Fact, fiction, and truth in labeling
Last year, I wrote a couple of posts about the strange case of Q.R. Markham, the suspense novelist who was later revealed to have constructed his debut thriller, Assassin of Secrets, out of a crazy patchwork quilt of plagiarized passages from other novels. Since then, the unfortunate author—under his true name of Quentin Rowan—has been featured in his own New Yorker profile by Lizzie Widdicombe, which quotes an unnamed fan as claiming that Rowan’s book is actually a secret masterpiece: “What might have been just another disposable piece of banal commercial trash has now been lifted to the level of art.” Others thought that it might have been a deliberate prank, a work of stealth literary criticism, or simply an impressive act of construction in its own right. And these are, in fact, all things that it is possible for a novel to be—just not this particular novel, which was clearly a case of plagiarism born of insecurity and fear. And to Rowan’s credit, he has never tried to claim otherwise.
Yet the idea of a novel constructed out of other novels, like a longer version of Jonathan Lethem’s famous essay in Harper’s, is an interesting one. I might even buy and read it. But the issue is one of truth in labeling. If Rowan had been honest about his method, he’d deserve the ironic accolades that he has subsequently received, but the fact remains that until his exposure, he never claimed to be anything but a suspense writer in the vein of Ian Fleming, which makes his book a work of plagiarism. Similarly, there’s always a place for works of art that mix fact with narrative imagination in pursuit of a larger artistic goal, as long as it’s properly labeled. Norman Mailer beautifully mingles journalism with artistic reconstruction in The Executioner’s Song, and much of the appeal of Frederick Forsyth’s spy novels comes from his use of real historical figures and events. But both works are clearly shelved in the fiction section. It’s when a story with invented elements is shelved with nonfiction—even metaphorically, as in the case of Mike Daisey—that we start to get into trouble.
Labels matter. By stating that a work of art is fiction or nonfiction, novel or memoir, the author is entering into a contract with the reader, one that can be violated only in very rare cases. Now, it’s true that a work of art occasionally benefits from ambiguity over whether what it depicts is real or not. I wouldn’t give up a movie like Exit Through the Gift Shop, for instance, which gains much of its fascination, at least on subsequent viewings, from the question of how much the director has manipulated events behind the scenes. But such cases are extraordinarily uncommon. In film, the result is more often a movie like the loathsome Catfish, in which the inherent interest of the story itself is suffocated by the filmmakers’ palpable vanity and dishonesty. Meanwhile, in print, even as some authors claim to be constructing a more challenging synthesis of artifice and reality, in practice, it’s often a case of a writer combining the easiest, most obvious elements of fiction and nonfiction to get cheap dramatic effects or a marketing hook without the trouble of well-constructed storytelling or real journalism. See: Three Cups of Tea, A Million Little Pieces, and now Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory.
The fact is, journalism is hard. Writing novels is also hard, in different sort of way. And it’s accomplishment enough for a lifetime to become good at either one. Before a writer decides to operate in some kind of hybrid mode, he needs to ask himself whether he’s tried to master the infinite complexities inherent in the practice of straight fiction or nonfiction, which, when honestly pursued, are capable of almost anything. For those who claim that it’s necessary to depart from the facts to tell an artistic and moving story, I’d ask them to first check out our many works of truly great nonfiction, ranging from David McClintick’s Indecent Exposure to David Simon’s Homicide, all fully reported and documented, and see if there’s any way they could possibly have been improved. And for those who believe that the conventional novel, unadulterated by plagiarisms, appropriations, or winking narrative shortcuts, is exhausted, well, I can only quote what Borges said, through his editor, to the translator who claimed that it was impossible to render one of his poems properly: “Borges thinks you should try a little harder.”