Shame, Guilt and Disfigurement: Ethical quandaries in nonfiction writing

Shame, Guilt and Disfigurement:
Ethical quandaries in nonfiction writing

by Steinar Ellingsen (La Trobe Uni 2007)


At the end of the 19th century a counterpart genre to traditional hardcopy journalism emerged – the “human-interest story as a social parable.”[1] Matthew Arnold eventually coined the term ‘New Journalism’ in 1887. He used it to describe the style of another contemporary Victorian social reporter, W. T. Stead, and his Pall Mall Gazette. Arnold’s conservative view regarded the writing as “brash, vivid, personal, reform-minded [and] ‘featherbrained.’”[2]

Almost a century later, the magazine culture of the 60s and 70s rediscovered this form of journalistic expression. It was a time of turmoil, but also the height of the American industrial era. Mass-production brought on rapid changes in society, which made old principles of representation somewhat outdated. David Eason writes:

Cultural criticism focused on how the self might find its bearing in a society characterized by a breakdown in consensus about manners and morals and by the permeation of everyday life by a mass-produced image-world. The relationship between image and reality was not holding, and the impact of this development was reflected in journalism as well. A New Journalism emerged in magazines and in books to give shape to many of the cultural changes while revitalizing reporting as a form of storytelling.[3]

In the book The New Journalism (1973), Tom Wolfe was the first to present a collection of essays that identified the characteristics of his generation of writers. In the introduction he critiques conventional journalism as well as traditional fiction in order to carve out the distinctions of his account of New Journalism. Although the definitions he offers are vague, to say the least, they all relate to the notion of the human interest story and the needs for a new approach to best reflect real life. Scene-by-scene construction, “resorting as little as possible to sheer historical narrative;” extensive use of dialogue; clearly expressing point of view, while changing viewpoint between (narrator and) characters; and, recording close details about people’s “status life” (behaviour, possessions, attitudes…) – these are the tenets of New Journalism according to Wolfe.[4]

Marc Weingarten looks particularly to the emerging American New Journalists in the 1960s onwards in search of a more nuanced definition:

Is New Journalism the participatory ‘gonzo’ journalism of Hunter S. Thompson? Jimmy Breslin’s impressionistic rogue’s tales? Tom Wolfe’s jittery gyroscope prose? The answer is that it’s journalism that reads like fiction and rings with the truth of reported fact. It is […] the art of fact.[5]

In discussing the related topics of New Journalism, Literary journalism, creative nonfiction, or, narrative journalism, definitions are still somewhat vague and contradictory. Born of a marriage between the conventions of traditional news reporting and of literary fiction, it is the characteristics of the latter which strike the sceptic. Fact, of course, is the crucial distinction from fiction and, it is also the crucial issue in the contemporary ethics debate concerning all the various forms under the banner of nonfiction.

In the first section of this paper, I will consider some of the common features of the new journalism and then move on to the ethical debate surrounding nonfiction writing. I want to discuss the role of the authors immersed in this process: their obligations to their subjects, to their readers and to themselves. I do so because I find awareness of these issues is crucial to every nonfiction writer with half a conscience.

The basic features of literary journalism

You know the drill – stories rooted in immersion reporting that move through time; develop character; use real-life action; scene, dialogue, and detail to bring them to life; that have a narrative story arc and that aim to feel like short fiction.

Walt Harrington[6]

Norman Sims expands on Wolfe’s description of the new journalism and gets a little closer to the bone structure. He too offers four characteristics of the new journalism – describing these as “the boundaries of the form.”[7] These characteristics are the reporter’s requirements for immersion, structure,voice and accuracy. These terms are still vague as far as defining a genre goes and, apart from immersion; the features could apply to any given journalistic endeavour. The major difference relates back to the time spent on the job, and the ways in which the literary journalist gets to know his subjects, and the amount of information he holds about their private lives.


Sims writes, “For most literary journalists, understanding begins with emotional connection, but quickly leads to immersion.”[8] The journalists often take on a role similar to that of an ethnographer, by participating in the scene they are investigating. Eventually they will spend so much time with their subjects that they somehow become part of the tribe, if only for a given amount of time. In order to do this, the journalists must become familiar, not only with their subjects, but also with their subjects’ surroundings in order to best understand their personality in reflection to their natural environment.

