Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Truthiness and Creative Nonfiction

James Frey lied. Oprah spanked him. He took it like a man. His editor, one of the literary lights of the intelligentsia, Nan Talese by name, turned up her nose and decried Oprah's "fiercely bad manners."

I've always held the opinion any memoir -- in fact, any piece of creative nonfiction -- which relies on memory can be dissected to the point that a ... polyp of lies might be discovered.

For example, dialog. Unless we move through life with a voice recorder, we cannot recollect conversations verbatim. Nevertheless, there are few memoirs that appear without dialog. Dialog remembered. Dialog reconstructed. Dialog processed by post-conversation experience.

I enjoy reading creative nonfiction, although I concentrate more on essays than longer works.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed A Perfect Storm, which generally is perceived as creative nonfiction. I also recently re-read another book which probably is classified in the same genre -- Into Thin Air, the story of the deadly Mount Everest expedition of 1996. In fact, I've written a review for a new book Web site that will be active soon.

I don't remember much controversy regarding Into Thin Air, at least inspired by the truthiness of the writing. The author, Krakauer, was on the mountain. He was part of one of the expeditions. He had the opportunity to take notes, to write down impressions, to observe and report.

I recall, though, that The Perfect Storm inspired questions of "How could he know that?" especially as the book covered events aboard the fishing vessel Andrea Gale, which went down in the storm with all hands lost.

However, you rarely run across a book review or a commentary that confronts an author about supposed incidents of truthiness. That's what struck me about "Ladies of the Evening" by Ada Calhoun, a review of Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America’s Soul by Karen Abbott, and published recently by Random House.

Calhoun, though, never shouts Liar, liar, pants on fire! Instead we have "Like Luc Sante’s Low Life, Sin in the Second City is a lush love letter to the underworld. It’s so poetic that at times one wonders how much liberty Abbott took fleshing out the facts of scenes like this: Behind her now, talking her ear off in between indulgent swallows of Champagne, was one Vernon Shaw Kennedy.

"An endnote places Kennedy at the club that night but fails to confirm that he wasn’t in front of his companion, that he wasn’t taciturn that evening or that he wasn’t primly sipping bourbon. Still, everything feels plausible."

What does it all mean? I suppose nothing more than you cannot lie outright -- see the James Frey saga -- but that if you can write "in such detail that it’s easy to mistake this meticulously researched history for literary fiction," you may get a good review without being scolded on Oprah.

End note: irony regularly romps through life telling the odd joke or two: Nan Talese is an editor at Random House, which published Frey's tome and Sin ...

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