Is true fiction just true fraud?

A recent piece in the Columbia Journalism Review set me on edge. In “The Rise of True Fiction,” my colleague Alissa Quart writes about a trend she perceives in the literary landscape: “an increase in the blurring of neat and certain categories of ‘fiction’ and ‘nonfiction’ into something that we might call ‘true fiction.’”

I would recommend the essay to anyone practicing fiction, nonfiction, or memoir, with some caveats.

Quart launches her column by discussing The Hurt Locker, a fictional action-movie whose “forensic, formalist style” she writes, aligns it with documentaries or biopics. (The film is rooted in a deeply reported article originally published in Playboy, and its author worked hand-in-glove with the film’s director.) Then Quart mentions books whose authors do the deep reporting, then depart from strict facts in their books—for example, A.D.: New Orleans after the Deluge, by Josh Neufeld, What Is the What, by Dave Eggers, and Half Broke Horses, by Jeannette Walls. The latter calls her recent book about her grandmother a “true life novel.”

So far, I’m with Quart. The list of writers who report or conduct historical research and then write fiction based on real-life stories is long and broad: in addition to the trio Quart mentions (Orwell, Capote, Mailer), there are Mark Twain (whose reporting set up his satire), John Steinbeck (whose journalism informed The Grapes of Wrath), and contemporary novelists whose deep historical research makes their fiction come alive, like David Guterson (Snow Falling on Cedars), and Ian McEwan (Atonement). And let’s not forget Shakespeare, whose history plays were based on the lives of English kings and used events like The Wars of the Roses as departure points.

It’s when Quart starts talking about nonfiction that I begin to quibble. Or, in certain cases, quake. She makes the surprising assertion that “the category ‘nonfiction’ no longer has the frisson it once did or the assurance that a book or film will sell.” Tell that to Dexter Filkins, whose balancing of journalistic restraint and downright eloquence found expression in The Forever War. Or to Anne Hull, whose reporting on Walter Reed won her the Pulitzer, among other awards. Or to Adam Hochschild, whose King Leopold’s Ghost hardly disappeared into remainder bins.

(And when has there ever been “assurance” that an important work of nonfiction would find a commercial audience?)

Quart, who is a fellow this year at the Nieman Foundation, where I teach narrative journalism, quotes another colleague, Andrea Pitzer, the editor of the Narrative Digest: “The newshole for narrative nonfiction is shrinking,” Pitzer says. “You have to have a lot of dazzle to get it published at all. Letting the work go over a little to fiction lets it be more salable.”

The newshole may indeed be shrinking, but no editor I know would prefer a piece, however dazzling, that departed from fact over one with startling news or insight. There is a big difference between letting work “go over a little to fiction” and borrowing the techniques of fiction, which is, I suspect, what Pitzer meant. (Full discloser: I was the editor of the Digest for two years; Pitzer succeeded me.)

But since when are those techniques—plotting a drama, crafting character, describing scenes, capturing dialogue, parceling out details to heighten suspense, finding a narrative voice—the province of fiction anyway? Most of us consider them just elements of great writing, any great writing.

Quart says hipster online editor Larry Smith suggests that the graphic novel A.D. is just journalism in a new guise, and she quotes John D’Agata, the editor of the new anthology The Lost Origins of the Essay, who asks “Do we read nonfiction in order to receive information, or do we read it to experience art?”

Perhaps the problem is the word nonfiction, which may be so broad as to blur some important lines. I would argue that we indeed read journalism—news stories, whether told in a straight news style or in an artful narrative style—for information, and we want that information to be credible and fair. We read narrative journalism—factual stories told using writerly (not fictional) techniques like plot, suspense, description, and artful language—for information, too; it tells us something important about our world. And we read essays and even blogs for the ideas of their writers. Art—and certainly artfulness—can surface into any of these forms, but the primary reason to read nonfiction is to learn factual truths about our world.

Memoir, one the other hand, is a form that does slide away from reported facts and toward remembered impressions. That, indeed, we read for its emotional rather than factual truths.

In the end, perhaps we blur lines by lumping a variety of genres writing into the binary categories of “fiction” and “nonfiction.”

—Constance Hale

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11 Responses to Is true fiction just true fraud?

  1. Andrea Pitzer November 30, 2009 at 1:34 pm #

    Hi, Connie,

    A little background on my comments for Alissa Quart’s CJR piece, which were specifically related to authors producing researched fiction rather than journalism. As you guessed, I was in no way advocating that journalists make the leap to fiction. The salability reference was taken from a larger discussion about what impressions, false or true, might be motivating some writers to cross over. Not surprisingly, I remain a fan of well-researched, well-written narrative nonfiction.

  2. Mackenzie Kelly September 2, 2012 at 7:47 pm #

    “‘nonfiction’ no longer has the frisson it once did…”
    When I see a word that I don’t know, I perk up. Frisson did the trick for me tonight. My first guess was frisson=clout or maybe importance. So I went to the dictionary.
    frisson=shiver of excitement
    So I say not the right word and move on.

  3. Mackenzie Kelly September 9, 2012 at 1:26 pm #

    No 1 “Try a little frisson…” did not regester when I posted No3. Is it any wonder that I no longer drive?

  4. Camille Cusumano September 13, 2013 at 12:32 pm #

    Hi Connie,
    Love your whole website. How about the converse (or is it reverse?) form: “faux memoir.” I’ve long wanted to bring this genre to light, or out of the dark. Tell the truth, even if you have to make it up – got that saying from a Bazooka bubble gum comic.

  5. Constance Hale September 13, 2013 at 3:37 pm #

    Love the idea of “faux memoir.” What books or essays would you say are examples of the form?

    • Camille Cusumano September 16, 2013 at 11:53 am #

      Connie, the term “faux memoir” came to me years ago as a more accurate description of my novel, The Last Cannoli. Although much of it is imagined, it is strongly based on what really happened. And the characters match up suspiciously close to the real models. I read Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments and loved it. Yet she took a lot of flack for saying one of her tertiary characters was a “composite.” I didn’t have any problem with that, but Maureen Corrigan excoriated her to no end. I listen to a lot of the neuroscientitsts and their explanation of memory and the more I hear about what happens and the way we remember it, the more I think, yeah, we’re making it (the so-called truth or “facts”) up, know it or not. Could lead to a feisty debate.

    • Mackenzie Kelly September 17, 2013 at 6:47 am #

      James Joyce’ Ulysses is the ultimate Faux Fiction/Memoir. Only one day featuring real people and had a difficult time being publish in Ireland.

  6. Connie Hale September 17, 2013 at 9:24 am #

    Peter Orner definitely writes fiction, but he toys with real characters, real events, the effect memory has in refracting all these. I’ll see if I can get him to weigh in. I just finished his most recent book of short stories, Last Car over the Sagamore Bridge, last night. I feel bereft. Already started reading certain ones a second or third time. (Some are less than a page long, which makes returning to them far from onerous.)

  7. Camille Cusumano October 5, 2013 at 1:18 pm #

    Just came across this relevant quote:
    “I am led to the proposition that there is no fiction or nonfiction as we commonly understand the distinction; there is only narrative.” E. L. Doctorow (appeared in Nora Ephron’s memoir, “I Feel Bad About my Neck.”


  1. Try a Little Frisson with Your Nonfiction | Sin and Syntax - November 28, 2009

    […] of fiction and nonfiction claims that nonfiction is losing its “frisson.” I hardly agree—see my essay in Talking Story—but if you need further convincing, go no further than the NYT’s top […]

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