Why nonfiction writers should take a ‘Vow of Chastity’

I am about to deliver what amounts to a homily on the line between fiction and nonfiction and why that line matters.

To tell the truth, I don’t want to be known in the business as that morality guy, that ethics guy, that anti-plagiarism and fabrication guy, that literary hall-monitor guy.

But given what seems like an endless stream of spectacular literary hoaxes and other transgressions over the last 20 or 30 years, it seems appropriate for writers from time to time to stand up and preach the value of a practical truth: There are standards of reliability in fiction and non-fiction, and it helps us all when writers adhere to them, and it hurts us all when they fall to the wayside.

A point I made on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” — the day she pilloried James Frey for his exaggerations in “A Million Little Pieces”: When you learn that a story or anecdote in a literary work is not true, you begin to doubt everything in that work. And when you learn that a work has been debunked as untrue or unreliable, you begin to doubt the truthfulness of every author and the reliability of every text — an effect that is caustic to any culture.

I have been fascinated over the years with a movement among Danish film makers that has become known as DOGME 95.

That number comes from the year 1995. On March 13 of that year, in the city of Copenhagen, two Danish filmmakers issued a public manifesto, a statement of artistic principles that they titled “The Vow of Chastity.”

Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg believed too many film makers had abandoned cinematic artistic integrity in favor of cheap products and quick profits.

To guide their own art — and to challenge their contemporaries — they set forth a 10-point platform, which focused on things they would NOT do, techniques they would NOT use. Hence their Vow of Chastity:

1. Shooting must be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought in (if a particular prop is necessary for the story, a location must be chosen where this prop is to be found).

2. The sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa. (Music must not be used unless it occurs where the scene is being shot).

3. The camera must be hand-held. Any movement or immobility attainable in the hand is permitted. (The film must not take place where the camera is standing; shooting must take place where the film takes place.)

4. The film must be in color. Special lighting is not acceptable. (If there is too little light for exposure, the scene must be cut or a single lamp be attached to the camera.)

5. Optical work and filters are forbidden.

6. The film must not contain superficial action. (Murders, weapons, etc. must not occur.)

7. Temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden. (That is to say that the film takes place here and now.)

8. Genre movies are not acceptable.

9. The film format must be Academy 35 mm.

10. The director must not be credited.

…Thus I make my VOW OF CHASTITY.

My topic, fellow writers, is not the standards of film-making but the boundaries between fact and fiction. Recent history has shown that in this territory there has been way too much deception and  fraud. The scandals are too numerous to mention. The liars and fakers, the cheaters and short-cut takers, have, in the good phrase of John McPhee “hitch-hiked on the credibility” of those who do it right.

The exposure of literary malpractice, I’m sad to say, has turned me from skeptic to cynic. When I read or hear a scene in a story, for example, that seems too good to be true — like performance artist Mike Daisey’s exploited Chinese worker rubbing the stump of his hand over the magic surface of an iPad — I now assume it is NOT true.

I hate this about myself. The word cynic comes from the Greek word for dog. In all other contexts, I love dogs. But not in this one. Time to take your medicine, literary adulterers. Time for your VOW OF CHASTITY.

  1. Any degree of fabrication turns a story from non-fiction into fiction, which must be labeled as such. (A person cannot be a little pregnant, nor a story a little fictional.)
  2. The writer, by definition, may distort reality by subtraction (the way a photo is cropped), but is never allowed to distort by adding material to non-fiction that the writer knows did not happen.
  3. Characters that appear in non-fiction must be real individuals, not composites drawn from a number of persons. While there are occasions when characters can or should not be named, giving characters fake names is not permitted. (They can be identified by an initial, a natural status “The Tall Woman,” or a role “The Accountant.”)
  4. Writers of non-fiction should not expand or contract time or space for narrative efficiency. (Ten conversations with a source that took place in three locations cannot be merged into a single conversation in a single location.)
  5. Invented dialogue is not permitted. Any words in quotations marks must be the result of a) written documents such as trial transcripts, or b) words recorded directly by the writer or some other reliable source.  Remembered conversations — especially from the distant past — should be rendered with another form of simple punctuation, such as indented dashes: — like this –.
  6. We reject the notion in all of literature of a “higher truth,” a phrase that has been used too often as a rationalization in non-fiction for making things up. It is hard enough, and good enough, to attempt to render a set of “practical truths.”
  7. Aesthetic considerations must  be subordinated — if necessary — to documentary discipline.
  8. Non-fiction does not result from a purely scientific method, but responsible writers will inform audiences on both what they know and how they know it. The sourcing in a book or story should be sufficient so that another reporter or researcher or fact-checker, acting in good faith, could follow the tracks of the original reporter and find comparable results.
  9. Unless working in fantasy, science fiction, or obvious satire, all writers, including novelists and poets, have an affirmative duty to render the world accurately through their own research and detective work. (The poet should not create a piano with 87 keys unless intending a specific effect.)
  10. The escape clause: There may be occasions, when the writer can think of no other way to tell a story than through the use of one or more of these “banned” techniques. The burden is on the writer to demonstrate that this is so. To keep faith with the reader, the writer should become transparent concerning narrative methods. A detailed note to readers should appear AT THE BEGINNING OF THE WORK to alert them of the standards and practices of the writer.

No one can or should be forced to take the Vow of Chastity. But there are some writers who might find the discipline inherent in the standards both liberating and ennobling. If you do not like these standards – even better, if you despise them – formulate your own. Have the courage to hold them up for scrutiny, share them with the world. Stand for something before something stands on you.

Roy Peter Clark delivered a version of this essay on Sunday, July 22 at the Mayborn literary conference in Grapevine, Texas.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said the conference was held in Denton; it was held in Grapevine.

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  • Anonymous

    Susan, as a fellow narrative nonfiction teacher who came to that form from journalism (after having come to journalism from poetry, fiction and other narrative forms), I mostly agree with you. And I’ve already filed Roy’s essay for use in my class. But I find that a discussion of honesty tends to resonate equally with all the people who come to my class, no matter their writing backgrounds.

    We start out by asking which is “easier” to write, fiction or nonfiction. Most people start out saying “fiction — because we can make up anything to make the story work.” Then we usually end up with a consensus that nonfiction is a bit easier because because it requires us only to find the story in a given set of “facts” instead of  creating not only the story but the facts that make it true or real as well. I usually nudge them back toward fiction as easier after we explore the difficulties of finding the story without prejudice or preconception: that is, not writing a story from only the facts that fit our idea, dropping those that don’t fit the narrative arc we have in mind (thereby confronting one of the biggest potential traps in the “omission but not addition” issue).

    I find that fiction writers get it quickly and are energized by the challenge; they tend to do better research as they find holes and gaps that need to be filled in their stories, and they’re more willing to see their stories change as more information is added. The nonfiction people, including journalist types, tend to be more daunted by the idea of crafting a sound narrative rather than settling for just an organization of facts and information; they tend to feel that a story is true enough just because they have facts in it. Since I teach for the University of Washington in Seattle, a lot of tech writers find their way into the class, and they’re the ones with the most and biggest problems because of their workaday relationship with narrow sets of facts and a more restrictive sense of language.

    All of them get “not lying,” but the fiction/poetry people seem to more easily apply it to a deeper sense of “true” story — especially after we choose the term “narrative nonfiction” instead of “creative nonfiction.”

  • http://twitter.com/suekush Susan KushnerResnick

    Yes, yes, a million times, yes. I will copy and hand this to my intro to creative nonfiction students this fall to supplement my Don’t Lie lecture. 

    Just a note: I’ve observed that writers who come to CNF from journalism, as I did, understand these vows much better than those who come from poetry or fiction. We must be patient with the latter group.

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

     @Yankee49:disqus, you’re right. We’ve corrected the story to say that the conference was held in Grapevine, not Denton.

    ~Mallary Tenore
    Poynter.org

  • Anonymous

    I don’t disagree — one of the great pleasures reading “The English Patient” was tracking the actual locations of the story on the map of Africa. “Lord of the Rings” had an actual political economy, contrasted with the absence of any sense of how Harry’s wizards made a living.
    Yet, the genius of fiction is making stuff up — but in a way that doesn’t jar. Lure me in, make it work, make sure it makes sense in the context of this story. Sue Grafton had a great note in one of her alphabet mysteries that stated, in effect, “I’m the Planning Commission of Santa Teresa County — don’t bother me with your complaints that my details don’t match Santa Barbara.” And her world, grounded in the fog and surf and hills of the Central Coast of California is coherent even if the streets don’t match up with Thomas Bros.
    It’s an entirely differerent game from non-fiction– there I want my facts, verifiable, credible, reliable.  With fiction, I”m not looking for facts, but plausibilty.  What is true is not the same as the truth.
    Your colleague at Poynter Craig Silverman explored this recently with a review of “The Lifespan of a Fact” — right in line with your Vow of Chasity.  What is real? What are our authorial obligations to our readers? http://www.poynter.org/latest-news/regret-the-error/164447/the-lifespan-of-a-fact-blends-fiction-with-nonfiction-to-explore-nature-of-truth/
    But back to poets,

    “Better than all measures
    Of delightful sound,
    Better than all treasures
    That in books are found,
    Thy skill to poet were, thou scorner of the ground!”

    Or,you can take the facts out of fiction, but it’s still fiction.

    David Vossbrink

    Better than all measures

    Of delightful sound,

    Better than all treasures

    That in books are found,

    Thy skill to poet were, thou scorner of the ground!

    Better than all measures

    Of delightful sound,

    Better than all treasures

    That in books are found,

    Thy skill to poet were, thou scorner of the ground!

  • http://twitter.com/RoyPeterClark Roy Peter Clark

     Thanks, dvossbrink, for weighing in.  I know I’ve complicated things, probably unnecessarily, by including poets and novelists, but there is no need to let them off the hook. Heck, I read all of Harry Potter three times, and just finished part three of the “Game of Thrones” series.  The imagination of fiction writers enriches our collective experience.  I am just attaching myself to the fact that Shelley’s “Skylark” — what its symbolic meanings — looks and acts and sounds and soars like a skylark and not a phoenix.  Holden’s Caulfield’s New York City is rendered with great realism.  I recognize the stairwells in the Museum of Natural History.  As a reader, I want fiction writers and poets to be faithful to the world as it exists — UNLESS they have an artistic reason for exploding it. Then I say:  Go for it.

  • http://twitter.com/RoyPeterClark Roy Peter Clark

    I am really impressed by the quality of these comments.  Thanks to all of you for weighing in.  My plan is to go through them slowly tomorrow, to learn from them, and to offer additional thoughts.  One quick response:  that bad journalism or Bad Journalism is no excuse for the kind of malpractice we’ve witnessed time and again in works of non-fiction that contain significant fabrications.  Bad Journalism, or even BAD JOURNALISM, comes from poor reporting, or weak framing, or gullibility, or bias.  But it’s almost always distortion by subtraction. As John Hersey noted in a famous essay, I may collect 100 facts and use the wrong 50 or the wrong 10, and reality is distorted in a way.  But something very different in kind occurs when I collect 100 facts and add five more which never happened.  It’s an exact analogy to photo manipulation.  Manipulation by traditional cropping is different in kind from adding an element to the scene which did not exist.  Subtraction, necessary, sometimes badly done. Addition, over the line.  

  • Anonymous

    Relying on the dictionary definitions of “fiction” and “nonfiction”
    or a set of specific rules to distinguish the two won’t necessarily solve the
    problem that Roy poses, at least for many journalists and general nonfiction
    writers who struggle to write good stories that accurately reflect the world.
    Roy’s effort to formulate a manifesto that mirrors DOGME 95 is as thoughtful
    and perceptive as everything he writes and teaches about our craft. Like von
    Trier and Vinterberg, he mostly limits himself to talking about techniques that
    encourage ethical practice rather than core philosophical issues that, I
    suspect, have tied most of us up in knots from time to time. Not that
    journalists tend to spend much time on philosophy.

    Maybe by talking about “fiction” and “nonfiction” we’re
    setting up a barrier to understanding the real issue. Maybe there’s another,
    better word we can work with.

     As Mr. News, Yankee49
    and arriviste57 – and even Roy, himself — have noted, what’s peddled as
    journalism often is something else: commentary, camouflaged opinion, narrative built
    from conflated interviews and around composite characters, and downright lies
    rationalized by the writer’s stalking of a “higher truth.” But these are pretty
    easy targets for anyone with a conscience. Any journalist who engages in any of
    this clearly has fallen into sluttish habits, and even St. Augustine found that
    simple repentance doesn’t automatically restore one’s chastity. That’s
    especially true when the wanton is rewarded for his wantonness, as many are in
    the bordellos that operate successfully in the news marketplace.

    Those who subscribe to Roy’s platform may find redemption –
    or might never need it. But, as arriviste57 suggests, some might also find it
    more difficult to write a compelling story that uses language employing
    metaphor, simile or other tropes, which necessarily wade more deeply into the
    subjective – which in turn slops over into the province of fiction in meaning as well
    as in style. These language tools affect a reader’s perception and judgment;
    they connote as much as, if not more than, denote. As Roy says, a journalistic
    writer should make it clear that he’s writing what he’s seen and heard and
    learned, but one who uses any rhetorical or literary flourish also communicates
    what he feels or believes. Much of that communication is subconscious on the
    part of both writer and reader, and only paying close attention will reveal it.
    Even in the best of circumstances, that kind of attention is extraordinary for
    most of us, whether we’re writing or reading.

    A couple of years ago, the novelist David Shields wrote his
    own manifesto, “Reality Hunger,” that argues, in part, that the line between
    fiction and nonfiction is never as bright as we’d like it to be, if it exists at all. He contends that no one can write anything
    that’s purely nonfiction or fiction: Both are creations of the mind, products
    of perception, in which what is, what might be, and what we kinda figure mash
    into some kind of – for lack of a better word – art. The book created quite a furor among writers of all stripes. It also
    presented a lot to think about to those who are disposed to thinking about that
    kind of stuff.

    At any rate, whenever we talk about “fact” and its
    relationship to “truth,” we’re beginning to tread on squishy ground. Neither
    fact nor truth is easily defined once we move out of the dictionary and into
    the head. Rather than concentrating on either, maybe we should focus on another
    word: Honesty. It’s honesty, I think, that Roy’s getting at in his Vow of
    Chastity.

    It’s significant that we have a simple, direct word –
    fiction – for stories that we admittedly construct around facts in a world we
    (more or less) make up. Yet that world has to seem somehow “true” for the
    fiction to succeed. In journalism and other writing that intends to honestly reflect
    only what we’ve observed, heard, touched and experienced (more or less) outside
    ourselves, we have only a negative form of the word fiction rather than a separate
    word.  Perhaps that’s because the meaning
    and craft of nonfiction is so elusive.

    If as writers and people we’re honest in our communication as
    well as in our art, in our nonfiction as well as in our fiction, we’ll be doing
    our best to get to the truth, whatever that might mean.

  • Anonymous

    Dogme’s “Vow of Chasity” applied to feature films, not documentaries, and the resulting works are not much fun to watch.  It was an interesting experiment in minimalism, but not terribly useful for either filmmakers or fiction writers, and not at all relevant to RPC’s effort to define rules for non-fiction.  While I agree with most of his proposed rules for non-fiction, please leave the poets and novelists out of it (Rule 9). By definition they are supposed to lie — even if “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world” according to Shelly.

  • Mr. News

    Yankee, you make some excellent points too. But I prefer to use Journalist vs. journalist labels, rather than “mainstream.” Journalists gather facts, sift and sort them, and present them in a way that helps citizens determine their own understanding and beliefs. The rest, the journalists, have an agenda, an axe to grind,  or revenue numbers to hit. (Money has corroded Journalism the same way it’s made Politics rotten to the core.) The bloggers and “citizen journalists” have re-defined News. “When I want your opinion, I’ll give it to you.”  I follow the personal credo: Don’t believe everything you think.

    What used to be labelled “Commentary” now makes up around 75% of our News sources. When Walter Cronkite gave us his opinion of the Vietnam War (after covering it for years and making multiple trips there), we were almost shocked.  Certainly LBJ was! Now, if an anchor delivers a clear, concise, factual News story with no “slant,” the audience is so bored they change the channel. The blame lies both with the various media and their audience. We are enamored with fiction; thus perhaps Roy’s Chastity Vows for non-fiction begin to make sense. If we don’t wake up and fix Journalism, our whole society may turn out to have been fictional.

  • Mr. News

    Yankee, you make some excellent points too. But I prefer to use Journalist vs. journalist labels, rather than “mainstream.” Journalists gather facts, sift and sort them, and present them in a way that helps citizens determine their own understanding and beliefs. The rest, the journalists, have an agenda, an axe to grind,  or revenue numbers to hit. (Money has corroded Journalism the same way it’s made Politics rotten to the core.) The bloggers and “citizen journalists” have re-defined News. “When I want your opinion, I’ll give it to you.”  I follow the personal credo: Don’t believe everything you think.

    What used to be labelled “Commentary” now makes up around 75% of our News sources. When Walter Cronkite gave us his opinion of the Vietnam War (after covering it for years and making multiple trips there), we were almost shocked.  Certainly LBJ was! Now, if an anchor delivers a clear, concise, factual News story with no “slant,” the audience is so bored they change the channel. The blame lies both with the various media and their audience. We are enamored with fiction; thus perhaps Roy’s Chastity Vows for non-fiction begin to make sense. If we don’t wake up and fix Journalism, our whole society may turn out to have been fictional.

  • Anonymous

    Mr. News, you raise some very good points and distinctions, particularly about the state of “Journalism”. What Roy should also address or at least acknowledge is the actual fiction of so much of what now is presented as news, particularly by the so-called national mainstream media. For example, Fox News, slogan aside, has demonstrated that bias consistently applied to framing and presenting stories in a way that fits a management/ownership objective (political influence and impact) can be profitable. Or, another example: the revelation that the NYTimes and Washington Post and probably other media not yet known have been allowing both presidential campaigns to review quotes and influence reported stories. The result not only turns those particularly sanctimonious centers of “journalistic excellence” into mere PR channels but further undermines of their own credibility and that of the media/press in general. And that certainly benefits politicians but not our society. 
    What these examples indicate is that, while individual reporters/ writers have ethical responsibilities to their readers and peers, the question of fact vs. fiction is an issue for editors and media management.  Their role in eroding the reader’ trust has even greater than that of individual authors.

  • Anonymous

    I was at the conference, Roy. Your manifesto, as it were, was both thoughtful and humble in delivery. It provoked intelligent discussion in the room and, hopefully, with this post, beyond that room into news rooms and writer’s “caves” across the country. (By the way, the conference was in Grapevine, Texas not in Denton.)

  • Mr. News

    Wow, these rules make me want to go bang my head against the wall.  I don’t think you can divide the world cleanly into fiction and non-fiction dimensions.  I read a lot of American history, and the best, or at least the most interesting, writers make their works SOUND like fiction. And what of autobiography: must I render an account of my life EXACTLY as it happened, or may I embellish, or even relate what I must have been thinking/feeling at my disastrous 8th birthday party. “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?”

    Perhaps we should be working on a new Ten Commandments for Journalism, or should I say journalism. It seems that genre has strayed so heavily into fiction that no one believes a word of it any more. I tend to believe, naively of course, that most citizens still have the capacity for critical thought. But the so-called journalists, whose main objective is to make the facts fit their story, are the most prolific fictionalists of our time. It’s this re-drawing of reality that threatens us most.

  • Anonymous

    I believe one reason this has become an issue is because of a publishing industry and public that currently value true stories … and stories  “based on a true story,” more than fiction. Not passing judgment — but publishers and authors know this.  Non-fiction outsells fiction.

    But fiction –  presented up front as fiction – doesn’t have to adhere to these rules and doesn’t even have to adhere to rule #9. And shouldn’t.  I see what you’re saying in rule 9, but it suggests limitations that shouldn’t be imposed on fiction. There may be practical reasons for getting something correct in fiction (like maintaining credibility with your readers), but ….

    There is no obligation in any work clearly labeled as fiction that says Abraham Lincoln can never be a midget albino woman, or that you can’t have a piano with 176 keys. And it’s not just in the realm of sci fi, fantasy and satire. Literary fiction has no such rules. A book like DeLillo’s “Libra” comes to mind, a work that takes history and creates something else.

    Fiction does not have to render the world accurately. It imagines a world you never thought of.  But it never pretends to be fact.  Fiction’s obligation to truth has nothing to do with getting it historically right or accurate. It’s a different kind of truth.

    Keep aspirations for factual rules for non-fiction only — as impossible as that may be. You always have to ask: whose truth?  Just because one person remembers an event in a certain way does not mean it occurred that way. I completely agree it’s a problem that needs to be addressed. But when you make people adhere to strict rules for non-fiction, you’ll end up with very very dry, artless non-fiction.  Because the moment you speculate or interpret (and almost all non-fiction does this), you are dipping your toe into a possible fiction.

    But maybe it’s good.  Maybe these rules will create a super sterile non-fiction world that most will find pretty boring. And then publishing will change, and readers will begin to appreciate real fiction again instead of all the ridiculous fictions dressed up as memoir and fact.