18 February 2010

”The Idea That the Story Is True”

In Bringing Down the House, an ostensibly nonfiction book, author Ben Mezrich acknowledged creating composite figures and adding details that were totally new to the MIT students he claimed to have written about. Mezrich’s next book, on the founding of Facebook, apparently signals concocted scenes with phrases like “We can picture what happened next...”

When Drake Bennett of the Boston Globe confronted Mezrich about how many details in Bringing Down the House were fictional, the author offered this reply: “The idea that the story is true is more important than being able to prove that it's true.”

Unfortunately, he's right.


Melissa Stewart said...

“The idea that the story is true is more important than being able to prove that it's true.”

I'm afraid I don't agree with this statement at all. In fact, I find it horrifying.

A good nonfiction writer does the hard work of finding the golden nuggets that show the story and are, indeed, true. It's not easy, and it requires a lot of time and patience and ingenuity to track down the real information and craft it into a compelling narrative.

I point to the brilliant Rebecca Skloot, author of the recently released The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. This informative and completely factual story took 10 years to research and write. It is creative nonfiction at its best. Another great example is Almost Astronauts by Tanya Lee Stone, which also took at least a decade between conception and publication.

Creative nonfiction is about creatively integrating fictional elements, such as scene building and voice and quotations that flow like dialog into a factual piece. It is not about taking creative license with the facts.

Mary Bowman-Kruhm said...

I disagree completely with Mr. Mezrich. Such books are rightly called "historic fiction." NF writers go to great lengths to carry out research and to TELL THE TRUTH. That doesn't mean NF is dull and encyclopedic. It does mean the writer must tell a compelling story while not deviating from the facts. It's called narrative nonfiction and it is much more difficult to write than what passes for NF in Mr. Mezrich's definition.

Kelly Milner Halls said...

I respectfully disagree. Telling the truth is far less subjective than Mezrich would like to believe. And the fact that his dedication to authenticity has been so widely questioned and reported suggests that he is nothing but wrong in his self indulgent proclamation. Nonfiction authors are held to a very high standard and he's failed -- even if his book sales have made him a rich, dishonest man. What's right is right. What's wrong is obvious when it comes to this nonfiction imposter.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, I recognize the value of good nonfiction; I try to write it. But the problem is that when readers have “idea that the story is true” in their minds, their experience of that story doesn’t depend on whether it actually is true. It depends on whether they believe it to be true.

James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces was an unsuccessful novel at first. But when he duped his agent and publisher into thinking of it as nonfiction, and they in turn helped him dupe readers, the reading experience changed and the book sold a million little copies. Until, of course, people lost the “idea that the story is true.” Then the reading experience changed back.

Conversely, being able to prove the truth of certain things—such as that President Obama was born in Hawaii, or that a third of his administration’s stimulus bill consisted of tax cuts—has little effect on people who simply reject the ”idea that the story is true.”

I saved that quotation from Mezrich last year because it’s so provocative and, frankly, bare-faced that it actually subverts itself. It immediately calls into question any “idea that [his] story is true.” And only then, when that idea has started to dissipate, does “being able to prove that it’s true” become significant—which he obviously can’t do.

We all know plenty of stories, especially from childhood, that we believed were true, and felt important because of that belief. Some might still have residual significance even though we now recognize that there’s little or no proof for them.

All the more reason, I think, not only to be careful about telling the truth in books labeled nonfiction, but also in giving readers some indication of “being able to prove that it’s true.”

Melissa Stewart said...

I think that publishers are increasingly interested in"being able to prove that it is true" when it comes to nonfiction, but what some people label as "faction" still exists out there.

What bothers me is that there are people who even consider labelling something that is not 100 percent fact based as nonficiton. It hurts all of us who work hard to get the facts right.

Mr. Mezrich's blase attitude is maddening, and simply should not be tolerated. My hope is that he never gets another book contract.

Diane Mayr said...

There is no such thing as truth. Any two people looking at the exact same event will record it differently--and completely differently at that! And guess what, both are true--true to the recorder. I've always been amazed at reading the minutes after a meeting--what is reported NEVER wholly agrees with my recollection/notes.

