October 25, 2003


The Fabulous Fabulists Mencken, Liebling, and Mitchell made stuff up, too. Why do we excuse them? (Jack Shafer, June 12, 2003, Slate)

Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass, and Christopher Newton all fabricated details--mundane and spectacular--in their journalism. But why? Reaching for the simplest explanation, I previously wrote that fabulists make stuff up because they don't have the talent or industry to produce copy grand enough to satisfy their egos.

But if we agree that hacks and loafers resort to lies because they don't know how else to make great journalism, what can we say about reporters from the Pantheon who marbled their journalism with fiction? I'm thinking of H.L. Mencken, A.J. Liebling, and Joseph Mitchell, all of whom made stuff up. None of them suffered much in the way of reputation injury when their inventions were discovered. What sort of double standard is this? [...]

Liebling's colleague at the World-Telegram and New Yorker, Joseph Mitchell, also diluted fact with fib. In the mid-'40s, he wrote three New Yorker pieces about New York's Fulton Fish Market, which were presented as fact. Only when the stories were collected as a book, Old Mr. Flood, in 1948 did Mitchell offer this disclaimer: "Mr. Flood is not one man; combined in him are aspects of several old men who work or hang out in Fulton Fish Market, or who did in the past." In a 1992 article, the New Criterion catalogs a few of his embellishments: Mitchell assigned Flood his own birthday, July 27; his "gustatory predilections"; his love for the Bible; his high regard for Mark Twain; his taste for columnist Heywood Broun; and his affection for all things old.

If we insist on banishing Blair, Glass, Newton, and all the other confessed composite artists and embellishers (Michael Finkel, Christopher Jones, Jay Forman, Nik Cohn, Rodney Rothman) from journalism, why do we still honor Mencken, Liebling, and Mitchell? [...]

All fabricators share a common motive: They want to make their story better than the plain truth, which they think gives them license to blend characters into a composite, pipe in dialogue, and edit events into a more logical narrative. If the truth refuses to collaborate, they conjure up something more compelling. The leading exponent of this school of journalism was New Yorker staff writer Alastair Reid. In 1984, the Wall Street Journal reported that Reid had constructed numerous composite characters in his nonfiction New Yorker pieces, rearranging events and scenes and inventing conversations. A translator and a poet as well as a nonfiction writer, Reid rationalized every one of his embellishments. [...]

Joseph Mitchell anticipated Reid's grandiosity and self-regard in defending his Fulton Fish Market composite, writing in the preface to the book version, "I wanted these stories to be truthful rather than factual, but they are solidly based on facts." This caveat reveals Mitchell's disdain for the quotidian truths of newspapers. One suspects that Liebling's willingness to bend genres hails from the same territory. Reid spoke for all the arty fabricators working inside journalism when he told the Journal, "Readers who are factual-minded are the readers who are least important."

-Literary License: Defending Joseph Mitchell's composite characters. (Meghan O'Rourke, July 29, 2003, Slate)
Joseph Mitchell's Old Mr. Flood is a great book. It's as vivid a portrait of the Fulton Fish Market and of working-class life in New York City as any we have. Old Mr. Flood is also partly invented. Though it was first presented as journalism'Äîmost of it ran as magazine pieces in The New Yorker in 1944--Mitchell revealed in the book's preface some four years later that Mr. Flood was a composite character, as Jack Shafer recently noted in Slate.

With the reappearance of Stephen Glass and the dismissal of Jayson Blair, a certain kind of rule-bending literary journalism has taken it on the chin. Mitchell and other respected sometime-"fabulists"'--including A.J. Liebling and Ryszard Kapuscinski'--have been lightly tarred and feathered along with the black-listed young journalists. After all, the argument goes, the realms of Fact and Fiction are diametrically opposed. There is no truth but the plain truth. The very currency of journalism is fact; to toy with it once is to devalue it (and your integrity) permanently, whether you are a great stylist or a hack.

This line of reasoning is entirely logical. And yet too rigid an adherence to such standards would mean an impoverishment of American journalism'--one that seems unthinkable. There'd be no Old Mr. Flood, no The Honest Rainmaker, by A.J. Liebling; some work by New Journalists like Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, and Norman Mailer would go in the trash. John Hersey is said to have created a composite character in a Life magazine story; does this mean we should think differently of his masterpiece Hiroshima?

Of course, no one wants to encourage budding Jayson Blairs. There is a line between aesthetic enhancement and outright fabrication; what's at stake here is something closer to judicious manipulation of fact than to Stephen Glass' invention-stews. Newspaper journalism always ought to be thoroughly factual. (H.L. Mencken's fabrications in the Baltimore Herald, for example, are indefensible.) [...]

Indeed, there are times when the license of fiction, sparingly employed in the service of nonfiction, results in a great book with no negative effects on the lives of those involved. Old Mr. Flood seems precisely such a book. For one thing, no one real person is defamed in Mitchell's
composite of Flood (unlike Stephen Glass' untruths about Vernon Jordan). Nor does Mitchell's use of a composite detract from the realism of Old Mr. Flood's compassionate, elegant, reportorial portrait of the Fulton Fish
Market. Like a novelist, Mitchell takes license with dialogue in order
to dispense with some of the ancillary randomness that is part of everyday life and arrive at a more highly stylized portrait. The quotes in the Old Mr. Flood are models of eloquent compression, such as you rarely find in real life and usually find in fiction. The point? To create a work that provides more aesthetic pleasure than a less highly wrought one, a distillation that makes us feel something essential about the world described, and thus has a greater chance of being remembered, read, used.

