Truth in Nonfiction
A CultureMap®
by Emily Burns Morgan
Published on 2/3/14

“There is no longer any such thing as fiction or nonfiction,” E.L. Doctorow once said. “There’s only narrative.” Doctorow has earned awards for his historical novels Ragtime, Billy Bathgate and The March, which combine fiction and nonfiction. But other writers who blur the lines between fantasy and reality, such as Truman Capote, James Frey and Augusten Burroughs, have not always fared so well. This map asks, how true does nonfiction have to be?

In Cold Blood  (Truman Capote | novel | 1966)
to  “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt”  (Edgar Allan Poe | short story | 1842)

In Cold Blood is remarkable for its objectivity—nowhere, despite his involvement, does the author intrude,” wrote George Plimpton in his 1966 review for The New York Times. Truman Capote’s “nonfiction novel” about the murder of four members of a Kansas family was an immediate best-seller, and most readers accepted the book as an objective account of a true story. Since then critics have accused Capote of taking undue artistic license, inventing scenes and dialogue out of whole cloth. A 2013 Wall Street Journal article based on newly available documents from the Kansas Bureau of Investigation contends Capote painted a rosy picture of the organization and its conduct in the case as payback for privileged access to its files and the murderers themselves.

In “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt,” Edgar Allan Poe does the opposite: His tale recounts real-life events with only minor adjustments. He turns New York cigar seller Mary Rogers into Marie Rogêt, a perfume peddler in Paris; both meet the same unfortunate end, albeit in different rivers. Through his idealized investigator, C. Auguste Dupin, Poe invented detective fiction; through his thinly disguised subject matter, Poe also helped pioneer the true crime genre.

In Cold Blood  (Truman Capote | novel | 1966)
to  “The Decay of Lying”  (Oscar Wilde | essay | 1891)

Truman Capote took credit for inventing the nonfiction novel, a genre that combines reportage with novelistic techniques. But some critics allege Capote’s true crime narrative In Cold Blood is more fiction than fact. Capote maintained everything in it was “immaculately factual,” but this grandiose claim is a stretcher. For example, the closing graveyard scene, in which Susan Kidwell (best friend of murder victim Nancy Clutter) meets detective Alvin Dewey, never actually happened.

Oscar Wilde would have had no problem with Capote’s tendency to favor catharsis over accuracy. In his satirical Socratic dialogue “The Decay of Lying,” Wilde’s stand-in, Vivian, bemoans novels that “are so lifelike that no one can possibly believe in their probability.” Vivian points out what Capote also recognized: While truth is stranger than fiction, it’s also less lovely. For both writers, beauty is the ultimate aim of art. Capote said he labored under a “strictly aesthetic theory about creating a book which could result in a work of art.” As Vivian claims art should, In Cold Blood does not express “anything but itself”—not even truth.

“The Decay of Lying”  (Oscar Wilde | essay | 1891)
to  A Room of One’s Own  (Virginia Woolf | nonfiction book | 1929)

In her extended essay A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf argues that a great mind is neither male nor female but androgynous. She singles out novelist Charlotte Brontë as obsessed, to the detriment of her writing, with her gender’s tribulations. Woolf points to an “awkward break” in a section of Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) in which Jane interrupts the narrative for several paragraphs with a defensive tirade that includes the passage “women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do”—a notion seemingly more relevant to the author than to her character. For Woolf, Brontë’s reality taints the story’s artistic truth.

Oscar Wilde also believed the interruption of suspended disbelief is detrimental to truth. In his essay “The Decay of Lying,” the speaker Vivian believes art shouldn’t jolt us back into the “vulgar, common and uninteresting” aspects of everyday life. Good art, in fact, should be not a copy of life but, instead, so heightened, exaggerated and beautified that nature and humanity aspire to attain its ideal. As Vivian says, “Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.”

A Room of One’s Own  (Virginia Woolf | nonfiction book | 1929)
to  A Million Little Pieces  (James Frey | nonfiction book | 2003)

In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf expresses a preference for writing composed in the “white light of truth” rather than the “red light of emotion.” The response to the 2006 revelation that James Frey mostly made up his memoir about addiction, A Million Little Pieces, certainly bore out Woolf’s notion that audiences feel betrayed when a story doesn’t ring true. The Smoking Gun’s report detailing each of Frey’s untruths begins, “Oprah Winfrey’s been had.” Winfrey had selected the memoir for her book club—publicity that propelled sales to more than 3.5 million copies. Some of those offended by the subterfuge were themselves drug and alcohol addicts who felt Frey’s fabrications as an affront to their lived experience. The question remains as to whether most readers minded being lied to, or if they were just miffed on behalf of Winfrey, the high priestess of authenticity. Angry or not, people continued to buy A Million Little Pieces even after Winfrey dressed down Frey on national television. Perhaps readers simply care more about “reality” than good writing: Before being accepted as a memoir, the book was rejected by 17 publishers when it was submitted as a novel.