According to Sims, gaining the subjects’ trust is vital to the journalist. Initially to get the go-ahead for any given story, but also to make participants ‘let their guards down,’ and show their true selves. Truman Capote spent almost six years researching In Cold Blood – from the arrest of the killers of the Clutter family of Holocomb, Kansas, in late 1959 until their hanging in April 1965. Capote recalls, “It wasn’t a question of my liking Dick [Hickock]and Perry [Smith], that’s like saying ‘Do you like yourself?’ What mattered was
I knew them, as well as I know myself.”[9]

The writer must realise how to best adapt to the circumstances of his research,while digging far beyond the usual interview situation. It is a time-consuming practice. Mark Kramer, author of Invasive Procedures, explains:

You have to stay around a long time before people will let you get to know them […] They‘re guarded the first time and second time and the first ten times. Then you get boring. They forget you’re there. Or else, they’ve had a chance to make you into something in their world. They make you into a surgical resident or they make you into a farmhand or a member of the family. And you let it happen.[10]

You let it happen because you must in order to get your story, one way or another. We get to know our subjects deeply and emotionally and, like ethnographers, we should be able to define our participants’ social positions within their community and, the larger whole. We get to see through their weaknesses, and discover their personal flaws. This knowledge can be hard to transfer onto paper without remorse. Carolyn Wells Kraus speaks from personal experience and draws a parallel with Michelangelo’s The Last Judgement. In a dark corner of the painting, Bartholomew holds an empty human skin. The skin is the painter’s own. “This image,” writes Kraus, “reminds me that to write about people is always to disfigure them.” Kraus describes a nauseating feeling of unworthiness about the task of serving her subjects justice when she paints their lives on paper. She further explains this awareness as one particular reason for an element of autobiography in nonfiction:

It’s a presumption rather like attempting to paint God […] each time I suck someone’s life onto the page, I feel like sticking my finger down my throat. And each time I vow this time will be the last.[11]

But, there is no redemption in attempting to ‘airbrush’ the truth. As Tom Wolfe so duly remarked some 30 years ago, when reporters stay with people long enough, we will inevitably develop some sort of personal relationship. And this is the root cause of the moral dilemma we face when transcribing our empirical evidence:

For many reporters this presents a more formidable problem than penetrating the particular scene in the first place. They become stricken with a sense of guilt, responsibility, obligation […] People who become overly sensitive on this score should never take up the new style of journalism.[12]


A broader definition

Thomas B. Connery provides a contradiction to Sims’ requirement of immersion, stating that making immersion optional, “allows for a broader, yet legitimate, application of the definition, as well as the identification of two categories of literary journalism.”[13] Connery uses particular works by Tom Wolfe (“The Girl Who Has Everything”), Stephen Crane (“The Broken-Down Van”) and Ernest Hemingway (“A New Kind of War”) as examples of pieces that have been written without the reporter’s actual presence on the scene. These works all depict human behaviour; they largely depend on the ability to portray scenes from real life and, they “attempt to freeze actuality.”[14] Further, they rely on extensive enough research, to recreate real details from the actual scene, and to function within the framework of nonfiction.

Andrea Lorenz’s essay, When You Weren’t There: How Reporters Recreate Scenes for Narrative, expands on Connery’s assertation. Lorenz describes how Pulitzer Prize winner Tom French recreated a funeral scene for his narrative series Angels and Demons, which won a Pulitzer Prize. The funeral had taken place years before French’s report. Through extensive interviews with attendees, and the use of a tape-recording from the service, French was able to recreate a detailed account of the interment, describing what people were wearing, what pictures and flowers were present and the sight of news reporters flocking outside the church. With the help of a bird specialist, French even managed to pinpoint that the birds you could hear in the background on the tape were sparrows.

