Ensuring Truth Within Creative Nonfiction

Ensuring Truth Within Creative Nonfiction
The difference between creative nonfiction and fiction is unassuming: fiction is derived from the fabrications of an author?s imagination, whereas creative nonfiction is contingent on facts. A novelist has the freedom to create scenes which never existed, whereas an author of creative nonfiction must convey a truthful story. However, the line between creative nonfiction and fiction, fact and falsehood, has become ever so thin as ?writers of memoir [have been] revealed to be frauds and fiction writers masquerade as memoirists in order to sell books?
Recent events have revealed authors such as James Frey and Tim Barrus to have combined elements of fiction and nonfiction within their creative nonfiction books (Buck 56), further blurring this line. Overlooked embellishments and whole fabrications were found to exist within their alleged creative nonfiction works ? stirring angst within the nonfiction community (Bradley 208). Allegations arose and investigations ensued, all revolving around the question: who is to blame? As a result, the entire creative nonfiction genre received negative publicity and harsh criticism (Bradley 203). For creative nonfiction to restore its legitimacy and veracity as a genre, authors, and not publishers, are to be held responsible for ensuring their creative nonfiction books are truthful.
Creative nonfiction, often labeled the ?fourth genre? (Bradley 203), requires the depiction of factual events and happenings through past memories, with a literary touch. Books under this genre include memoirs, biographies, and autobiographies. However, memory is malleable and fades. Hence, authors are given leeway in this respect and to be ?truthful? is defined as an author recollecting and portraying past experiences to the best of their ability. Authors must ultimately convey the truth as they remember it to be, so that an emotional truth can be portrayed and felt by readers.
The issue with creative nonfiction, though, is that some authors do not adhere to this definition of being truthful. For example, high-profile writers such as James Frey and Tim Barrus were the subjects of infamous scandals in which they duped the public into believing their fictive stories were creative nonfiction. Barrus was a prizewinning supposed Navajo author, writing under the moniker ?Nasdijj,? who wrote three best-selling memoirs: The Blood Runs like a River through My Dreams; The Boy and the Dog are Sleeping; and Geronimo?s Bones: A Memoir of My Brother and Me (Buck 56).In reality Barrus was a white man and an ?erstwhile penner of pornography? (Buck 56) and was revealed to be a fraud just a month after Frey by LA Weekly (Buck 56). Frey was also a lying author, who blatantly falsified large amounts of his alleged memoir A Million Little Pieces. It sold over 5 million copies and made it onto Oprah?s Book Club?s recommended reading before being proven to be substantially fiction (?A Million Little Lies?).
To guarantee nonfiction works are truthful, numerous methods have been implemented. Publishers have one particular weapon at their disposal when determining if a creative nonfiction work is truthful: fact-checking. Within magazines and newspapers, ?fact-checking? is done to verify the contents of essays and articles they publish (Buck 57). Hattie Fletcher Buck, editor of the literary magazine Creative Nonfiction, explains, however, companies such as Houghton Mifflin, Barrus?s publisher, often fail to fact-check in any depth or at all (Buck 56). Why is the book publishing industry reluctant to follow the example set by newspaper and magazine publishers, who are able to fact-check their works before press time (Buck 56)?
When addressing the issue of who is responsible for ensuring creative nonfiction books are truthful, one must understand the relationship between a publisher and an author is unique. A newspaper or magazine usually owns the articles that it publishes and writers are treated as employees, whereas an author owns the copyright to his or her work (Taylor). Kate Taylor, writer for the magazine The Sun, addresses the issue of fact-checking saying,
The basic answer is that it's not practical. Publishers release hundreds of books each year, most of them several hundred pages long. A publisher simply can't afford to fact-check all of those books to the standards of, say, The New Yorker, where a fact checker essentially re-reports each story (Taylor).

