Lawrence Weschler on the Fiction of Non-Fiction

Friday, February 15, 2013


Joseph Mitchell and Ryszard Kapuscinski created some of the most celebrated narrative non-fiction of this century; full of indelible characters, scenes, and dialogue. But both have been dogged by accusations that they doctored dialogue, manufactured scenes and created composite characters. In an interview that originally aired in December 2010, Bob talks with celebrated narrative non-fiction writer Lawrence Weschler about great writers and questionable facts. 


Lawrence Weschler

Hosted by:

Bob Garfield

Comments [16]

T. Allen Morgan from Nashville, TN

I am not surprised to see that many of the comments here reflect my own reactions this episode, namely that Mr. Weschler has an inflated opinion of himself and a worrying perspective on what constitutes responsible journalism.

However the moments of the interview that absolutely stunned me were when Weschler asserted that it is the READER that is responsible for determining what is a work of fiction or non-fiction, and not the author. He even went so far as to say that that an "adult reader" is responsible for determining what PORTIONS of a work are fiction or non-fiction.


I can't believe I even have to write these words down, but it is the AUTHOR'S responsibility to ensure that the reader understands what is fiction and non-fiction. Is there really any argument about that?

If a work is presented as non-fiction, and yet it include sections of "fiction", I think most reasonable people would put this kind of "fiction" in quotes (as I have here) because it is, in fact, not fiction at all, but fabrication.

Wechsler is right about one thing. All journalism is an edited version of reality and what Wechsler wants is what Capote wanted--the Hollywood version of that reality.

Mar. 13 2013 10:35 AM
Magister Ludi

With respect to the Masson/Malcolm libel case, I highly recommend Steven Pinker's opus "The Language Instinct" in which he discusses it. It's a fascinating read for any number of reasons. He also discusses the subpoenaed white house tapes of the Watergate era, and their transcripts, and how unintelligible casual speech appears in print. Reminds me of the recent segment on this program, on the word, "um".

Who could forget Rick Perry's recent eloquence:

“I think Americans just don’t know sometimes which Mitt Romney they’re dealing with. Is it the Mitt Romney that was on the side of…against…the Second Amendment before he was for the Second Amendment…was it was..before he was before these social programs, uh, from the standpoint he was standing, uh, for Roe vs. Wade before he was against Roe, uh, Roe vs. Wade…uh…he was…uh for Race To The Top…

Uh…[pause]…he’s for Obamacare and now he’s against it…I mean, we’ll wait until tomorrow and, and, and wait to see which Mitt Romney we’re really talking to…"

Quoting people verbatim often makes them look like fools. Of course, some people really are fools.

Feb. 26 2013 06:17 PM

I've had a difficult time finding anything more about Borges and the two universes: material reality versus the universe of words. Can anyone point me in the right direction?

Feb. 25 2013 11:02 PM
Long-time Listener and Getting Bored from California

I listen to Bob Garfield as often as I can, here and on Lexicon Valley, so I've now heard him get all indignant about non-fiction writers that do not adhere to Journalism standards more than once, even more than twice ... since I am not a Journalist, I'll say more times that can counted.

At first, I was swayed by his non-Journalistic righteous indignation, but now each time I hear this sorry theme, I am more convinced by his opposition, ... and more likely to simply stop listening. Enough of this already.

Feb. 22 2013 03:39 PM
Paul Brians from Bainbridge Island, WA

Oops. I think he also said "Aladdin" when he meant "Ali Baba."

Feb. 20 2013 05:48 PM
Paul Brians from Bainbridge Island, WA

Wechsler illustrated his attitude toward accuracy by referring to "Ali Baba and the Forty Nights." Very funny.

Of course he meant "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, from the 'Thousand and One Nights'."

Feb. 20 2013 05:46 PM
Bob Gardner from Randolph, MA

I thought Weschler begged the question when he claimed that it was okay to conflate quotes as long as he was honest and fair. So presumably it's not okay if you're not being honest. But how do you distinguish the honest conflaters from the dishonest ones? Do you gaze into their eyes and see their souls?
As to the claim that nobody complained about their quotes being doctored, so what? Nobody complained about the inaccuracies in In Cold Blood either.

Feb. 19 2013 09:03 PM
Lenny from Montreal

Interesting segment. However, could anyone tell me why Jonah Lehrer is being assassinated by the media for making up Bob Dylan quotes in his book, let's say we set aside the borrowing he seems to have done from other writers. I'm not defending him in any way, I am just confused why he would be so harshly blamed for making up something when if you are to believe Weschler , most journalists fabricate quite a bit . Were is the line between a what we call Truth and intellectual dishonesty? Can someone enlighten me ?

Feb. 18 2013 01:48 PM
Steve Sherman

As for Lawrence Weschler, all the slick rhetoric in the world of nonfiction novels and fictive journalism doesn’t dent the fact that he and friends just don’t have grit enough to do their homework. Their conscious intent to fake quotes and make up composite sources, guess what, is the lazy way to deceive readers as fast as they can until the bubble reputations pop and they’re left for what they are. Obviously, these are the typists lusting to become not reporters but wri-TORS. Bob, Brooke, et. al. at On the Media know the truth of what’s what, and thank you for that nook.

