Readers' trust is at risk when writers blur nonfiction lines CONSIDER THE SOURCE

July 01, 1994|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Sun Book Editor

A new book about the Clinton White House opens with an August 1991 scene between Bill and Hillary Clinton in bed, discussing whether he should run for president. The dialogue is written as though the author were there himself, transcribing the couple's pillow-talk conversation. Throughout, there are neither footnotes nor other sourcing -- much like the previous books he has written.

In this way, Bob Woodward's latest best-seller, "The Agenda," illustrates what has become an increasingly serious problem for nonfiction readers over the past few decades. As the standards for writing nonfiction have changed, as the lines between fiction and nonfiction become further blurred, the reader must ask these questions: What can you believe in a nonfiction book? Which authors can you trust?

Most distressing for readers, this dilemma involves some of the best-known writers of the day. For example:

* In 1993, best-selling nonfiction author Joe McGinniss wrote "The Last Brother," a 600-page-plus book that he called a "rumination" on the life of Sen. Ted Kennedy. Although he never interviewed the Massachusetts senator, Mr. McGinniss often speculated on what Mr. Kennedy felt or thought.

* In "The Executioner's Song," novelist Norman Mailer wrote an account of the execution of convicted murderer Gary Gilmore. Although the characters and situations described in the book were real-life, the author won the 1980 Pulitzer Prize in the fiction category.

* Thomas Keneally's "Schindler's Ark," which was made into Steven Spielberg's film "Schindler's List," won England's prestigious Booker Prize in 1982. The Booker is awarded to works of fiction, but the Australian author himself said his book was nonfiction.

If such blurrings leave a reader constantly asking, "Where did he get this information?" or "How does he know this?" then it becomes difficult to get into a comfort zone with these authors. One is constantly on alert.

No wonder that Craig Nelson, a respected editor at Hyperion Press, notes: "If people read nonfiction as the truth, they do so at their own peril."

Ever since nonfiction pioneers such as the New Yorker's Joseph Mitchell and "New Journalists" Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe and Truman Capote began to experiment with the genre decades ago, nonfiction has become an increasingly slippery property. Capote once explained his thinking behind the writing of his 1966 classic "In Cold Blood" this way: "I wanted to produce a journalistic novel, something on a large scale that would have the credibility of fact, the immediacy of film, the depth and freedom of prose, and the precision of poetry."

Birth of 'nonfiction novels'

That's a large order for anyone, but these talented pioneers managed to pull it off, even if they confounded readers by offering "nonfiction novels," as Mr. Mailer and Capote did. Certainly anyone who has followed nonfiction in the past few decades would concede that these new freedoms have allowed writers to turn out superb nonfiction. But while they helped produce such innovative works as Mr. Mailer's "The Armies of the Night" and Mr. Wolfe's "The Right Stuff," they also opened the doors for a host of writers who didn't report as diligently or use words as elegantly.

Mr. McGinniss' "The Last Brother" is often cited as a book that used the new nonfiction techniques and failed. Though he protested that many respected biographers had inferred the thoughts of their subjects, he was roundly criticized for having presumed to write Mr. Kennedy's thoughts without having interviewed him.

"The expectations for a nonfiction writer are awful high," says Richard Ben Cramer, the former Sun reporter whose 1992 book "What It Takes: The Way to the White House" received both praise and criticism for attempting to tell the story of the 1988 presidential campaign through the eyes of six candidates. "It probably is healthy to look at the techniques. There are a lot of books that don't play fair."

Typically, a work of contemporary nonfiction might use several devices traditionally reserved for writers of fiction, such as re-created -- or even imagined -- conversations, and composite characters or situations. Footnoting, even in "serious" works, may be infrequently used or dispensed with altogether.

How writers handle these situations often differs. For instance, in his book, Mr. Cramer often wrote that a person said something or did something without giving footnotes or sourcing -- but he feels that he answered the question of credibility.

"I did write what people thought," he says. "But I went back to the subjects and said, 'Would you look at this? Is this a fair representation of what you thought?' If you do it, you have to identify it as a kind of re-creation of your own imagination."

At the same time, standards for the content of nonfiction books have changed.

Effects of 'tabloidization'

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