As the reporter had undertaken such detailed background research, Lorenz asks, “Do we care if Tom French was there at the funeral?”[15] In this regard, I would even argue that by undertaking such extensive background research, the reporter is indeed immersed in the elements of his story, even if he was not actually present. In any case, when using participant observation as a methodology, it is impossible to be on scene at all times. Journalists must somehow fill in the blanks. The result ultimately rests on our ability to
accommodate an appropriate position on the scene, combined with extensive research and the capacity to analyse different viewpoints. A.J. Liebling once said, “A good reporter, if he [sic] chooses the right approach, can understand a cat or an Arab. The choice is the problem, and if he chooses wrong he will come away scratched or baffled.”[16]

Voice and Structure

The most gifted writers are those who manipulate the memory sets of the reader in such a rich fashion that they create within the mind of the reader an entire world that resonates with the reader’s own real emotions.

Tom Wolfe[17]

The following quote is taken from Lillian Ross’s Portrait of Hemingway, which appeared in the New Yorker. The scene is from a trip to the Metropolitan art gallery in New York, with Hemingway and his son Patrick:

“Here’s what I like, Papa,” Patrick said and Hemingway joined his son in front of ‘Portrait of Frederigo Gonzaga (1500 – 1540),’ by Francesco Francia. It shows against a landscape, a small boy with long hair and a cloak. “This is what we try to write, Mousie,” Hemingway said, pointing to the trees in the background. “We always have this in when we write.”[18]

As much as the quote is a (small) example of Ross’s typical camera-eye style, it more importantly highlights Hemingway’s occupation with background details in a composition – a feature that seems consistent in all creative nonfiction works. The facts in the foreground somehow speak for themselves. Two different portraits share the same obvious motive – the person and what he looks like. The details in the backdrop are what make them thematically different, and what bring scenes to life – like props on a film set, or sound- and visual effects. Surroundings also communicate to the spectator a sense of setting and context. Thus, the details provide a larger understanding of who the person (or group) in the portrait really is, as well as what he represents. It is up to the writers to include and emphasize particular details in their composition, in accordance with what best suits their narrative. Similar details can provide fundamentally different narratives.

When Tom Wolfe wrote The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, one of his secondary sources was Hunter S. Thompson’s research from his prior book, Hell’s Angels. One chapter in the Acid Test recreates a festive, but tumultuous, meeting between Ken Kesey’s ‘Merry Pranksters’ and Hell’s Angels at Kesey’s La Honda estate. In Wolfe’s book, the reader gets the impression that he was physically present, but it was in fact Thompson’s first-hand account – his notes and audiotapes – that provided the basis for a controversial scene, in which several bikers rape a girl.[19] Wolfe and Thompson’s narrative arcs crossed paths, and for a moment they describe the same scene. But, their spotlights are on different people who share the same stage.


Dick dropped the binoculars into a leather case, a luxurious receptacle initialed H.W.C. He was annoyed. Annoyed as hell. ‘Why the hell couldn’t Perry shut up?’[20]

Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood


For In Cold Blood, Truman Capote aimed to reconstruct the violent events in Kansas – and their aftermath – by applying the all-knowing third person voice into what he famously called the “nonfiction novel.”[21] He adapted the chronological structure of John Hersey’s Hiroshima, which enabled Capote to build a narrative that delved deep into the stories of everybody involved in the case, including the killers; the victim family Clutters; police; and, other local citizens. Capote relied heavily on his sources in order to create scenes so real they read like fiction. Nobody questioned Capote’s legwork – the inhumane amount of time he spent researching his piece. However, New Yorker editor William Shawn met his writing with great scepticism. Shawn felt uneasy about running the story because of the introspection Capote imposed on his characters. Even after the publication’s fact-checkers gave the story a green light, Shawn felt the prose was too daring and made the piece seem too speculative for the publication’s pronounced pride in accuracy. But, in argument, it is exactly this element that makes the story so comprehensible – and, stylistically, also what provides the feel of fiction.

