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    Free to be Unfair?

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    Recently, I was asked to fill in for the guy who edits my weekly newspaper column. The gig was a presentation in front of the local Phi Beta Kappa association and the stated topic was “journalists who become fiction writers” (much like our own beloved Ms. Bradford). My co-presenter was a very nice college professor who’d written a book about 19th century newspapermen who’d gone on to write fiction, and I suppose my editor was supposed to provide the 20th century perspective.

    Now, calling me a “journalist” is to stretch the term beyond the snapping point. Sure, I used to do some radio news reporting, and I worked in a TV newsroom as a cameraman, but writing a weekly column in which I basically make fun of politicians and celebrities doesn’t really qualify me as any kind of pundit. Still, they promised me food, so what could I do?

    What really motivated me to do the presentation, though, was an interesting little bit of synchronicity. Almost exactly at the same time the e-mail came in asking me to do this, I was reading Mark Bowden’s piece in The Atlantic on the TV show The Wire and its creator, journalist turned non-fiction author turned genius TV producer David Simon.

    I’m not going to get into the controversy that article has stirred up, one that seems to have resulted in a fair amount of brouhaha between Simon and Bowden. But I was struck by one quote about the differences between journalism and fiction and why the latter might seem attractive:

    The essential difference between writing nonfiction and writing fiction is that the artist owns his vision, while the journalist can never really claim one, or at least not a complete one—because the real world is infinitely complex and ever changing. Art frees you from the infuriating unfinishedness of the real world. For this reason, the very clarity of well-wrought fiction can sometimes make it feel more real than reality. As a film producer once told me, “It’s important not to let the facts get in the way of the truth.”

    Fiction can explain things that journalism cannot. It allows you to enter the lives and motivations of characters with far more intimacy than is typically possible in nonfiction. In the case of The Wire, fiction allows you to wander around inside a violent, criminal subculture, and inside an entrenched official bureaucracy, in a way that most reporters can only dream about. And it frees you from concerns about libel and cruelty. It frees you to be unfair.

    When someone’s asking you to talk about journalism vs. fiction, and you happen to be reading something at almost that very moment on the very same topic—well, that kind of coincidence is the universe trying to tell you something. And I never argue with the universe.

    I don’t really agree, by the way, with Bowden’s last sentence. I think good fiction means being fair to your characters, even your antagonists, and realizing that everyone has his own side of your story. No man, as the saying goes, is a villain in his own eyes. Or, as I like to put it, the villain thinks he’s the hero. But I digress.

    It is true that fiction is very attractive because fiction (ideally) has a coherent narrative–a beginning, a middle, and an end. Or, as another author once put it, “the difference between fiction and reality is that fiction has to make sense.” (I’d always thought the quote was from newspaperman turned author Mark Twain, but it turns out it was Tom Clancy. Go figure). And fiction does allow you to get in the heads of your characters, which is the fun part for me.

    Unfortunately, in their quest to make things “interesting,” or to get the perfect story, sometimes journalists do go over the line into fiction, except when a journalist does it, they call it “making stuff up.” Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass, and Janet Cook are the most obvious examples, but then you also have crap like that put out by Bob Woodward. Woodward, who used to be considered one of the giants of investigative reporting for his work in breaking the Watergate story, developed a tendency to put incidents and conversations into his books that he could not possibly have been privy to, such as the scene in the opening of “The Agenda” where he describes a conversation between Bill and Hillary Clinton—that took place while they were in bed. Sorry, I’m not buying it.

    And then you consider the case of James Frey, whose book “A Million Little Pieces” caused a scandal when someone took the trouble to look at a few police blotters and found out that a lot of the horrible criminal career Frey described for himself was, well, fiction. In fact, one story goes, he’d originally shopped the book as fiction and been turned down everywhere. But as “autobiography”—not only did he get a six figure advance, he made Oprah cry.

    So Good Girls and others: what’s your take on truth vs. fiction? Can fiction really get the real story, the real truth, across better than straight journalism? Is it okay for journalists to use fictional techniques to get the “real truth” across? For that matter, is a coherent narrative–a beginning, middle and end—really all that important for fiction if the idea of fiction is to reflect real life?

