AWP 2012: What’s Wrong with the Whole Truth?
March 3, 2012 § 16 Comments
R236. What’s Wrong with the Whole Truth? / Thursday, March 1, 2012 – 4:30-5:45 p.m.
(UPDATE: Be sure to read the comments below the post, where the conversation continues and a few of the panelists themselves weigh in.)
In the midst of the brouhaha about John D’Agata, four creative nonfiction writers made a case for the strictest adherence to facts–even going so far as to call compression and composite characters a violation of principles of creative nonfiction.
Brown University’s Susan Kushner Resnick who spent 25 years as a journalist, where truth is truth is truth, argued that, life is messy and it’s the author’s job to work around the messiness. While I agree with this statement, I was surprised techniques like composite characters and compression were considered to be betrayals rather than tools. They became examples of imposing order on messy life, but isn’t that what this craft is about, to some extent? Isn’t that part of the art?
Philip Gerard, UNC-Wilmington’s writing program director, proposed that facts are constantly manipulated to create a specific narrative. He used his latest project, serialized narratives of the Civil War in North Carolina to showcase the difference between “documented creative nonfiction” and a fact-bending narrative a la Gone With the Wind. There’s a difference though between propaganda pieces and artful storytelling, and between making up facts and shaping them to create a story.
Pitt’s Peter Trachtenberg, who has “never openly invented anything,” said his book, The Book of Calamities, is straight journalism because “they were their facts, not my facts and I can’t dick around with them constantly.” And we’re back to square one. Whose story can we tell as CNFers? Are we only memoirists and not literary journalists? For Trachtenberg, the most odious violation is twisting someone else’s life. A valid point, and yet adhering to a journalistic can’t be the answer. Writers like McPhee, Capote and Susan Orlean have shown us that.
Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, argued the confusion lies with the “creative” part of CNF and addressed the verification of facts. Every statement of fact in her book was verified because her book, she said, was about what happens when the misinformation of fact continues.
So what did the panelists have to say about memoir, that form which relies on memory and reconstructed scenes and dialogue. The tall order of if it can’t be documented, they prefer it not be put into print. “Why make a specific scene? You get into trouble where scenes don’t naturally exist,” said Skloot. Resnick used her current memoir project as an example. When talking to someone who will be in it, she dashes off to the bathroom to take notes. While a good practice, I’m not sure how it applies to past events.
Resnick believes it would be good if there were some standards for CNF, but who would set them and what would they be? The panel seems to assert themselves as purists of CNF, who feel any modification in their eyes is a disservice to the genre. Who will be the arbitrators of these standards? Wouldn’t any type of construction, using this logic, not be the whole truth? Why not just show transcripts and raw data? Otherwise they’re not telling the whole truth either, according to these standards.