As Oscar Wilde said, "The truth is rarely pure and never simple."

That said, all writers of nonfiction should strive to write a story that can be substantiated. It may not be the truth, but it will be verifiable. This is where Mr. Mezrich fails.

Please, don't hit me! ;-)

Stephen Aitken said...

I also find this disturbing - the blurring of the lines between fiction and non-fiction. I believe that authors, whether they are writing novels, biographies or narrative non-fiction need to be honest with their readers. The journalist who wrote the original Boston Globe article, linked in the original post above appears to feel the same; "Yet "Bringing Down the House" is not a work of "nonfiction" in any meaningful sense of the word. Instead of describing events as they happened, Mezrich appears to have worked more as a collage artist, drawing some facts from interviews, inventing certain others, and then recombining these into novel scenes that didn't happen and characters who never lived. The result is a crowd-pleasing story, eagerly marketed by his publishers as true - but which several of the students who participated say is embellished beyond recognition." As a reader I protest. Give me fiction or give me narrative non-fiction but don't give me embellishments based on half-truths.

Linda Zajac said...

As a writer of creative nonfiction I can assure you that I check every line of what I write for accuracy. If there is something I miss, the editors I have worked extensively with will find it. That statement is not a good reflection on either the writer or the editor. The author appears to be taking a knife to his own career.

“The idea that the story is true is more important than being able to prove that it's true.”

If you can't prove a story is true how can you possibly claim it is? If you can't prove it as fact, then it's not nonfiction which is based on fact.

J. L. Bell said...

Diane, I think your comment gets at what I see as a flaw in a lot of nonfiction for non-experts, including children. Those books usually present one version of events as what happened when there are often conflicting memories and ambiguous evidence.

Although I get happily caught up in nonfiction narratives that tell me what happened, I also like to read the notes that explain what the evidence is, where the gaps are, how the authors or their sources recreated events.

Linda Zajac said...

In this Merriam Webster definition of true:
we find the description is accurate, the actual state of affairs, that which is the case.

Adding details unknown to the students at MIT and creating composite figures is therefore not accurate, not the actual state of affairs and is not the case. Therefore the story is not entirely true, accurate or factual and thus the work should not be classified as nonfiction.

If I can't verify a statement I take it out.

J. L. Bell said...

Linda, I see you write science books. Diane and I write history, where there’s more ambiguity about what is “true” and what is the prevailing perception or interpretation of events. And even in science there are areas of uncertainty or disagreement.

That’s getting far afield from Ben Mezrich’s effrontery, of course. And from the issue of how believing that a story is true affects the experience of reading it, the likelihood of publishing it, the method of selling it, etc.

Melissa Stewart said...

If anyone is still reading these comments, he or she migth think I'm trying to pick a fight with J.L. Bell. Nothing could be further from the truth, my truth at least.

I have a great deal of respect for John as a writer and editor, as a historian, and as a critical thinker. That's why I was initially so surprised when he agreed with Mr. Mezrich's statement.

While I have tried to articulate my point of view, I don't think I have done so effectively because responses seem to have strayed in different directions.

I think it's obvious that whenever a writer chooses people as subjects--whether they be politicians or poets, circus performers or scientists--there will be two (or more) sides to the story. There will be different interprtations of "facts" and varying recollections of an event. I certainly don't disagree with that. In such cases, it is the duty of the writer to examine the documentation available and draw his or her own conclusions, being as unbiased as possible.

This is where I think Mr. Mezrich went wrong. Instead of doing the hard work, he was lazy. Instead of hunting down marvelous details to enrich his narrative, he made stuff up. He didn't care about the facts. He didn't try to be accurate. Apparently, his goal was to be entertaining. And he seems to think that's okay--that spinning a good yarn is more important than sticking to the facts. Hmm.

But all this talk about the truth has made me wonder. Perhaps the lack of truth that I see in Mr. Mezrich's quotation is not what John had in mind at all when he agreed with it in his post. I'm curious.

