An argument can be made that there's no such thing as nonfiction.
Look at the debate over global warming or the split between Republicans and Democrats. Given the same access to sources and a set of seemingly verifiable facts, people can and do reach wildly different conclusions.
That perception shapes reality is a basic premise of psychology. Writers or documentary filmmakers gather information, which they interpret based on their knowledge, experience and biases. They make a good-faith effort to present their findings as objective, but even if they succeed, their products are individualized in the minds of readers or observers.
That's nothing new. The slippery nature of truth has long consumed armchair philosophers.
What is new, or at least newish, is that the line between fiction and nonfiction is blurrier than ever.
“How does one inform the other?” asked George Getschow, director of The Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference, July 20-22 in Texas, during a recent visit to The Oklahoman. “How can we as journalists who have worked primarily with one form make the leap? What can be achieved by doing that?”
In March, NPR's acclaimed “This American Life” program issued a lengthy retraction. The program had aired an excerpt of Mike Daisey's one-man show, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” which focused on Daisey's visit to a Chinese factory manufacturing Apple products.
Daisey had, it seems, fabricated details large and small — making up sources, conflating stories he'd heard with things he'd actually seen. On and on. NPR dedicated an entire program to clearing up Daisey's inaccuracies.
Then NPR had a crisis of conscience. What was true, and what was fiction? The crisis crystallized around David Sedaris, whose hilarious and vulgar account of working as one of Santa's elves at Macy's has become a popular NPR Christmas tradition.
Sedaris' talent has never been in question; he has authored several well-received collections of essays, ostensibly nonfiction, about his unusual upbringing and experiences. He has read many of them out loud for NPR, using his distinctive nasal voice and inflections to create memorable radio.
But are his stories true?
As early as 2007, The New Republic reviewed some of his essays and found that he had made up scenes and developed composite characters; the magazine argued that Sedaris' work should not be considered nonfiction. The criticism largely was ignored; Sedaris was so over the top, most responded, that readers and listeners knew they were getting hyperbole.
After the Daisey incident, though, NPR reconsidered.
“The immediate question is whether Sedaris's stories are, strictly speaking, true — an important consideration for journalistic organizations such as NPR and programs such as ‘This American Life,'” The Washington Post reported. “A secondary consideration is what, if any, kind of disclosure such programs owe their listeners when broadcasting Sedaris' brand of humor.
“Then there's this: Does it matter whether a humorous writer, working on a news or nonfiction program, makes stuff up?”
Apparently it does. Sedaris' Christmas tale, “SantaLand Diaries,” will continue to air on NPR — as fiction. His contributions to “This American Life” will be fact-checked.
The issue isn't unique to NPR.
Among the 35 or so high-powered speakers at the upcoming Mayborn Conference is Tom Junod, who writes for Esquire magazine. Among his stories is a 2001 profile on R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe.
“Approximately half of the 7,000-word article is fiction,” Andrew Hearst wrote of the piece on Mediabistro.com. “Yes, when Junod arrived in Los Angeles to interview his subject, Stipe didn't feel like talking, though he occasionally let Junod follow him around like a puppy.
“Instead of calling Granger (his editor) and telling him there was no story, Junod forged ahead, concocting a draft in which Stipe eats sugar straight from a jar, puts pennies over his eyes when he sleeps, takes Junod along on a trip to the Hoover Dam, and claims that Kurt Cobain thought the Eagles were ‘a great American band.' None of these things happened, though other parts of the article are true.”
The editors didn't learn until after reading it that much of it was fake.
They “convinced themselves that they had a clever postmodern trick on their hands,” Hearst wrote. “They decided to run the piece, flagging it with an explanation of what Junod had done. Though it's unclear in the print version of the article which parts are factual and which are not, the online version contains hyperlinked notes explaining many of the liberties Junod took with the truth.”
Getschow, the writer-in-residence at the University of North Texas, thinks Junod's technique is an “illuminating and controversial” approach to narrative journalism. In fact, much of the Mayborn Conference will focus on what nonfiction writers can learn from those who work in other genres — fiction, biography, history, memoir and more.
“Those journalists have creatively stepped out of their comfort zone and drawn upon these other forms to create stories they couldn't (otherwise) tell with such depth or meaning, the kind of stories that sear into the reader's consciousness,” Getschow said.
Which is more important: real or — as Sedaris describes his work — “real-ish”?
The answer could shape the future of “nonfiction.”