Ulin on non-non-fiction

LAT book editor David Ulin responds to the James Frey controversy in Sunday's Book Review with an essay that argues the line is fuzzy between literary truth and lie.

Ten years ago, Annie Dillard admitted that the anecdote with which she opens her Pulitzer Prize-winning meditation "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek" "I used to have a cat," she had written, "an old fighting tom, who would jump through the open window by my bed in the middle of the night and land on my chest . some mornings I'd wake in daylight to find my body covered with paw prints in blood; I looked as though I'd been painted with roses" was a contrivance; Dillard had borrowed it, with permission, from a graduate student and reconstructed it as her own.

Vivian Gornick too has acknowledged "composing" certain aspects of her 1987 memoir "Fierce Attachments," recasting bits of dialogue and creating an encounter with a street person. For Gornick, there's a difference between what she calls "personal narrative" and straight nonfiction or journalism, although even journalists have been known to stretch the facts in service to some larger truth. I'm thinking now of Hunter S. Thompson, who in 1972 invented a story that Democratic presidential hopeful Edmund Muskie was experimenting with an exotic Brazilian drug named Ibogaine.

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I'm not advocating lying, nor am I suggesting that the truth doesn't matter although I don't think the truth is knowable, on any definitive terms. What I do believe, however, is that this is an infinitely nuanced issue, one that TV talk shows or printed disclaimers can't resolve. Was Annie Dillard being honest when she wrote about a cat she'd never lived with? Or Hunter Thompson, when he invoked Ibogaine? On the one hand, no, of course not, but in another sense perhaps. The real question is: How do these elements enhance our understanding of the story, make us feel the deeper message of the tale? It's a slippery slope, as the Frey scandal illustrates, but I can't help feeling that we are looking at the signposts of an emerging genre, the rules of which are being written as we read.

As for Frey, Ulin says: "He lied, pure and simple, and for reasons that had nothing to do with literature. It was not emotional truth that he was after, but emotional untruth." Frey's editor Sean MacDonald at first vouched pretty strongly for his author's accuracy, but now claims he was duped. MacDonald is also the editor for Hector Tobar, the LAT foreign correspondent who wrote Translation Nation: Defining a New American Identity in the Spanish-Speaking United States.

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