Dan Kois has a good piece in Slate this week, with the cheeky headline, Facts Are Stupid. Some story commenters called it gimmicky, but I call it thought-provoking. When it comes to non-fiction writing, can there ever be room for fiction if it’s in the name of art? Does muddying the waters of fact sometimes actually serve to clarify a greater truth?
I got my start in newsrooms, where facts and quotes are regarded with reverence. As journalists, we were trained to gather the pieces of a story as best as we knew them and correct the record when we’d learned we’d gotten it wrong. There was room for fact-blurrying or muddying (unless you’re Jayson Blair. And that’s not cool). Still, who among us hasn’t smoothed over a bumbly quote for the sake of clarity? Essay writing gets trickier. Did that incident you’re writing about actually happen in the fourth grade, or was it third? How much does it really matter if you’re not forsaking the salient facts of the story?
As readers and listeners, we put a certain amount of trust in our storytellers. But when a comedian tells us, “True story that happened to me this weekend…” we know it’s code for “this story is pretty much bullshit, but I’m about to reveal a greater truth, so go with it.” And go with it, we do. The same with humor writers like David Sedaris and Sloane Crosley. They’re essentially writing memoir, but we as readers know they’re exaggerating for effect, that they’re calling up memories that the passing of time has forced them to reconstruct, and likely not with entire accuracy. And we’re cool with that. We go along for the ride because we trust that the essence of the story is true.
But where is the line between story-truth and truth-truth? Read the story in Slate and let me know what you think.