A Million Little Pieces  (James Frey | nonfiction book | 2003)
to  Into Thin Air  (Jon Krakauer | nonfiction book | 1997)

Both Into Thin Air and A Million Little Pieces thrilled readers by being “true.” The former documents Mount Everest’s deadly 1996 climbing season, the latter the struggles of a drug- and alcohol-addicted menace to society. Both raised eyebrows when observers questioned their veracity. In Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, expedition leader Anatoli Boukreev scales Everest without supplemental oxygen—a choice Krakauer contends compromised Boukreev’s ability to aid climbers when a storm hit. Eight climbers died on the mountain that day, though all members of Boukreev’s expedition survived. Boukreev responded with his own tell-all justifying his actions, 1997’s The Climb. But James Frey’s Million Little Pieces fared worse. A year after Oprah Winfrey chose it for her hugely popular book club and invited Frey to appear on her show, The Smoking Gun filed the report “A Million Little Lies,” arguing with ample evidence that much of Frey’s memoir is fictitious. Frey returned to Oprah, this time taking a tongue-lashing from the “Empress of Empathy.” Subsequent editions of Into Thin Air and A Million Little Pieces include authorial notes addressing the respective controversies. In Frey’s case, the publisher refunded the cost of the book to readers who felt defrauded.

A Million Little Pieces  (James Frey | nonfiction book | 2003)
to  Running With Scissors  (Augusten Burroughs | nonfiction book | 2002)

When The Smoking Gun reported that James Frey’s memoir wasn’t altogether true, it generated a controversy fueled at least in part by an open question: Does it matter if a memoir is verifiable if the story is engaging and the moral admirable? Many argued that in this case it did not, that Frey’s tale of redemption was equally inspirational whether truth or fiction. If Frey’s story galvanized other addicts to overcome their harrowing pasts, then who cares if he actually served jail time, lost friends in a train accident or was really the narcissistic badass he claimed to be?

Running With Scissors, Augusten Burroughs’s memoir of family dysfunction, opened another can of autobiographical worms when Burroughs’s adoptive family, the Turcottes (the Finches in the book), sued for defamation. Burroughs maintained his story was accurate but agreed to add an author’s note acknowledging that the Turcottes’ memories differ from his own. That the family claims Burroughs not only fabricated events but also included private information they would not have shared with the public raises even more difficult questions about the nature of the memoir genre and an author’s right to divulge intimate details about the lives of others.

Running With Scissors  (Augusten Burroughs | nonfiction book | 2002)
to  Fun Home  (Alison Bechdel | graphic memoir | 2006)

Running With Scissors made headlines not only for its best-seller status but also for the lawsuit brought by the Turcotte family, who claimed Augusten Burroughs painted them in an unflattering light. While Burroughs has consistently defended his work and it continues to be marketed as a memoir, new editions include an author’s note conceding that the Turcottes remember things differently than he does and that the “book was not intended to hurt the family.”

In Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, Alison Bechdel also portrays real people and divulges family secrets—her own. But she gets away with her negative portrayals through a trick shared by many authors: She writes about someone who’s dead. Her father was hit by a truck and killed, in what Bechdel believes was a suicide, shortly after she came out as a lesbian. The portrait of her father that emerges in Bechdel’s comic panels is of a man both brutal and tender. One can’t help but wonder what he might have thought had he lived to read the book. Bechdel’s mother feels hurt by Fun Home, according to the author. “My mother comes from a different generation. She really believes that people should shut up.”

Fun Home  (Alison Bechdel | graphic memoir | 2006)
to  A Room of One’s Own  (Virginia Woolf | nonfiction book | 1929)

In A Room of One’s Own Virginia Woolf ruminates on an author’s ideal state of mind. She resents that, unlike her male counterparts, she didn’t receive a formal education, and she worries that the “poison of fear and bitterness” may hold her back as a writer. Woolf suggests that all writers need education and independence in order to locate and express dispassionate truth.

Alison Bechdel’s obsession with truth comes through in a different way. Though anyone writing a memoir views the world through a personal lens, Bechdel took things a step further when she became a comic-book artist. She developed a drawing style that, while based on photographic references, imbues her scenes and characters with emotional richness. Bechdel realized early on that her perceptions were simply that and may not hold true for anyone else. In Fun Home she writes about noticing a certain point in her childhood diaries at which she began to append “I think” to every declaration. Eventually she invented a symbol to stand in for “I think”—it almost resembles the Greek letter lambda, λ. Soon entire sections of her journal were covered with this marker, suggesting both personal conviction and uncertainty.