Lillian Ross’s characteristic camera-eye approach provides a good contrast to Capote’s psychological examinations. Ross never ventures inside anyone’s heads. Her uncontested art is the ability to memorize and recite long conversations. And, her characters’ are vividly brought to life, beyond words of dialogue, by her extraordinary ability to record and describe particular tones of voice, actions or gestures. It can be tempting to exaggerate a situation to make a story more interesting. But, as the sentiment of Ross’s work teaches us; a camera cannot choose to add or remove details in a picture.

Two categories

David Eason supplies further characteristics of the genre by making distinctions between two kinds of nonfiction writing – the realist (including writers such as Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote, and Lillian Ross) and the modernist (Joan Didion, Norman Mailer, Hunter S. Thompson…). Although the two strands may deal with similar topics there are ways in which the two differ. Eason writes: “In realist reports, the dominant function of the narrative is to reveal an interpretation; in modernist reports it is to show how an interpretation is constructed.”[22]

Realist reports present their topic as a subject for contemplation. The values of the writer are not necessarily expressed, but rather assumed. Tom Wolfe’s first encounter with Ken Kesey and the Pranksters is an example of this. The setting is Kesey’s return from serving a prison sentence:

“Despite the scepticism I brought here, I am suddenly experiencing their feeling. […] I feel like I am in on something the outside world, the world I came from, could not possibly comprehend.”[23]

Rather than by natural experience, the realist writer takes on the outsider’s perspective, and never really leaves it. The reader is invited to join the writer in an act of observation. Realist writing thus relies on conventional methods in order to construct the impression of how images of reality do not correspond with their subjects’ experience. Eason writes:

[For realists] exploring these alternative realities poses no threat to the reporter’s faith that they can discover, comprehend and communicate the real […] The disorder of society is only apparent and the reporter is still able to state, “That’s the way it is.”[24]

Modernists focus instead on “the contradictions that emerge at the intersection of various maps of experience.”[25] While realist reporters invest their endeavour in traditional methods to penetrate the image-world and reveal the truth behind it, modernists look for other means to express themselves, in ways that join the reader and the writer together in lived experience. This writer-reader relationship becomes a way of constructing a new reality, within a framework of cultural relativism, in which moral standards and popular notions of truth are far from absolute. Traditional ways of understanding the image world are beyond outdated and, to modernists, the notion of an objective reality is itself a fictional construction.

Hunter S. Thompson’s hallucinogenic search for ‘the American Dream’ in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a clear manifestation of a notion of the anti-real. In an ‘attempt’ at covering a motorbike race in the Nevada desert, Thompson ends up in a drunken haze accompanied by the madness of dangerous drugs. He focuses on America’s national playground, the awful neon-nightmare that is Las Vegas, in which “reality itself is too twisted.” As an example of its characteristic nihilism, Thompson describes an experience at the Circus-Circus casino as something “the whole hep world would be doing if the Nazis had won the war. This is the sixth Reich.”[26]

A few years earlier Thompson had been part of Hell’s Angels for a year while researching the book by the same name. The resulting narrative is high-powered, swift, and the trip with the Angels share many similarities with the acid trip in Vegas a few years later. Thompson and the Angels run into paranoid cops and civilians who feel threatened and outraged by their presence. Thompson regards this paranoia as a result of media representations, which are far removed from the truth. Thompson points to several journalistically fabricated stories in which unsolved incidents were blamed on the bikers. He accuses federal reports of being based on fictional data. Although he does ponder the probability of some events being linked to the Angels, he opposes the face given to them by the media who make them out to be the biggest worry in American society. Thompson points to official statistics that prove the Angels are only a minor part of the American underworld and not at all any worse than any other criminal subculture. In Thompson’s view, singular incidents are being used to blacklist an entire culture. He also offers the reader a reason for some of the gang members’ behaviour: The Hell’s Angels are outcasts, they are “scarcely in demand” in the workforce, and have little or no prospect of ever being accepted by ‘normal’ society. They have chosen to live by the Angels’ codes, because the gang’s basic ideology fits their own worldview.

