Liars and Pranksters and Frauds, Oh My

November 13, 2014 § 1 Comment

Le_Voyage_dans_la_lunemovieimageHere at Brevity we’re all about the truth. While some authors–notably Pam Houston in her essay “Corn Maze”–make a case for judiciously incorporating fictional elements that smooth out a narrative–we’re in favor of the tangled web of real life on the page, loose ends, messy plot lines and all.

Other journalists, not so much.

Longform has curated a collection of some of the most notable falsehoods in non-fiction: Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass and Janet Cooke, of course, but also some pieces intended as pranks, such as this gem from the New York Sun in August 1835, describing the discovery of life on the Moon:

At the foot of this boundary of hills was a perfect zone of woods surrounding the whole valley, which was about eighteen or twenty miles wide, at its greatest breadth, and about thirty in length. Small collections of trees, of every imaginable kind, were scattered about the whole of the luxuriant area; and here our magnifiers blest our panting hopes with specimens of conscious existence. In the shade of the woods on the south-eastern side, we beheld continuous herds of brown quadrupeds, having all the external characteristics of the bison, but more diminutive than any species of the bos genus in our natural history.

Equally fascinating is the level of language in the Sun’s story–the article about Dr. Herschel’s “Great Astronomical Discoveries Lately Made” is flowery beyond novels of the period, and yet this was a mass paper, a tabloid, intended for everyday reading. The life-on-the-Moon story ran as a six-day serial, and it was America’s first “media event.” The Sun sold 100,000 copies at a time when the population of New York was only 300,000.

Check out the Great Moon Hoax, and work by George Plimpton, Nik Cohn, and more, over at Longform.


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§ One Response to Liars and Pranksters and Frauds, Oh My

  • John says:

    Call me old-fashioned, but I’m of the mindset that fiction (while it may contain some truth) should be, mainly, fictional; and, non-fiction should be truthful. I get that sometimes conversations are abbreviated, or sanitized. I understand that real people may have identifying characteristics altered in order to protect their privacy. But, really, I’m not a fan of this new non-fiction where one never knows what is or isn’t true.

    I’m fine with it if there were a genre entitled “fictional non-fiction” or some such thing. That way I’d know ahead of time. The mixing of fact and fiction can be a powerful thing (James Frey’s “A Million Little Pieces” really is an amazing piece of writing.) I just don’t like the not knowing. If I’m reading a novel, I like getting lost in its made up world (now and then wondering if XYZ really happened). When I read non-fiction I like knowing that what I’m reading is as reliably true as any one-sided version of the truth can be. I don’t like having to wonder what parts are truthful or factual.

    Maybe a new genre is in order — something that alerts us that what we’re about to read resides in both realms.

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