Stranger Than Fiction: Writers of nonfiction…

As someone with a degree in journalism I found James Atlas’ piece from 1991 very intriguing since big names in writing like Robert Caro and Janet Malcolm were mentioned and of course, Kitty Kelley.  Those interviewed by journalists often complain their quote “was taken out of context” which in a way is what this entire article is saying.   Is accurate quotation and “truth”  possible? Malcolm thinks the truth is an illusion.  It’s all about the narrative surrounding the information presented–none of us was actually there when the conversation took place except the journalist and interviewee. In the end what sources of information do we trust? It is earned according to this piece and we trust certain voices over others. One of my favorite quotes from the article “when we talk with somebody, we are not aware of the language we are speaking.” That set against the asssertion from Malcolm that a transcript of an interview is kind of a rough draft of expression.  In other words the journalist is creating a “scene” around the actual facts. Some writers do it better than others and we come to trust their storytelling.  William C.


20 responses to “Stranger Than Fiction: Writers of nonfiction…

  1. I’m now going to show my penchant for all things non-academic. Atlas’s piece threw me immediately to the movie starring Will Ferrell of SNL fame, _Stranger Than Fiction_. It also reminded me of the Bill Murray flick, _Groundhog Day_. Perhaps the former is more relevant than the latter.

    The Ferrell movie follows an IRS agent as he hears a narrator narrating his life; no one else hears this narrator. Comedy ensues. So does the question–is he destined to become and do what the narrator narrates? So while this movie is about destiny and human will, it does come around to Atlas’s ideas. What if the narrator gets it wrong? Does the agent have any way to know the truth if he thinks one way and the narrator insists it’s the other.

    Looking back, I’m not quite sure why I thought of _Groundhog Day_. If anyone has seen it and can figure out why I’d think of it, I’d love to be reminded as to why I might have (end of the semester papers are coming in, so forgive any nonsensical musings).

    The line that strikes me is E. Morris’s idea that truth is somthing the “majority of readers can’t help but believe.” Therefore, truth comes from someone highly credible who builds logical arguments with concrete evidence. It also emerges from a really good con artist.

    That means that truth is malleable. Several truths can exist because of individual perception and experience. I’m teaching Shakespeare this semester, so these ideas come up quite a bit. I go into Platonic Realism and Bacon’s idols here:

    Kitty Kelley’s quest to retell the lives of others has never interested me until this year. Her courageous endeavor to create an Oprah biography takes guts. Again, I delve more into the intricacies of Oprah’s rule and her singlehanded takedown, build-up, and retakedown of James Frey here:

    • Christina,
      Are you arriving the 6th of June or the 20th? I am curious, you seem to have a fun and interesting mind. I see your relationship to Groundhog Day….I think. Ha.
      Keep up the interesting blogging.
      Lee, or as my username has it…lmjjones, don’t ask.

      • Lee (or lmjjones–I won’t ask but I think it’s fabulous) I’m arriving on the 20th. My mind works this way—“oh, that reminds me of [insert name of non-relevant movie from over a decade ago OR really bad reality television show I watch that no one else watches]”. I should probably get out more.

  2. ssmithcitytech

    Tonight’s post was to be “Stranger than Fiction,” so thank you, William, for starting us off.

    It is always the “dusty streets” conundrum that catches my attention–and raises a chuckle. “Those are the facts . . . ” but Atlas points to a distinction between facts and ‘voice.’ Which do you think is more important, more influential with the reader or viewer–facts or voice? What would be an example of ‘facts’ and ‘voice’ in the context of preservation, of places and things?

  3. What is truth? What are facts? Whenever I see an article that has these sentiments in them, I know I am bound for a headache at some point.
    Relativism, while entertaining as a philosophical argument or literary device, makes for bad history.

    The streets were dusty in Alice, or they were not. (Personally, having lived near Alice in Kingsville, Texas, the streets were probably dusty. And hot.) The trumpets sounded outside the White House, or they did not. The way of conveying that information goes to writing style, not factual evidence.

    I guess that’s why the quote from Patty Limerick resonated with me so much. Historians have all this great material, but journalists seem to convey it much better, at least to freshmen in history classes. Perhaps it’s because we get bogged down in the facts and not the voice of the piece? I wish I knew.

    Then the Janet Malcolm incident reveals the problems with oral history. That’s a whole other kettle of fish. When quoting, use the exact quotes. If the exact quotes are fractured as real speech can be, then edit the quotes or paraphrase it. And follow the cardinal rule: don’t make up quotes.

    And I think =Groundhog Day= plays a role because we keep seeing the same event from different perspectives, just like Bill Murray relives the same day with different outcomes based on the choices he makes. Same day, different stories, because different facts are selected to be used to find the truth.

