are just absolutely grueling and amazing and marvelous, at the same time. I would argue that the conversation did not take place exactly like that. And he tells you this, that he had dozens and dozens and dozens of conversations with Joe Gould over a period of months, and that he is then giving you sense of what it was like to talk to Joe Gould. What I take as the warrant of the author in that case is that if he quotes Joe Gould as saying something, he said something remarkably like that. Whether or not Joe Gould said those particular things, at that particular conversation, of course, he didn't.

BOB GARFIELD: So then you’re saying that when you learned that Ryszard Kapuscinski’s portrait of Emperor Haile Salassie -


BOB GARFIELD: - were just filled with inventions and fabrications and historical inaccuracies, that you didn't feel betrayed?

LAWRENCE WESCHLER: No. First of all, I don't buy any of those characterizations at all, and you’re wrong about all of them. The important thing about The Emperor is in the very first sentence: “In the evenings I would…”. In other words, this whole story is being told in a different register. During the daytime he was a press agency reporter for the Polish Press Agency. He would file typical journalistic stories, in the same way that, for example, Oliver Sacks, in his daily-ness, does clinical notes of that day’s meetings with different patients. Years later, they return to the story in a different register, what I call rhapsodic nonfiction. They sing it in a different mode. “In the evenings I would…” I am back here in Poland. I am telling you a story about things - what it was like there. One of the things that is conspicuous when you read The Emperor is he has all these different people telling stories, and they all have exactly the same voice. This is not because he’s incompetent. This is because he’s conspicuously giving you a kind of Aladdin and the 40 Nights kind of quality to what he’s doing. In the case of Kapuscinski, what he was doing in that book – it is an absolutely remarkable piece of literature – he was writing in Poland, in 1978, having an incredible game going on with the censor. This was the late days, just before Solidarity, of an incredibly corrupt regime. And because he was writing about the downfall of an incredibly corrupt capitalist-oriented regime, Haile Selassie, he could tell that story and everybody in Poland knew that he was really talking about the Communists, and everybody knew that the censors couldn't block him because he was telling the official version of what had happened.

BOB GARFIELD: So are there no victims, however, among those who believed they were getting the inside dope on Haile Selassie and the people whose stories were being told?

LAWRENCE WESCHLER: I think, first of all, an awful lot of what you’re reading in The Emperor is what you would call inside dope. There are flights, and I think they advertise themselves as flights. One is expected to be an adult reader. And, by the way, I would say this probably is the case with Travels with Charley. This – this was news to you, that a novelist was making stuff up in Travels with Charley? Come on! And he wasn't exactly making stuff up. He, he was telling it in a certain kind of register. It was a different sort of activity than daily journalism and needs to be read that way.

BOB GARFIELD: You used the word “warrant.”


BOB GARFIELD: And, you know, I know you’re going to dismiss me as a silly reactionary but to me the quotation mark is a warrant, an affidavit from the author certifying verbatim. If I'm putting it between the quotation marks, that means this is what he or she said in these words, perhaps cleaned up to reflect the difference between spoken language and written language, but certainly not shading meaning any which way.


BOB GARFIELD: Is that a - just a preposterously naïve way to approach quotation marks?

LAWRENCE WESCHLER: It’s not preposterously naïve, but look, here I'm gonna talk for myself. I have never had a quote of mine challenged, something I've put in quotation marks. I generally don't use tape recorders. I basically try to give both the gist of what was said and the voice in which it was said. I don't think I've ever quoted anybody verbatim. I quote what people remember having said. I am scrupulously fair. Something which I do that a lot of people don't do is I show the quotes to people before I publish them. In my first book, my profile of Robert Irwin, Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, that was the result of three years of conversations. I took those conversations; and I would go home and write notes. And when I then put the story together, I created a series of scenes, gave you a sense of what it was like to hang out with Robert Irwin. You want me to give you a sense of what it’s like to walk down the street with David Hockney, what it’s like to be at the War Crimes Tribunal, and so forth, an accurate sense. You want the quotes to be quotes that the person who was being quoted would stand behind as something that they said. But verbatim is not the issue. You do this all the time! You know you do this! You've had shows about how you do this. You take quotes, you take something from here and you put it next to something from there, and so forth, because you then get a closer representation of what was actually said. The person spoke for five minutes, you find the 30 seconds out of that five minutes that add up to a single thing, and no one accuses you – if you do a good job of it, if you’re honest, if you’re fair and so forth – no one accuses you of breaking any rules.