Feb. 18 2013 07:04 AM
Sylvia Walker

The host was way too easy on Weschler.

Feb. 18 2013 03:16 AM
Peggy Sweeney

You really missed your chance with that pompous ass Lawrence Wechsler. When he said "let me tell you a funny story," your reply should have been "YOU tell the story; I'LL decide whether or not it's funny."

Feb. 17 2013 05:05 PM
Susan from New York

journalism, narrative non-fiction, history, revisionist history, historical fiction, fiction, truth...

Nothing can be separated from the context and purpose and sensibilities of tellers and hearers! Why I never invested in history, and chose to study literature in my youthful search for truth!

And in reference to "technology" solutions, please do not forget photoshop, voiceover, and a full spectrum of manipulations, both crude and sophisticated.

Feb. 17 2013 12:21 PM
Jack McCullough from Montpelier, Vermont

Your story inevitably reminded me of the libel case between Jeffrey Masson and Janet Malcolm about a story about him she published in the New Yorker.

Although Janet Malcolm ultimately won her case, it is essential to keep in view what Malcolm did. Her New Yorker piece, while based on many hours of taped interviews, included statements, represented as direct quotations of Masson, that Masson simply did not make.

Perhaps chief among these was “I was an intellectual gigolo.” I agree with Bob. Quoting a speaker, and placing the statement within quotation marks, is an assertion by the author that the speaker made that statement using those exact words. Malcolm’s defense that her article captured the gist of what Masson had said to her does not rebut the gravamen of her journalistic crime: In her article she lied about what Jeffrey Masson said to her. For that there can be no justification or redemption, and for that reason her credibility has been destroyed forever.

Feb. 17 2013 12:09 PM
Kevin W. Harris from Nashua, NH

When I was a child of 7, in the first grade, in Syracuse, NY, my mother came to comfort me because I was having so much trouble with my spelling homework.

We were instructed to write a sentence containing each spelling word on our homework sheet, to show that we understood it. I was having a terrible time.

My mother asked what the problem was. I gave her an example - the word "tractor". She asked: You know what a tractor is, don't you? Yes, it is a machine that pulls things, like on a farm. She asked: well, why is that hard to write a sentence for? How about 'The farmer plowed the field with his new tractor.'? I said: But that isn't TRUE!

"What do you mean.", she asked. I said: You told me I always had to tell the truth! How can I write a TRUE sentence about each of these words? I don't know any farmers that own tractors! Then I broke down crying. She was totally flummoxed (not for the first or last time) by my inexorable logic. But she gently explained that the "truth" requirement didn't apply to spelling homework - which just required that you showed that you understood the word.

But Why, I protested, didn't the teacher explain that when she made the assignment? After all, for the past several weeks, I had been clinging to my original belief and producing demonstrably true sentences. But this was ever harder as the words got longer and more abstract. I assumed the other kids were following this rule as well. I didn't want to lower my standards!

No, she insisted, this was not a requirement, and if I was unsure, I should ask the teacher. Thinking about it, I finally concluded she was right, because I knew that the other kids couldn't possibly write true sentences about some of these words.

I never did ask the teacher. My homework got a lot easier after that, but that ended my belief that people wrote true sentences. :-(
-Kevin Harris

Feb. 17 2013 11:25 AM
Phil Cauthon from Lawrence, Kansas

Compelling conversation on a topic of particular relevance as the fourth estate is increasingly trusted little more than the government. Weschler's reasoning on why journalism is necessarily distinct from the reality it attempts to relate is well taken — up to the point where he rationalizes his generally not using a recorder.

Since the advent of the cassette tape, there is simply no reason for a journalist or anyone else using quotation marks in non-fiction to not use a recorder (apart from court reporters banned from doing so). Nor should, as Garfield suggests, quotes be "perhaps cleaned up to reflect the difference between spoken language and written language."

If everything else Weschler says is true, shouldn't journalists and non-fiction writers at least adhere to one standard that — thanks to technology — is not subject to the fuzzy line between reporting and reality? Namely, that everything that is put between quotation marks be transcribed exactly as it was said?

Feb. 17 2013 03:04 AM
Pat Nichols from Washington, DC

Lawrence Weschler, in his interview with Bob, was fascinating, rich, thoughtful, provocative (once or twice, maybe, a bit smug) and great fun. There are couple of important related thoughts, it seems to me, though I suspect neither of these is lost on Weschler.

1) The quote about alternative worlds with which the interview begins (I missed the source)--the world of objects and the world of words--suggests they are parallel; but, of course, they are interwoven. The way we construct and engage the world in language shapes the way we construct and engage the world of objects and vice versa. And, of course, this model itself is a fictional construct, a heuristic device that allows us to order our experience. We might imagine three or four worlds or different ones--all symbols v. just language, objects available to senses, emotions, etc.

2) Weschler insists upon accuracy in reporting after he has debunked the primary standard used for assessing accuracy. Having been persuasive in the debunking, if he's going to resist utter relativism he owes us a new standard as to what "accuracy" means. Or, at least, to point toward one we can help him refine.

Terrific conversation. Thanks.


Feb. 16 2013 07:16 AM

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