With everyone talking about fake news these days, I wonder about the lines we cross when we write nonfiction. I’ve been writing and reading both fiction and nonfiction for most of my life. What concerns me is the fuzzy line that our nonfiction writers seem comfortable with crossing. Perhaps they feel if news outlets can cross the line, so can they. But, as a reader I object to this kind of thinking.
Nonfiction writers can’t change the facts to suit their stories. There was a terrible war in the 1940’s where lots of people died. Politically, the entire world turned their backs on the Jews. More than 6 million were exterminated. We want to blame the Germans, but the world was responsible for this terrible atrocity, including the US and our then president, Franklin Roosevelt. We can’t change those facts when we create our stories written in those times. It’s no wonder the neo-Nazis claim those atrocities didn’t happen. If we play loose with facts about our history (for political or convenience purposes), we will create fodder for skepticism among fringe groups. Yes, we will!
Colson Whitehead wrote “an historical” novel, Underground Railroad. (See my review here). It got rave reviews from people all over the county. But, it’s based on fake news. The events in that book didn’t happen. Not a thing in the book was true. The railroad didn’t exist and the events in states where the characters stopped didn’t happen. Yes, bad things happened during the era of slavery. Why not write about those real things instead of making up your own atrocities?
As a reader, I can’t abide that.
Years ago I had a story accepted into “Reader’s Digest.” That publication only prints real stories. The story I wrote did occur. It happened to me as a child. From a child’s point of view certain things happened. But, did they really? Most people wouldn’t care if I bent the truth a little in such a story. Did a neighbor really come by and do what I described in the story? Did I even have such a neighbor? Reader’s Digest cared. They fact-checked every detail. I was quite impressed. This is how editors need to behave when publishing nonfiction.
How can readers know every detail? Even when reading an historical novel, we need to trust that the context of that novel is accurate. If you decide to write a novel in which the Titanic doesn’t sink, you need to make clear that your are distorting history at the outset. There are many books that speculate what would have happened to the world if President John F. Kennedy wasn’t assassinated. These books are not historical fiction. They are fiction. Don’t try to distort facts and expect us readers to do your fact checking.
As you can probably tell from this little rant, I do not appreciate the lax attitude editors and publishers are taking with nonfiction these days. Are we less prone to the truth? Do we no longer cringe at lies? What has happened to our basic moral fiber?
What are your thoughts? Do you think it’s okay for nonfiction to play loose with the facts?
If you wanna read fiction, check out my book, The Clock Strikes Midnight. It’s pure fiction but within the context of time and place. I didn’t distort the place. I described Atlanta and its environs accurately. Yep, it’s fiction, but it’s not fake!