Fact-checking is not easily applicable to the book publishing industry. This is due to the fact ?profit margins on books simply do not allow for fact-checking budgets? (Buck 57). Taylor further encompasses the argument stating publishing companies ordinarily issue hundreds or thousands of books a year and fact-checking each book would be expensive and timely (Taylor). Hence, giving responsibility to publishers to ensure creative nonfiction books are truthful would be inefficient, costly, and time-consuming. Instead of having the publishing houses scan every detail and dig up information pertaining to questionable events within a story, authors must take it upon themselves to produce work of high integrity. An author who deceives, invents, creates and fabricates knowingly must understand that their work is fiction and has no place being labeled under creative nonfiction.
Fact-checking would result in creative nonfiction book prices increasing significantly to the point where no rational person would buy them. In other words , ?You couldn't get these books out the door, at least not below a $100-a-copy price point, and then nobody would buy them? (Taylor). Larry Kirshbaum, former CEO of the Time Warner Book Group, further conveys the point saying, ?I think it would be almost impossible to fact-check all the titles that are published by a single publisher. It would be onerous" (Grossman). Instead of having to implement more hoops for future memoirists and creative nonfiction authors to jump through with fact-checking, authors must be held accountable for ensuring their works are truthful. The responsibility would simply be on their hands and if elements of their pieces are found to be fiction then they will have to suffer the repercussions. Their credibility would be dismissed and their name tarnished for the rest of their career as a writer.
Some writers also contest the fact-checking of books ?for artistic rather than financial reasons? (Buck 57) arguing that ?If memoirists were limited, for instance, to telling only those stories that could be independently verified by fact-checkers, many books might never make it to the shelf ? (Buck 57). Creativity would be inhibited within the creative nonfiction genre if fact-checking was mandatorily implemented by publishers. To avoid unnecessary obstruction of books to the shelf due to the inability to verify the unique stories of a memoirist, the responsibility of ensuring creative nonfiction books are truthful must lie with authors. The intrinsic value of producing an honest work should be the foremost motivator for an author to write a creative nonfiction work, not economic incentives. Ultimately this is the reason why ?James Frey was hung out to dry? (Buck 58) by his publisher, and responsibility for the falsifications given to him.
Ultimately, fact-checking would be an impractical method of verifying the contents of a creative nonfiction work. Readers may be asking themselves: what happens when facts of a story are impossible to verify? Do publishers edit them out? Are authors supposed to omit these elements of their story, even if they are integral to conveying an emotional truth to readers? Lev Grossman, book reviewer for Time magazine, explores the trouble with memoirs and addresses this issue when discussing the work of memoirist Jeannette Walls,
Walls is eloquent about the emotional cost of being honest on paper. Parts of The Glass Castle describe growing up desperately poor in West Virginia. "In school," she remembers, "I would go into the girls' bathroom and fish lunches out of the wastepaper basket. It was very, very embarrassing. It was something I had never told anybody." And both Walls and Karr vigorously maintain that nobody has been able to dispute the facts of their stories. (Grossman)
How can a publisher be expected to verify the obscure and tiny, yet significant, details of a writer?s creative nonfiction work? These facts are often the most emotionally significant in an author?s story. It just doesn?t seem to be possible. Hence, the responsibility must be given to authors to ensure that these facts are truthful. Not only will this eliminate costly fact-checking altogether, but it will also provide a holistic truth where none of the smaller facts of a narrative are omitted simply for the sake of covering the publisher?s reputation.
In addition to the complications of fact-checking creative nonfiction books, publishers taking legal action against authors prove a difficult task as well. Hence, ensuring creative nonfiction books are truthful is only practical when responsibility is in the writer?s hands. Rachel Deahl, deals columnist and senior news editor for Publishers Weekly, explores the issue of authors explicitly lying within their alleged creative nonfiction memoirs. She explains authors have to sign legal papers saying that what they have written is true when having a nonfiction piece published. Currently ?the standard publishing contract stipulates that an author is telling the truth--about who they are and what they write? (Deahl). However, the repercussions of violating this agreement are not harsh enough to dissuade dishonest writers from publishing fiction as fact. Most times publishers will cut their losses and take no legal action against writers because "Publishers know better than anyone that authors usually don't have much in the way of cash? (Deahl).To counter this so that works such as memoirs are more genuine and honest, Deahl explains that some believe it?s time for publishers to take more severe legal action against deceitful authors. Taking more sever legal action against lying authors will confirm responsibility for ensuring creative nonfiction books are truthful to be mainly in the writer?s domain. (Other cnf writers hold each other responsible. Shame each other to deter lying)
Particularly, the issue with creative nonfiction pieces being proven fiction is not the fiction itself, but the deception. Roy P. Clark, senior scholar at the Poynter Institute and author for Creative Nonfiction, argues there are two integral principles of writing creative nonfiction: Do not add. Do not deceive (Clark). Authors should not add details or events in their works that never happened, however, it is often necessary to reduce or condense to make pieces clear and comprehensible (Clark). Authors should not deceive their audience either. To misrepresent an event and fool readers intentionally or unintentionally violates an inherent contract between the reader and writer (Clark). This contract proclaims: ?The way it is represented here is, to the best of our knowledge, the way it happened? (Clark). If authors simply followed these two principles then truth would prevail in the creative nonfiction genre. Fact-checking would be a notion of the past, an obsolete method of refinement within a supposed creative genre. Writers, therefore, have an inherent responsibility, according to Clark, to take it upon themselves to write with a dedication to being truthful.
Although a writer may attempt to write truthfully, they will always run into the innate issues of memory. William Bradley, published author and professor at Chowan University, reasons that memoirs and essays do not claim to be the definitive truth but are recollections aiming to present as much of the truth as possible. He reaches out to writers and explains:
?As a writer of memoir and personal essays, I want to get as close to the Truth as I possibly can. But this goal can conflict with my frequently unreliable memory? (Bradley 203).
Bradley conveys his determination to the truth but explains that unreliable memory may intrude on an author?s goal of writing truthfully. To combat failing memory, authors can explain in their writing that they simply cannot recall what transpired in a past occurrence through various literary techniques and appeals. However, this issue is by Bradley?s opinion that writers should take it upon themselves to narrate creatively with a dedication to portraying the truth to the best of their ability. Ultimately, the truth can only be fully conveyed within a creative nonfiction work when the author takes it upon him or herself to write truthfully. No amount of fact-checking can wholly ensure that a creative nonfiction piece is truthful.
Bradley continues to explicate how writers of nonfiction must reveal a form of the truth through their writing, a truth that cannot be fact-checked or verified, but a truth that lies within their past experiences.
?all writers and scholars of nonfiction agree that the form?s essential purpose is to reveal some type of truth?a personal, subjective truth that either stands in opposition to or serves to illustrate and put a human face to events recalled. (Bradley 204)