Thompson writes:

A man who has blown all his options can’t afford the luxury of changing his ways. He has to capitalize on whatever he has left, and he can’t afford to admit […] that every day of his life takes him farther and farther down a blind alley… Very few toads in this world are Prince Charmings in disguise. Most are simply toads… and they are going to stay that way… Toads don’t make laws or change any basic structures, but one or two rooty insights can work powerful changes in the way they get through life. A toad who believes he got a raw deal before he even knew who was dealing will usually be sympathetic to the mean, vindictive ignorance that colors the Hell’s Angels’ view of humanity. There is not much mental distance between a feeling of having been screwed and the ethic of total retaliation, or at least the random revenge that comes with outraging the public decency.[27]

Thompson’s consistent use of a self-reflexive voice helps the reader relate to the experience in a different way that goes beyond the popularly accepted ‘reality-image’ of the Angels and of Las Vegas. In doing this, Thompson moves towards a postmodern attitude in which there is no objective truth – there are only statements that reflect individual experience. If realists are saying ‘look, this is how the world works,’ then perhaps we can say that modernists are replying ‘No! This is how the world doesn’t work, and this is how I see it!’

Whether the literary voice is that of an extravagant master of empathy like Capote; a chemically enhanced, self-affirming, Hunter S. Thompson-type; or, an observing camera-eye aka Lillian Ross, the presence of the writer is a consistent feature in all nonfiction works. It has to be, because the writer of any form of nonfiction, like an academic essayist, must couple and evaluate sources and findings. And, the quality of the end product heavily depends on the writer’s ability to create and mediate the contrasts between experience and analysis of viewpoint.

Accuracy and Ethics; the Journalist’s Responsibility

“What are you doing now?” Barger asked. ‘Are you writing something else?’

‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘A book.’

He shrugged. ‘Well, we don’t ask for nothin’ but the truth. Like I say, there’s not much good you can write about us, but I don’t see where that gives people the right to just make up stuff… all this bullshit, hell, ain’t the truth bad enough for ‘em?’

Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels[28]

“When a journalist undertakes to quote a subject he [sic] has interviewed on tape, he owes it to the subject, no less than the reader, to translate his speech into prose,” writes Janet Malcolm.[29] But, where do we draw the line between fact and fiction? Carolyn Wells Kraus observes the inescapable distortion of meaning, when reporters take quotes out of their natural context and onto paper. Two journalists working with the exact same material will ultimately construct two different narratives and might simultaneously, for their subjects, stir an equal feeling of being betrayed. It can happen despite their careful recording of details and dedication to accuracy.[30]

History shows a long tradition of ‘bending’ or ‘appropriating’ facts and making composite scenes and characters to fit a writer’s narrative. That Capote invented scenes to compel his own artistic flair in his nonfiction novel is a broadly accepted. And, like Capote, Tom Wolfe vigorously imposed internal voices in his characters in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil – which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1995 – was full of composites and invented details. ‘Fakery for art’s sake,’ has a long tradition, as explained by Marc Weingarten:

Orwell admired Dickens’ talent for telling small lies in order to emphasize what he regards as a big truth […] This was to become a tenet of New Journalism three decades later – blurring facts and characters together like a water colorist, to arrive at some greater emotional or philosophical truth.[31]

In this regard, let it be noted that there are various degrees of omissions. And, there is a definite distinction between omission and forgery, as in the extreme cases of dishonesty a-la Janet Cooke, Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass. Janet Cooke’s Jimmy’s World was a Pulitzer Prize winning story about an eight-year-old heroin addict.[32] The story proved to be entirely made up and she was quickly fired from the Washington Post. Jayson Blair’s serial forgerry led to the resignation of two of the New York Times’ top editors, Howell Raines and Gerald Boyd.[33] Similarly, Stephen Glass’s relentless search for credit and fame not only got him fired, but put several high-profiled publications in a terrible light – The New Republic, George Magazine, Harper’s and Rolling Stone, amongst others – and, got trusting colleagues into serious trouble.

Eventually forgery will be revealed. What all the discredited writers seem to have forgot in their bids for attention is that there is more than just their personal reputation at stake. We must consider the people we are writing for, as well as the people we are writing about. A good thing in postmodern times is we have more tools to detect such illegitimate conduct than before. This does not, however, mean that the state of the art is any worse than before, simply because the number of detected frauds have risen considerably. This increase in numbers of cases can simply be reflective of the emergence of new fact-checking tools, allowed by New Media and the Internet.

