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Mayborn conference to focus on line between fiction, nonfiction

The upcoming Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference will focus in part on the blurry line between fiction and nonfiction.
by Ken Raymond Published: June 19, 2012

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.

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by Ken Raymond
Book Editor
Ken Raymond is the book editor. He joined The Oklahoman in 1999. He has won dozens of state, regional and national writing awards. Three times he has been named the state's "overall best" writer by the Society of Professional Journalists. In...
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