“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.”