And, let us not forget, there are several contemporary examples of writers who stick to the rules successfully. H.G. “Buzz” Bissinger is one of these prime examples. A regular writer for high profiled magazines, including Vanity Fair, Bissinger’s achievements in book form speak for themselves. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1987, in the category for investigative reporting, for a series on the Philadelphia court system. Friday Night Lights received great critical acclaim, withstood all verification processes, and has been made into a Hollywood film and a TV series. It is a politically loaded nonfiction story about the 1988 American football season, seen through the eyes of the coach of a Texan High School Football team.

Bissinger is also a key figure in the ethics debate – querying the fundamental ideals of nonfiction. He has done the legwork and understands the quandaries of nonfiction writers well:

More and more, the public expects nonfiction books to […] have that perfect, seamless storytelling quality. That’s an impossibly high bar […] if you’re trying to get it right, you really do suffer with the facts you have. Believe me, I went through a lot of days of depression and self-doubt, but one thing I wasn’t going to do is make it up.[34]

Recently, Bissinger wrote an article for Vanity Fair, on the lawsuit involving Augusten Burroughs’s controversial memoirs Running with Scissors. The book spent more than two years on the New York Times bestseller list, and was recently made into a Hollywood blockbuster. Burrough’s story is a tale of a terrible childhood, involving himself and his foster family, the Turcottes (renamed “the Finches” in the book). Bissinger’s article not only reminds writers that their subjects are likely to ram them with a two-ton lawsuit, he also enters memoirs into the realm of the nonfiction debate:

It is the fact that these stories are presented as true, which Burroughs has confirmed over and over in interviews, that has made the book so hugely successful.[35]

Burroughs and his publisher have denied all allegations. The author himself said that it is “painful to have your childhood questioned, to have the experiences you went through […] questioned […] I hoped that they would recognize themselves and love it.” Needless to say, they didn’t. The Turcotte family’s filed lawsuit sings a different song:

The book […] falsely portrays’ the Turcotte family as an ‘unhygienic and mentally unstable cult engaged in bizarre, and, at times, criminal activity. In so doing, the author, with the full complicity of the publisher, literally has fabricated events that never happened and manufactured conversations that never occurred.’[36]

Burroughs’s next book, Dry, has a disclaimer note that reads ‘Certain episodes are imaginative recreations, and those episodes are not intended to portray actual events.’ In response to Burrough’s disclaimer, Washington Post critic Jonathan Yardley wrote: “There’s a word for that: fiction.”[37]

There are further dilemmas that arise from the case of Augusten Burroughs’s memoirs, beside the question of whether or not he is telling the truth about his childhood. If writers are to claim their work as true and accurate, there are certain guidelines and norms to be followed. Burroughs did not let the Turcotte family know that he was writing a book about them. In fact, they did not realise it until long after the book was on the Times’ bestseller list. A disclaimer informing readers that ‘the names and other identifying characteristics of the persons included in this memoir have been changed,’ provides little justice to subjects whose personal information is displayed so detailed that you could almost pinpoint their exact address. It is even worse when the people involved in the narrative don’t know they have been written about until after a significant portion of their country’s literary aficionados are already sharing their dark secrets over a cuppa at a local tavern, at their neighbours’ house, or in hoards in front of the silver screen.

Janet Malcolm tells a different story about the writer-subject relationship in her book The Journalist and the Murderer. In the 1980s, writer Joe McGinniss was sued by Jeffrey MacDonald – a convicted murderer – for unethical conduct. McGinniss had pulled some heartstrings in his subject to make him tell the story, as he, the writer, wanted it. McGinniss thoroughly penetrated MacDonald’s social sphere and even made use of his private facilities when writing the story. During the course of writing, McGinniss had sent several letters to MacDonald while he was on trial for the murder of his pregnant wife and daughters. In the letters McGinniss strongly supported MacDonald’s alleged innocence. But, when the story was finally published, after he was convicted, it revealed that the writer had been of quite a contrary opinion all along. After a hung jury, McGinniss and his publishers eventually paid MacDonald a settlement of over $300,000 US.[38] I guess, in McGinniss’s place, a disclaimer note of any sort would have been of little help. And, it reminds us that the same caution must be applied to any nonfiction research setting. Convicted murderers are people too, at least in a libel suit.

