Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Fiction and fact

Last weekend, This American Life retracted a story -- the one told by the actor who went to China and did a stage show on the horrific conditions in Apple's factories. Conditions there ARE bad; but lots of the dramatic details (like guards wearing guns) were completely made up. Others were exaggerated or distorted.

He was interviewed on last weekend's show and the lies continued; he never admitted that he had lied. The reporters said talking to him was "exhausting" because of the way he qualified every statement, even his denials. He never came out and said anything, and he couldn't seem to see that he had distorted the truth and that it would have all been fine if he'd told audiences his stage show was drama BASED ON facts rather than fact. He said, only more indirectly, that the main point was true and his goal was to get people to care.....billing his show as "based on the truth" rather than true wouldn't have had the same impact. He's probably right about that!

Ira Glass and the others were outraged. Their passion for the truth, for fact checking, for getting every detail exactly right was for me the most interesting and dramatic part of the show (the guy who had lied gave me the creeps, frankly -- his smarmy voice was creepy in his original story and it was almost a relief to have a reason not to like him, before I just hadn't!).

Listening to the reporters talk made me think about fiction and non-fiction. I am guessing (guessing because I am not one!) really great reporters and non-fiction writers are driven by passion to get at the facts, to find out what REALLY happened. For me, research and learning are fascinating-- but that's not why I write, even when I'm writing non-fiction. Research in fact can often be an end it inself; for me, it's really different from writing.

Fiction writers (and like it or not, that's mainly what I am -- what about you? What drives your writing?) are probably driven by other things: the desire to express themselves, tell a good story, reveal an emotional truth, portray a world -- or just make things up.

Some people can't help doing this even when they set out to tell the facts. Carl Sandburg's biography of Lincoln contains a long account of a romance -- a woman (Nancy Rutherford???) Lincoln deeply loved who died. When critics pointed out, pretty conclusively, that this had never happened, Carl Sandburg replied:
"Well, it ought to have happened."

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