After all, unlike newspaper stories, literary journalism seeks to make or "conjure up" a broader reality--îto bring us into a world. This isn't news of the who-what-when-how-why variety, but news of the kind that V.S. Naipaul said only the novel can deliver--news that resonates with the potency of its presentation. Strictly segregating fact from fiction hobbles literary journalists unnecessarily. Where fiction is an inclusive genre, one that allows for its conventions to be violated, journalism relies on a system of conventions intended to guarantee objectivity. But clearly even these conventions don't make for pure objectivity, which from the start compromises the sanctity of the fact/fiction opposition. [...]

So, perhaps the problem is partly that our culture has no label for this kind of work, and that, systematizing creatures that we are, we need labels.

Maybe we even need a new magazine genre, somewhere between fact and fiction. As for how and when it ought to be used, the only way to determine the answer would be on a case by case basis; in large part it depends on how worthwhile the result is. A system that asks writers to
evaluate their own self-worth (in advance) is not a simple one; take the fact that Truman Capote's rigorous notion of a factually accurate nonfiction novel has quickly given way to a less well-enforced sub-genre, one example of which is Maria Flook's new book about Christa Worthington, a journalist murdered on Cape Cod in 2002. But such a system is theoretically feasible: Fiction writers pillage the lives of friends all the time; we tend to shrug off the negative consequences when the result is Saul Bellow's Herzog or a Robert Lowell poem. Certainly when in doubt, a journalist should assume it's not OK to take licenses like those described here; they're tools to be used rarely. But let's not take Mitchell off the syllabi because other writers lack his judiciousness and talent.

There does seem an essential difference between day-to-day reporting, which should be as factually accurate as the journalist can get it, and essay writing, which seems as much an entertainment as a piece of reportage. Certainly no one reading Joe Mitchell or E.B. White or the other greats of the New Yorker would have thought that they were getting straightforward news coverage.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 25, 2003 4:07 PM

The difficulty -- almost but not quite identified by O'Rourke -- is that real life is mostly dull. Compared to Hollywood, anyway.

I could give numerous examples. I'll limit myself to two.

Some years ago I wrote the story of five young men who went fishing in a small boat, were caught in a violent storm and disappeared. Ten years later, their boat was found on a desolate atoll more than a thousand miles away, with one set of bones in it and a curious notebook, without writing, but with interleaving of aluminum foil.

One of the TV shows (called 'Mysteries of the Unexplained' or something like that) re-created the incident. One of the producers called me and, as is always my policy, I cooperated with all the information I had.

She started fishing for something occult. My response was, Isn't the story you've got good enough?

Of course, it wasn't.

In 1968, I went to a Wallace rally at a football stadium. The crowd was large but calm. However, whenever the local TV station's camera was turned on a section of the stands, that section erupted in waving and cheering.

It was not possible for TV to report accurately what was going on. Even if the station had wanted to, which it did not.

Novels, great essays and the like are memorable, but it's false memory.

Even authentic reporting can be a distortion of reality.

For 20 years I had had in mind going to an auction of abandoned property and reporting what went on. Eventually, I did and I came away with a wonderful story about drugs, lonely immigrants from Bulgaria, a desperate woman weeping on her knees in the parking lot, a honeymoon couple buying diffidently buying into other people's tragedies.

It was one of the best stories I've ever written and every word was exactly what I saw.

Since then I've been to more than a hundred abandoned property auctions, and not one of them has come close to that one for color and incident.

Most of my stories are more or less dull. That's one reason I'm an obscure provincial reporter.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at October 25, 2003 8:02 PM

Someday your stories will be discovered ... or redicovevered. They sound too good to be lost.

I've had friends who were great story tellers. I enjoyed hearing them over and over again. They were originally based on life experiences, but in each retelling they were refined and embellished. And in each of those remininesses my enjoyment of the tale was enhanced; even though I knew the departure from reality was growing. It was the tale and the telling of the tale that mattered and not the reality. The tale in itself became the reality of my imagination. Bless the story tellers whose message is not reality, but the essence of a good tale in its telling.

Reporters should stick to the facts.

Posted by: genecis at October 25, 2003 9:20 PM

The difference seems clear to me.

Reporting should strive to as much as possible put the reader in the position of a fly-on-the-wall.

Essay writing seeks to persuade. Good essay writing succeeds.

While I would love to be a writer like Harry, my appraisal of my talents is far too accurate. So I write letters instead.

But for several months after getting laid off from my airline pilot job, I put food on the table installing home satellite dishes. Which resulted in by far the funniest writing I have ever done; or at least my correspondents said so.

Factual accuracy would have killed whatever humor was there.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at October 25, 2003 9:39 PM

O.K. Reminiscences. I intended to go back and correct it but my marvelous Chianti with dinner tonight won the day.

Posted by: genecis at October 25, 2003 9:42 PM

There are many who think they are getting accurate news coverage from Michael Moore and Noam Chomsky.

Anything that engages people emotionally is trusted more than those things that engage only the brain. Of course, anything that engages the brain should be able to engage you emotionally, but who's got the energy for that?

Posted by: NKR at October 26, 2003 10:12 AM

I suppose that Michael Moore could elide Joseph Mitchell's admission into "I wanted these stories to be truthful rather than factual ...".

Posted by: old maltese at October 26, 2003 2:42 PM

My grandfather was a famous storyteller in Tennessee. He died many years before I was born, but about 20 years ago, an aunt revealed -- why she waited so long she would not say -- that she had a collection of his stories that he had written out for his grandchildren.

Sometimes now I dress up as a South Carolina gentleman of the 1880s and tell his stories.

I have mentioned here, a long time ago, about the man who broke the Klan in North Georgia in 1893 by being willing to testify in a murder when no one else would. That was this grandfather.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at October 26, 2003 3:11 PM