BOB GARFIELD: What you say is true. We move around verbatim all the time and, just like you, we have never in ten years had a complaint about misrepresenting anybody’s idea.

LAWRENCE WESCHLER: You've killed my tooth fairy! You mean, people don't say the things they say on your show in the way they say them? What have you done to me?

BOB GARFIELD: [LOWERS VOLUME/UNDER BREATH] Yeah, yeah, all right, point taken.


BOB GARFIELD: So, what is too far?

LAWRENCE WESCHLER: I mean, any number of things are too far. What Jayson Blair is - too far. Probably what Janet Cooke did was too far. You don't make up a scene out of whole cloth. But, by the way, nor is it accurate to just have quotes floating in midair. Quotes don't float in midair. Quotes arise from scenes. And one of the things that daily journalists get away with all the time are just quotes arising out of nowhere; they're just kind of floating around. But, having said that, it seems to me that there is a warrant between the writer and the reader that the writer is doing his best to deliver the reader the world as the writer experienced it. And, parenthetically, the more distinctive the voice, the clearer it is to the reader that it is one person’s take on things. In my class, I insist on an “I” voice. And it doesn't even have to use the word “I” but it has to be so distinctive that it is clear to me that it is just one person’s modest take on the world, their best take.

BOB GARFIELD: How is a reader to be protected from the difference between the geniuses Joseph Mitchell and Ryszard Kapuscinski, as opposed to the 99 percent of mere mortals, should they decide to embrace the same set of rules?

LAWRENCE WESCHLER: You do it by being an intelligent reader who follows a person over years. Then you begin to get a sense of that writer, their voice. And you approach it as an adult encountering another adult in the world. By the way, I should tell you a funny story. I was once on a panel with Ian Frazier. Somebody raised - in the audience raised their hand and, and asked which novels we read. And I gave the novels that I read. And then we turned to him, and he said, I don't read novels. And I said, what do you mean you don't read novels? He said, well, you know, when you read a novel it begins, Johnny was walking down the street, and all I can think of is, no he wasn't! [LAUGHS]


BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHING] And, and now that is exactly how I have to approach all journalism because, if your standards apply, I can't get past the inverted pyramid.

LAWRENCE WESCHLER: Let's be clear on my standards. At the top of my standards are fairness, accuracy, creating something that is true to life, all that are very high in my standards. I'm just claiming that it is impossible to go out there as if you’re gonna laminate the world, as if you’re gonna take a Xerox machine and put it up to the face of reality and deliver it to your, to your readers. That’s ridiculous. 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. And nothing I have described detracts from that.

BOB GARFIELD: Ren, thank you very much.


BOB GARFIELD: Lawrence Weschler is the director of the New York Institute for the Humanities.

[MUSIC UP AND UNDER] That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Jamie York, Mike Vuolo, Nazanin Rafsanjani, Alex Goldman, P.J. Vogt and Sarah Abdurrahman. This week we are truly sad to say good bye to Nerida Brownlee. Thank you so much for all your hard work. This week’s show was edited – by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Dylan Keefe. Katya Rogers is our senior producer. Ellen Horne is WNYC’s senior director of National Programs, and the nutmeg in our eggnog. On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. Brooke Gladstone will be back next week with a fabulous show all about video games. I'm Bob Garfield.