I wonder, John, if you would be willing to clarify exactly what you think Mr. Mezrich is saying and why you agree with it in a future post.

J. L. Bell said...

I highlighted Mezrich’s quotation and phrased my comment on it in a provocative way because I think it should provoke consideration.

I don’t think Mezrich was necessarily being lazy in how he told his tales. He might even have done extra work to massage people’s memories and documentation into a more entertaining story. Alternatively, he could have been lazy enough not to keep track of the details, and what was accurate.

When it came to publish, market, or consume that story, the idea in everyone’s head that it was true gave it more power than if it had been published as fiction based on actual events.

And the same rule applies to a lot of other stories: religious tales, family lore we’ve grown up with, funny anecdotes someone tells, national myths, or even our understandings of our own pasts. The idea that those stories are true is more important to how we experience and see meaning in them than whether we can prove them to be true. That’s just how our minds work.

That’s not always a mental strength, of course. Modern civilization is built on humans’ very hard collective work to establish some objective standards for a story or other assertion—“being able to prove that it’s true.” In science, we have the scientific method. In history, we have primary sources and documentation. In all academic pursuits, there’s peer review. In the law, various countries have legal systems involving judges and juries. And so on.

But those methods all depend on people being willing to accept them and let them shape and reshape our understandings of what is true. Most people don’t actually do that when it comes to such things as religious beliefs, national identity, or even shoe size. What they believe is true is more important.

Even those of us who are upset at Mezrich, or simply cross his books of our list to read, are driven by the importance of “the idea that the story is true.” It’s just that we’ve adopted those higher standards of objective proof that I mentioned before, and (at least once people raised questions) resist the “idea that the story is true” until we see satisfying evidence.

But there are still unsettling questions. Do we approach all stories or assertions with such skepticism, or only those that people have already questioned? Will our standards of proof appear to be as solid in a few hundred years, or will people see them as benighted as we view early modern standards of proof? And if a large portion of our society has seized on an “idea that the story is true” without proof, how can skeptics sway the majority?

Melissa Stewart said...

Is that "just how our minds work?" I don't know. Maybe so. Perhaps that's why an unreliable narrator in a novel can make such a big impact on a reader. We go to the story expecting the eyes through which we see the action to be trustworthy, to have the same sense of reality as we do.

There are some things that we do learn to approach with skepticism, such as an advertisement. But there are times when we have a right to expect a writer to deliver the true facts to the best of his or her ability. And a book sold as a NONfiction work is--or at least should be--one of those instances. We can't be expected to vet everything we read ourselves, and none of us has the knowledge to do so across the board. We rely on expertise of medical journalists, for example, to help us understand the potential benefits and dangers of the H1N1 vaccine because we don't have time or medical background to read all the scientific studies written on the subject.

As writers, we have a responsibility to our readers to earn and maintain their trust. Recently, I was quite far into researching and writing a new manuscript when I realized that at least one of the people I was interviewing was either out and out lying or perhaps bending the truth in his favor in his recollections of how a scientific program got started.

Two people were both claiming a research methodology was their idea, and the third person who could have settled the matter declined to be interviewed. So what did I do? I abandoned the project, even though it was fascinating, exciting, innovative research. I knew that I couldn't be sure that either party was presenting the facts accurately and I had no way of determining the truth myself.

I admit there was one scientist who I was routing for. I could have "adjusted" my piece to give her all the glory, but that would have been irresponsible. I don't think it's unreasonable to hold Mr. Mezrich to the same kind of standards.

J. L. Bell said...

Your example is an interesting one. Some authors would take a disagreement like that and, if it involved something significant enough, build a book around that controversy. (In fact, I think Mezrich’s topic of the development of Facebook has just such a story.)

But readers expect such a book to end with a resolution, an answer they could believe in.

Melissa Stewart said...

True enough, but in this case, focusing on the disagreement would have taken the fun out of it for me. My mission as a writer is to celebrate the wonder of the natural world and share my fascination of science with others. The last thing I want to do is detour from the science to deal with people acting badly. I'll leave that to other writers.