    Now where is the aspirin?

  4. Context is all, and it seems to me that Atlas gets it just right when he muses that perhaps he shouldn’t have put into print that Maurice Zolotow looked “like a towel attendant.” Oh, but that is just the point – dressing Zolotow in such language made Atlas all the more believable to me!

    Writing is like quilting; we take whatever quotations (texts/textiles) and piece them together into a new object. We still use the factual materials, but in the piecing together we create something new. I think John Ciardi refers to poetry as words bumping into each other to become something new.

    And so, it is with context in mind that we need to look at what we readers experience as truth. In Craig Seligman’s defense of Janet Malcolm in a 2000 article in Salon (, he quotes John Dryden as remarking on the “vast difference betwixt the slovenly butchering of a man, and the fineness of a stroke that separates the head from the body, and leaves it standing in its place.” Seligman claims that “Malcolm’s blade gleams with a razor edge. Her critics tend to go after her with broken bottles.”

    Do I believe Seligman? Or Dryden, for that matter? Do they speak truth? That isn’t really the point. I read both because their language dresses their ideas and gives them their “edge.” As a language lover, I’m going to err on the side of the most exquisitely patched quilt, that piece where the quoted fabric, the raw fact, is nestled into a neatly stitched, flamboyantly patterned object that becomes its own object of wonder.

    At the risk of alienating my yet to know NEH colleagues, I believe that Malcolm’s New Yorker piece on Borukhova and Mallayev is just such an object.

  5. I wonder if I could steal some quotes from Waldo Lydecker, a fictional critic from the Holywood movie Laura (1944). You see, we love and hate our subjects as we transform them into object prose. We all love and hate what we write, but we cannot live without it.

    Waldo Lydecker “In my case, self-absorption is completely justified. I have never discovered any other subject quite so worthy of my attention.”…

    Laura Hunt: “Well you see, Mark. You simply don’t understand Waldo. He dramatises everything. To him, I, like everything else, am only half real. The other half exists only in his own mind. The story he told you about the pen was one he had written for his column. Once he writes something he believes it. Do you know where he actually first found me? In a night court. I had been picked up for vagrancy.”

    Mark McPherson: “Vagrancy?”

    Laura Hunt: “Oh I wasn’t guilty. It was just something that happens everyday I suppose. I came to New York, looking for a career. Highest honours in art school back home. The usual background. But I couldn’t get a start. One night I found myself locked out of my room. They picked me up on a bench in Central Park. The judge wouldn’t believe my hard luck story but Waldo believed me. He was in court, gathering material for his column. He came forward and paid my fine. Then he called Bullet and Company and got me a job. I went to work the same day. It isn’t easy to forget anything so wonderful as that.” …

    Waldo Lydecker: “I shall never forget the weekend Laura died. A silver sun burned through the sky like a huge magnifying glass. It was the hottest Sunday in my recollection. I felt as if I were the only human being left in New York… I had just begun Laura’s story when another of those detectives came to see me. I had him wait.”

  6. jeanarrington

    I’ve loved Janet Malcolm’s articles in the New Yorker over the years, found her brilliant, moving, entertaining, informative. Then it had sort of seemed to me as if she’d disappeared recently (Ironically, she has an article in the May 3 New Yorker. My daughter was talking about it, outraged at the response of the Russian judge. I didn’t even realize at the time that it was a Janet Malcolm article.) So a big aha of Atlas’ article for me was realizing why – that she’s been dealing with the Supreme Court (Yes, I was oblivious to all that). As a great believer in the relativism of truth, I enjoyed enormously all the examples Atlas gave.

  7. I wonder how different Atlas’ piece would have been if it was written today. Even in 1991, there was still a notion that journalism should be objective and concerned about accuracy. Today we live in the world of Fox News and internet blogs. Journalism today is increasingly about advocacy and telling a specific group of people what they want to hear. Facts are something to be created and manipulated for greater purposes.

    Ironically, this has made me cling more tightly to the idea that there is a truth. You can have your own opinion, but you can’t have your own facts. The streets of Alice were dusty or they weren’t. There were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq or there weren’t. Obama was born in Hawaii or he wasn’t. Not every fact may be knowable, but a lot of them are. There have been pretty effective ways of finding them and putting them together going back to the Greeks. Just because journalists don’t want to use them or the public doesn’t want to hear them doesn’t make them any less relevant or less important.

    • Babu you make an interesting point about facts when you stated “just because journalists don’t want to use them or the publich doesn’t want to heare them doesn’t make them any less relevant or less important.”….did I get that quoted correctly 🙂

      My understanding is that facts are general knowledge and any “real” account of what has happend. Then again, who determines what is a real account that leads to a fact.

      Atlas definitely has me rethinking what I take as fact.

