How some narratives can benefit from more translucence, less transparency

Transparency, transparency, transparency. Say it loud and there’s music playing. Say it soft and it’s almost like praying.

Transparency is the new pillar of responsible practice, inside and outside of journalism -- including at Poynter. When it comes to reporting and writing, we are told (and I’ve said it myself, [an example of transparency!]) that readers not only want to know what we know, they also want to know how we’ve come to know it, and the practical limits of our knowledge.

Transparency plus humility.

“We want to be transparent about this,” reports the hypothetical anchor. “We have reporters in the field trying to get to the bottom of this, how the explosion happened, the number of dead and injured, whether there was foul play -- but it is very early in the game, and we know how easy it is to get things wrong.”

When straight reporting turns to storytelling, the ethic of transparency becomes more complicated. As unusual as this might sound, some narratives are hurt by excessive transparency. Some narratives, as I’ll argue in this essay, would benefit from more translucence and less transparency.

Consider, as an analogy, that form of narrative known as the magic trick. At the high end, the magician is referred to as an illusionist. The illusion he creates, most people know, is the product of sophisticated engineering: wires, mirrors, tanks of water, hoses, lights, trap doors. Over the course of say, five minutes, that beautiful lady will disappear and be replaced by a tiger. “How did he do that?” we wonder aloud. But since the purpose is mere entertainment, we succumb to the illusion and return to our ordinary lives.

Succumbing to an illusion is, I would argue, a requirement of the successful experience of narrative. In 1817, Samuel Coleridge gave us a name for this. He called it “the willing suspension of disbelief for the moment.” Even fables and fairy tales could be experienced in authentic ways, he argued, if the author lent them “a human interest and a semblance of truth.”

When we read a novel, watch a movie, see a play, if things go well, we don’t just watch an imitation of life -- we enter into it. The author, like the magician, has created an illusion.  The lights dim, the curtain opens, images flash on the screen and we are transported, most often to another place and another time.

By now, most of us understand the engineering of this effect. It comes from scenic construction, from character details, from dialogue, from the variation of points of view, from time in motion, all the strategies of fiction that Tom Wolfe argued could be borrowed by the responsible reporter.

In his book “On the Origin of Stories,” New Zealand scholar Brian Boyd writes that our capacity for fiction is one of the greatest gifts of evolution -- both a sign and a cause of our survival as a species. We are not just homo sapiens. We are “homo narrans,” creatures who tell stories. The ability to invent stories -- as if they were real -- enriches our experience, helping us sort out in real life the good from the bad, the heroes from the villains.

This exaltation of fiction above nonfiction is misguided, says my Poynter colleague Tom French. It is a harder craft, he argues, to take the raw material of everyday life -- a kidnapping in Boston, an explosion of a chemical factory in Texas -- and to reassemble it so that it can be experienced more widely, an experience that leads readers to empathy.

Re-enter transparency. In one sense transparency is the enemy of narrative -- as it is of magic. The more we interrupt the story with attribution, the basic tool of transparency, the more we distract the reader from the vicarious experience of the story. Everyone knows this. Reporters know it. Editors know it. Ethicists know this. Prize jurors know this.

We can stipulate that for the nonfiction writer, especially the journalist, that aesthetic considerations can never take precedence over practical truth telling. But that does not mean that these two must stand in conflict. I can think of many ways they can be reconciled.

Let’s take the nonfiction book as an example. “The Looming Tower,” a book about the rise of radical Islam, won a Pulitzer Prize for its author Lawrence Wright in 2007. Here is a brief paragraph, chosen at random.

“In a few minutes, Zawahiri appeared, identifying himself as Dr. Abdul Mu’iz. He apologized for the ungracious welcome and invited the men inside for tea and bread. That night Deraz slept on the floor of the cave, next to Zawahiri, who was there to oversee the building of a hospital in one of the tunnels.”

In context, this is gripping stuff, an inside look at men responsible for the terrorist attacks of 9/11. But where did it come from? How does Wright know this to be true?In such a book, an answer can be found in the footnotes.

There are three sources listed for page 128, where this paragraph appeared: testimony on a legal document, interviews with two named sources, and a 1999 document titled “Bin-Laden Associate Interrogated.”

I confess to this truth, that I almost never read the footnotes of such a book. (And neither, I would guess, do most of you.) But in a sense it doesn’t matter. Those footnotes are the cornerstones of credibility, authority, verification and transparency. They reside, in spite of their name, at the back of books, where they do not interrupt the flow of the narrative, or awaken the reader from her trance.

The opposite of transparency is opacity. I just picked up a collection of magazine narratives written by John Hersey, one of the most important nonfiction writers of the 20th century, author of “Hiroshima.” One piece from Life magazine (1944), titled “Joe is Home Now,” begins:

The boy with one arm stood in the Rochester station and looked around.He was on his way to Onteoga, New York, and he was full of going home.

He glanced up at the iron clock – five fifteen, it said.Above the clock he saw the service flag showing that the railroad had sent 25,602 men to the wars.  Jeepers, the boy thought, more than a division.

This is gripping and intimate stuff: a damaged boy home from the war; the exact number on the wall; even young Joe thinking in contemporary slang. The author lifts me from my office chair and transports me back to another time and place. As if by magic.

But how does Hersey know this? I feel a tension between my trance and my need for transparency. There are no footnotes to guide me here. No attribution in the text. I’m willing to suspend my disbelief, except….

Except I already know that this story is a fictionalized version of events and that our boy Joe Souczak is a composite character. Hersey admitted as much. In his book “The Gang that Wouldn’t Write Straight,” Marc Weingarten writes that Hersey built his composite upon interviews with 43 veterans. With his omniscient authorial voice and lack of attribution, Hersey preferred the opacity of fiction to the transparency of fact.

Many of us have settled on a compromise, which I would describe as an Aristotelian middle ground between opacity and transparency. If a name will help you remember it, call it translucence.

When something is translucent, you can see light shining through it, without having to take into account all the nitty gritty details. Done right, the nonfiction writer can shine a light through the material, revealing enough of the governing intelligence behind the narrative to satisfy the general curiosity and subdue the skepticism of average readers -- without dispelling the experience.

We do it all the time. We do it with generalized attribution: “police and witnesses gave this account of rescue.” With an editor or author’s note, before or after the narrative. With additional information and attribution on a website. With hybrid stories that combine both narrative and straight news elements. And who says newspapers and magazines can’t use the occasional footnote?

I want to be clear about this distinction. While necessary for narrative, translucence may be insufficient for either straight news report or investigative work. For those pieces, more attribution and greater transparency may be the building blocks of credibility.

But if it’s a story you want, I, for one, don’t need to see that man behind the curtain, although I’m glad to know that someone’s there.

I end this essay with Soupy Sales, the irreverent kid show host of the 1960s, who liked to slip adult material into the mix.“ People in glass houses,” Soupy once wrote on his chalkboard, “should not invite Sophia Loren over for the weekend.” There it is again -- the limits of transparency!

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    Roy Peter Clark

    Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty member, dean, vice-president, and senior scholar.


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