    # #

    ***J.D. Rhoades is the author of the Jack Keller series, set in and around his native North Carolina. His first novel, THE DEVIL’S RIGHT HAND, was published in 2005. He’s also a newspaper columnist, practicing attorney, and friend of Good Girls everywhere. He’ll be at the South Carolina Book Festival February 22d through 24th.

    9 Responses to “Free to be Unfair?”

    1. Hey, Dusty. Thanks for a great post! Love the question: \”Can fiction really get the real story, the real truth, across better than straight journalism?\”

      I\’m thinking yeah from the simple fact that knowing something isn\’t \”real\” makes it more palpable for people. As for whether it\’s okay for journalists to use fictional techniques to get the \”real truth\” across…no. Journalism is supposed to be fact and fact alone.

      You know that recent story–out here in Missouri, as a matter of fact–where the local guy killed people at the city meeting? There was a guy like that in the town I covered fourteen years ago. He used to come in with these wild conspiracy theories all the time when I\’d be at work after hours. He\’d have tapes he made (that, while they were voices he\’d recorded, they missed the little thing called context). To do a straight story on him and his thoughts would have been fiction–a story, with a pov, he wanted to see in place. But it would have been false.

      Hope that makes sense.

      And your last question, yeah it\’s important in fiction to have the elements of a coherent narrative because fiction gives us something non fiction can\’t ever give. The full story.

      by Laura on February 19th, 2008 at 6:34 am

    2. I like fictionalized accounts of true stories, but I know they are part fiction. I wrote an essay once about a real woman who lived in a small mining town near my home. Her name, her situation, her family, all real. The reason she died, her relationship with her husband, their dialogue, fiction. I used as much truth as I could find then made up the rest.

      And as Laura said, without the fiction, it wouldn’t have been the full story, just a list of facts.

      by Lynn on February 19th, 2008 at 7:58 am

    3. Thanks for having me here, Laura!

      by J.D. Rhoades on February 19th, 2008 at 8:07 am

    4. Great post, JD.

      I think a lot of truth can be found in the pages of fiction. Not necessarily the exact events or the individual characters, but the stories themselves. I’m sure we’ve all read books that resonated in some way because they were just so true.

      Journalism, on the other hand, should never be fiction. Unfortunately, it frequently is. Like Lynn’s loony, things are taken out of context and presented as proof of some deeper truth. *shrug* I see it in our local paper all the time. It burns me up, but there’s nothing I can do about it. (Unless my secret dream of starting a competing paper and driving them out of business magically becomes reality. LOL)

      by B.E. Sanderson on February 19th, 2008 at 10:05 am

    5. Damn. I was hoping for the glamor shot.

      by Bill Crider on February 19th, 2008 at 11:35 am

    6. Ack! I meant Laura’s loony. My fingers are more awake than my brain. Sorry.

      by B.E. Sanderson on February 19th, 2008 at 11:50 am

    7. Hey, J.D. Great post!

      I’ve noticed that most newspaper stories (even hard news stories) begin with a fiction-like intro, a person’s story and a glimpse of their life. I usually have to read 3-4 paragraphs to get to what the story is actually about. Things have sure changed. I guess the 5 Ws in the lead are a thing of the past. More evidence of the fictionalizing of the news?

      by Sara on February 19th, 2008 at 4:46 pm

    8. I also think that the televised news is changing into fictionalized stories as well as just sound blips. I heard a lot about the shootings near St. Louis but we never heard the real story about the why it happened. And since he was killed in the attack, we might never.

      Now maybe every real story doesn’t have a why. Or a why that we can accept would drive a person to do something that horrible. Is that why we created the horror story to fill in the blanks when reality doesn’t?

      by Lynn on February 20th, 2008 at 7:31 am

    9. Maybe The Wire’s fiction is unfair. Or maybe it is more rooted in reality than some wish to acknowledge:

      by Maybe or maybe not on February 20th, 2008 at 10:21 am

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