  8. Like jeanarrington above, I am a strong believer in relativism when it comes to the concept of truth, and likewise I enjoyed the examples Atlas incorporated within the article related to truth.

    I think that truth is achievable (or at the least, one can convince him or herself that he/she has arrived to the truth), but it is not easy to unequivocably arrive to that truth unless you have experienced an event, place, etc. first hand. Then from that point, your truth is molded by your own experiences and perceptions of the events, people, or places you encountered. When based on others’ interpretations, as Atlas points out, the truth lies in the style and “the quality of representation that compels us to believe.”

  9. Diane Whitney

    Even when you can decide upon your truth, then it is molded by your own perceptions, which are subject to all the vagaries of emotion and past experiences, “ghostings”, if you will. Add to that the fact that every time we tell a story, or retell a story, it changes as we adapt it to the present need. For we are then different.

    It then comes to depend on the messenger as well as the message. It makes me seriously wonder if we are ever really able to tell a story the way it originally happened. As Herodotus observed, we can never step in the same river twice.

  10. “Truth is an artifact whose design we must alter.” This is a paraphrase, I think , of Richard Rorty, a polarizing figure for the Left I know, but this idea helps me think about this problem of uncertainty and history, facts and truth.

    I read Game Change a few months back about the 2008 presidential election, and the journalists acknowledge that what we find in the book are their interpretations of conversations and events – not quotes or transcriptions – so readers just have to “trust” these interpretations and descriptions of events. Not an easy thing to do, but at least by acknowledging that the “facts” are based on human recollections, we might be able to acknowledge that different lenses and filters will produce different results.

  11. I really enjoyed reading this piece alongside Thelan. It made me think of the multiple layers of interpretation that occur in my own qualitative social research – particularly the narratives that interviewees construct and the parallel (divergent?) narratives that I weave from that “data.” In this way, the readings made me even more committed to interpretive sociology, and even more frustrated with our positivist critics! I like the breadth of both pieces … and the very broad thinking they inspired at this moment in my semester.

  12. If you were to ask a reader this question, he or she would probably answer “facts,” but the reader trusts publications to have a reliable vetting system in place to ensure content is accurate. If a writer has an attractive and authoritative voice and he or she presents information in a familiar and entertaining structure, the reader is happy to be carried away on pleasantly seductive waves of words. Consider the temporary success of Steven Glass of The New Republic or of Jayson Blair of The New York Times. Society does become mighty indignant, though, when it discovers a writer has been “bamboozling” him or her. I still cringe remembering James Frey’s public flogging on Oprah for embellishing (all right – outright lying about) portions of his memoir.

    The public says it wants accuracy in preservation, but it also wants the locations and things they visit to be engaging. I grew up in a tiny community where the historical society owns several small houses filled with artifacts representing the township’s past. As a teen, I would occasionally volunteer on a weekend to sit in one of the buildings and make sure visitors didn’t leave with a bottle or a table they hadn’t carried into the facility. Most volunteers did not interact with the guests. One senior volunteer, however, would appear every weekend dressed in a colonial dust cap and a gingham dress. She would warmly welcome each visitor and then follow him or her around the building, pointing out interesting artifacts. Visitors seemed to enjoy interacting with this guide, and I was taken by her enthusiasm and the breadth of her knowledge. “How do you know so much about the artifacts?” I asked her one day. After all, nothing was labeled, and this woman had moved to the town long after many of the “old timers” had passed away. “Educational guess,” she said without a pause. “See this?” she asked, pulling out what looked like a squat, three-legged wooden recliner from the corner. “I say it’s a birthing chair, but I don’t know for sure. I’ve been to museums with similar chairs they call birthing chairs. If I don’t know, I make it up. This way everyone leaves happy, and I’m not bored. Anyway, who is to say I’m wrong?” (Maybe she didn’t say this exactly; however, this is how I remember the conversation, and I think it captures the sentiment!) That was when I began to wonder about the accuracy of information I received on tours of other historical buildings and museums. Most historical societies don’t have editorial boards to vet the information that is being disseminated to the public. Heck, they’re lucky to get someone to show up on a weekend to babysit their valued artifacts. How does one ensure the reenactment, the preserved building, the artifact is presented in an authentic light?

  13. I suppose we have all known since we were little that what we see depends on where we are standing, that “…people don’t necessarily lie to you, they tell you their version of the truth.” Further, he reminds us that we can’t even trust science if “Science is the 20th century’s art form” as asserted by Timothy Ferris or Horace Freeland Judson.