As nonfiction writers there are several traps we need to avoid. We are supposed to remember fact, but must not be too certain about our memory’s ability to recreate the truth. When in doubt, we must crosscheck our references. Even then, we are on thin ice, because then we must trust the memory of our sources, and therefore should, ideally, check them even further. The real problem, as stated by Kraus, is that you are borrowing other people’s identities to tell your own personal story. “We fill in the outlines from the details. All we know of the world as writers is what we see – images, words, scenes. We supply the meaning, and we alter that meaning with every sleight of hand.”[39]


Truth is a Physical Reality

The writer of nonfiction is under contract to the reader to limit himself to events that actually occurred and to characters who have counterparts in real life, and he may not embellish the truth about these events or these characters.[40]

Janet Malcolm

It takes time to gather all details, and huge amounts of effort. It is a long and crooked road to walk, under constant pressure. You have got to get it right. If you can’t, there are certain ways of making particular details so vague that ultimately all your sources will agree to some extent. Needless to say, this is far from ideal for anyone and does not serve the purpose of your mission particularly well.

Nonfiction writers put a lot at stake when investing a big part of their lives in a single story that can ultimately go pear-shaped. We might not get access to crucial sources; subjects can withdraw from participation, or choose to run their story with other writers; editors expect a good end result. The list could grow long. But, unless we are fully dedicated to the cause, we run the risk of letting art win over accuracy. Walt Harrington reminds us:

We aren’t trying only to tell a good story. We’re trying to chronicle and illuminate the world, take readers into the lives of people they would never meet, write stories that are mirrors in which readers can glimpse a piece of unexpected humanity in others and, perhaps, even in themselves. If you do not have this commitment, it will be far easier for you to fall prey to make it up.[41]

Harrington describes the accuracy debate as “comical,” and to some extent I would agree with him. We do live in a time when we have been taught to question everything, even what we have learnt and accepted as truth. And, we have been taught; “where one stands while observing an event will deeply shape what one sees [sic].”[42] A writer’s methods, hypothesis and perception, will of course also be crucial in forming the end result.

“When a tree falls in the woods and nobody hears it, it still makes noise,” claims Harrington.[43] There is no shortcut to glory, and only hard footwork can save you. Nonfiction writers might have to interview everybody in the vicinity of the forest about the fallen tree, call on professional loggers to investigate it, cut down their own tree to recreate the situation, and then go ask the locals if what they found represents how it usually happens in their woods. It is up to the reporter to find out (if they weren’t there) what it actually looked and sounded like, and how to best represent the physical reality of any given event – whether it is from a personal point of view, or seen through the eyes of characters. Fact, it is a physical reality as well as the distinguishing feature between nonfiction and imaginary tales.

In our mission, we must be critical of both our sources and ourselves. Janet Malcolm writes, “Journalists who swallow the subject’s account whole and publish it are not journalists but publicists.” This critical stance is not a norm just because we shouldn’t trust anyone out of sheer spite. It is also because it is at the intersection of experience and analysis that quality nonfiction ascends – in the “tension between the subject’s blind self-absorption and the journalist’s scepticism.”[44] Different writers will put different emphasis on the relationship between the two elements, but this duality must be present in the text. The sentiment of truthful illustration constantly points back to our ability to represent events the way they happened, and our dedication to recreate a real living experience. The credo of our mission, vividly explained by Janet Malcolm:

The writer of fiction is entitled to more privileges [than the nonfiction writer]. He is master of his own house and may do what he likes in it; he may even tear it down if he is so inclined […]. But the writer of nonfiction is only a renter, who must abide by the conditions of his lease, which stipulates that he leave the house – and its name is Actuality – as he found it. He may bring in his own furniture and arrange it as he likes (the so-called New Journalism is about the arrangement of furniture), and he may play his radio quietly. But he must not disturb the house’s fundamental structure or tamper with any of its architectural features.[45]


[1] Kerram, Kevin and Ben Yagoda. The Art of fact: A Historical Anthology of Literary Journalism. New York: Touchstone, 1999, p. 17.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Eason, David. “The New Journalism and the Image World.” In Sims, 1990, p.191.

