Friday, January 02, 2009

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Fact, or fiction?

We generally take it for granted, when we read books, that non-fiction is... well... non-fiction. We expect memoirs, autobiographies, to present the author-subject in a positive light, of course, and perhaps to skip a few of the less flattering details — most writers aren’t terribly eager to highlight their own failings — and truth is often open to interpretation. But basic facts are assumed to be correct; it’s where non-fiction starts.

Once in a while, though, someone crosses the line between “spin” and outright falsification. Occasionally, someone lies. In recent years, James Frey made up part of the story of his recovery from drug addiction, and Margaret Seltzer, in her memoir of growing up as a foster-child amid gangs and drugs went farther, making up the whole thing — including her racial background.

And now, a nice old man, a Holocaust survivor named Herman Rosenblat, turns out to have made up some key details about how he met his wife at the Buchenwald concentration camp:

A man whose memoir about his experience during the Holocaust was to have been published in February has admitted that his story was embellished, and on Saturday evening his publisher canceled the release of the book.

And once again a New York publisher and Oprah Winfrey were among those fooled by a too-good-to-be-true story.

This time, it was the tale of Herman Rosenblat, who said he first met his wife while he was a child imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp and she, disguised as a Christian farm girl, tossed apples over the camp’s fence to him. He said they met again on a blind date 12 years after the end of war in Coney Island and married. The couple celebrated their 50th anniversary this year.

What’s the real problem, though? It’s entertainment — can’t it be OK to add a few “facts” that didn’t really happen? Doesn’t every family have stories that are told through the years as true, though everyone knows they didn’t really happen that way?

I have three points on this.

Point one: This stuff is supposed to be non-fiction, and that matters. Readers expect to be able to trust what’s there, and they deserve to get it. It’s a violation of readers’ trust to make up details just because they sound nice.

Point two: Readers give more latitude to non-fiction, especially to autobiographical things, in terms of writing quality. If we want to read about someone’s life — say, the trials of someone trying to shake a drug habit or get away from a youth around gangs — we’re willing to accept dry or less-than-polished prose. If you want us to read a novel, you’d better be a better writer. The standards are higher for that, and it’s not fair to readers to fail to meet them and to justify it with a false claim of “reality”.

Point three, relating to this particular case: Stories dealing with the Holocaust are especially touchy. We really have to know, when we’re reading about something that emotional to that many people, what’s truth and what’s a yarn. Fiction based on the Holocaust is certainly fair, but it needs to be clear that it’s fiction.

The general point is that you have to be honest with your readers.

1 comment:

W.M. Irwin said...

I see this sort of truth-stretching as being analogous to the steroid scandals we hear about in sports: you have to get some kind of edge in what you're doing, and sometimes you may be tempted to fudge a bit in the ethics department to separate yourself from the competition. It's a shame. With information being so readily available and easy to "broadcast" over the Internet (as you are so aptly doing with your blog), I see our society undergoing a major change in the area of writing and communications. And it's running smack-dab in the face of traditonal book publishing and the hypercompetition for public recognition of one's literary works. Scandals like the ones you mentioned will just hasten the revolution in publishing and literature, in my very humble opinion.