    The anecdote about Boswell, and the distinction between of how an account may be accurate but not true was illustrative of linguistic framing techniques, whether intentionally applied or not. Atlas shows in Boswell’s record of Johnson how “He could “surround pivotal words with characteristic diction” to frame Johnson in a way that pleased even Johnson. However, Malcolm on the other hand, Atlas asserts, with a simple turn of phrase “punishes or flatters her subjects according to her whim.”

    This notion of truth being misconstrued can be explained from a pragmatic perspective as a case of what Michael Toolan calls focalization: anyone reporting events receives and reports information through the filter of their own ideology and the sum total of their own life experiences.

    Atlas challenges so many aspects of what we assume to be true, that by page 4 I began to question if I was really reading the true “Stranger Than Fiction”! As for his notion of truth, he seems to nudge us toward it when he quotes Edmund Morris, in his op-ed piece for The Washington Post, who maintained that “the ultimate test” of truth is “saying something — or quoting something — that a majority of readers ‘can’t help but believe.’ ” This strikes me as potentially dangerous circular reasoning. Then Atlas concludes saying, “In the end, we can’t always know the truth. But we can know whom to believe.” This echoes Charles Sanders Pierce, whose work I admire, but does not convince me. So, why should I believe Atlas?

  14. Keith Anderson

    I was reminded as I read this piece about the prologue to Toni Cade Bambera’s collection of short stories _Gorilla, My Love_. One night the author describes how she is ambushed by her mother, who protests about having been portrayed unflatteringly in one of the stories, and the author, in turn, protests–unpersuasively–that her characters represent composites of many people in her lives and no particular one. The piece reflects the traditional treatment of memory, the idea that “we expect the accuracy of a memory to be shaped by the observer’s physical proximity in time and place to [an] event,” the result being that any gap between “recollection” and “objective reality” is perceived as a “disability.” The emerging counter-view is one of remembering as more a matter of “construction” than “reproduction.” I am reminded of incidents during my six-year tenure teaching on the Navajo Reservation when I watched students attempt to recover and re-enact word-for-word replicas of “traditional” ceremonies rather than seek out updated approaches in response to new problems and situations. Medicine men who deviated from established practices were viewed with distrust. They were “messing” with the culture. There was always a temptation to idealize the past, to treat it “as a record of stability, continuity, and consistency.” No doubt this rhetorical strategy was informed by the trauma of economic, linguistic, and social dislocations on at least as grand a scale as that suffered by the laborers along the loading docks. The truth of the matter is that Navajos and workers alike (and all people, for that matter) often turned on one another in hard times–and still do. The question is whether an idealized construct of the past can be used to improve the present condition of a people. In the case of the Navajos, attempts at “preserving” the culture has created jobs in the school system. Most B.I.A. schools have Navajo language and culture teachers. (Unfortunately, this is not the case with the state schools, whose curricula are drawn up in the state capitols.) Can restoration along the waterfront generate and–more importantly–sustain new and enduring forms of employment?

  15. Keith Anderson

    Well, it seems in my previous post, I’ve inadvertently replied to the wrong writing prompt–“Memory and American History” rather than “Stranger than Fiction.” This piece asks the same question I so often pose to my students when writing their research papers: “How is trust acquired? How is it earned?” Atlas asks. When it comes to information, which is it, folks: Fox News, CNN, or MSNBC? Unfortunately, it’s all too often a function of whether or not a source confirms rather than challenges your preconceptions. Do human beings do best when unfettered and left to their own devices, or should they be distrusted innately and regulated without mercy? This article, though, shifts the focus from being the recipient of information to being the generator. How will I reproduce my experience of the historic Brooklyn waterfront? Thanks to this wonderful opportunity, I will have had the personal experience of having seen it and been there myself. I hope, by way of a distillation of my learning, that my readers will believe my reconstruction of my learning, and it will seem like I am speaking the truth, whether or not I manage to do so. 🙂

  16. I am so enjoying all of the readings for different reasons, not the least of which is because each makes me think about something different. But these also interconnect, no?

    You ask, “Is accurate quotation and ‘truth’ possible?” I’d say our memory is always as accurate as truth would have it, and that is, of course, relative to our presence, involvement and role during a moment in history. I also studied journalism in college, and rec’d a minor degree in the subject. I worked as managing editor for a magazine (now defunct) out of San Francisco and when I wrote feature articles wherein I interviewed folks, I often came up against the concept of quoting “out of context.” It was actually a great fear of mine.

    I’ve kept to writing and interviewing intermittently over the years and got to chat with Henry Rollins a couple of years ago. We talked for over an hour, after which I wasn’t sure how to write the article; I didn’t want to report out incorrectly or tell his story with misguided intention. After processing too much over it, I decided to print the article verbatim, partly because what we discussed was so interesting but also because I flat-out feared getting it wrong.

    What is the role of the journalist in preserving the past and telling a story that will occupy a collective memory?

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