[4] Wolfe, Tom. “The New Journalism.” In Tom Wolfe and E.W. Johnson (eds.) The New Journalism; with an anthology. New York: Harper & Row, 1973.

[5] Weingarten, Marc. From Hipster to Gonzo: How New Journalism Rewrote the World. Carlton North, Vic.: Scribe Publications, 2005, p. 4.

[6] Harrington, Walt. “The Writer’s Choice.” In River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative 5; 2 (2004): p. 82-83.

[7] Sims, Norman. The Literary Journalists: The New Art of Personal Reportage. New York: Ballantine Books, 1984, p. 8.

[8] Ibid, p.10.

[9] Weingarten, p. 31.

[10] Sims, 1984, p. 11.

[11] Kraus, Carolyn Wells. “On Hurting People’s Feelings: Journalism, Guilt, and Autobiography.” In Biography 26; 2, 2003, p. 286.

[12] Wolfe, p. 51

[13] Connery, Thomas B. “Discovering a Literary Form.” In Thomas B. Connery (ed.) A Sourcebook of American Literary Journalism: Representative Writers in an Emerging Genre. New York, London: Greenwood Press, 1992, p. 12.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Lorenz, Andrea. “When You Weren’t There: How Reporters Recreate Scenes for Narrative.” In River Teeth; Fall 2005; 7,1; Academic Research Library, p.71.

[16] Cited in Thompson, Hunter S. Hell’s Angels. London: Penguin Classics, 2003 (1966), p. 36.

[17] Wolfe, 1973, p. 48.

[18] Ross, Lillian. “Portrait of Hemingway” (Exerpt). In Kerram, Kevin and Ben Yagoda. The Art of fact: A Historical Anthology of Literary Journalism. New York: Touchstone, 1999, p. 135.

[19] See Weingarten for expanded details.

[20] Capote, Truman. In Cold Blood. New York: Random House, 1965, p. 108.

[21] Weingarten, 2005.

[22] Eason, p.199.

[23] Wolfe, Tom. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. London: Black Swan, 1986 (1968), p.30.

[24] Eason, p.194.

[25] Ibid, p. 192.

[26] Thompson, Hunter S. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream. New York: Warner Books, 1982 (1971), p. 46.

[27] Thompson, Hunter S. Hell’s Angels. London: Penguin Classics, 2003 (1966).

[28] Thompson, 2003, p.147-48.

[29] Malcolm, Janet. The Journalist and the Murderer. New York: Alfred A. Kopf, 1990, p. 154.

[30] Kraus, p. 289.

[31] Weingarten, p. 16-17.

[32] Washington Post, September 28, 1980. Available: [Accessed 15 February 2007]

[33] Steinberg, Jaques. “Executive Editor of The Times and Top Deputy Step Down.” In New York Times, June 5 2003. Available: [Accessed 17 February 2007]

[34] Cited in Harrington, p. 83.

[35] Bissinger, Buzz. “Ruthless with Scissors.” In Vanity Fair January 2007. Available: [Accessed 6 February 2007]

Bissinger also wrote “Shattered Glass,” an article which appeared in the September 1998 issue of Vanity Fair. Later it became the basis for a film by the same name. Despite my searching all available databases and contacting the Vanity Fair via email, I have not been able to get the article.

[36] Ibid.

[37] cited in Harrington, p. 81.

[38] Malcolm, 1990.

[39] Kraus, p. 289

[40] Malcolm, p. 153

[41] Ibid, p.

[42] Harrington, p. 81.

[43] Harrington, p. 82.

[44] Malcolm, p. 144.

[45] Malcolm, p. 153.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: