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.
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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.”)
- 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.)
- 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 –.
- 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.”
- Aesthetic considerations must be subordinated — if necessary — to documentary discipline.
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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.