In parallel, Clark asserts that writers should approach creative nonfiction as a journalist does his writing to the public and that the line between fiction and nonfiction is a firm one (Clark). An author does not only have the responsibility to convey a story truthfully but to also convey the emotional truth of an experience to readers (Clark). Hence, authors have an inherent responsibility to convey this truth to readers, which is preceded by the fact that writers must first depict a truthful story.
Bradley explains further, when an author begins to go down the path of embellishing an honest memory, it is not only to the detriment of their credibility.
Changing the facts of a remembered event?whether for reasons noble, structurally convenient, or self-aggrandizing?is never a harmless activity. Such changes call into question not just the individual author?s work, but the work done within the very genre itself. (Bradley 209)

When this occurs, Bradley argues, the work of the individual author is in question as well as the genre of creative nonfiction as a whole. Hence, authors must be held accountable for glaring and deliberate falsifications within their works or creative nonfiction will continue to be dismissed as ?exhibitionism with an agenda? (Bradley 203) and ?a form for the narcissistic and self-involved? (Bradley 203).
Even though the economic constraints on the big publishing industry make fact-checking memoirs and creative nonfiction books difficult, does this necessarily emancipate them from all responsibility? Within a book lies not solely the name of its author, but that of its publisher as well and ?Part of what supports the writer is not just his name but...the publishing house? (Buck 58). Readers take confidence this fact and are therefore inclined to believe the books they read are labeled under appropriate genres. Buck quotes freelance fact-checker Sarah Z. Wexler, who asserts,
Fact checking in magazines is what makes the publication trustworthy in the eyes of the reader. People know that when they read a certain magazine, it?s not just the writer?s name they can trust but the magazine?s name too. And the way the magazine keeps its name is by not making mistakes. (Buck 56)

Will it ever be possible to apply the method of fact-checking seen within the magazine and newspaper industries seamlessly to the book publishing industry? If such a method allowed for cost-effective and timely execution then fact-checking would surely be implemented within the industry currently to ensure creative nonfiction books are truthful. However, translating the method of fact-checking from the magazine and newspaper industries to the book publishing industry is not as simple as it seems because ?Unlike book publishing houses, magazines and newspapers keep regular staffs who treat fact-checking as their sole responsibility? (Buck 57). And the truth of the matter is that ?profit margins on books simply do not allow for fact-checking budgets? (Buck 57).
According to memoirist Fern Kupfer, ?It?s the authority of truth?the idea of truth anyway?that makes the memoir attractive to readers? (Bradley 204). Readers are fascinated with the idea of a compelling story being true; a story of hope, overcome adversity, or triumph which they can relate to. For authors to deceive readers knowingly through a creative nonfiction medium is to rob readers of the intrinsic connection and empathy felt towards the story. The story becomes significantly less powerful and not as personally important to the reader. It is then dismissed as fiction, an untrue fairy tale once lost in the nonfiction realm. Writers of creative nonfiction books must then write truthfully to ensure creative nonfiction books are truthful. This is the only practical approach for the creation of true creative nonfiction books. Fact-checking is too onerous a practice when applied to the book publishing industry and avoids the inherent issue at hand: deceitful authors. For the fiction itself created by these authors is not the issue, but the deception, the robbing of unsuspecting readers, which has created this entire mess in the first place.

Ensuring Truth Within Creative Nonfiction 9.8 of 10 on the basis of 1165 Review.