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Thursday, November 10, 2016
Ethics Toolbox

Non-fiction can be creative, just not made up

By Andrew M. Seaman

The SPJ Ethics Committee handles a lot of issues that, as expected, involve news outlets representing all kinds of media. What may surprise some people is that we also deal with a lot of issues involving non-fiction books.

These issues often involve works that could be classified as creative non-fiction.

Gay Talese, one of the masters of so-called new journalism, recently published “The Voyeur's Motel.” The book was decades in the making and became a hotbed of controversy thanks to a series of decisions Talese made in his reporting of the book.

Specifically, people took issue with Talese blindly promising protection to Gerald Foos, the book’s main source. Foos disclosed that he watched and documented the sex lives of his motel guests over many years. In one case, Foos claimed to observe a murder. Talese also admitted to touring Foos’s elaborate system of observation portals in his motel’s attic, and peeped on a couple having sex.

Additionally, Talese and Paul Farhi of The Washington Post uncovered large discrepancies in Foos accounts, which caused Talese to briefly disavow the book (though he subsequently walked back that disavowal).

Books like “The Voyeur’s Motel” and other works of creative non-fiction have a complicated relationship with journalism ethics. While it’s relatively easy to view books as non-fiction or fiction, creative non-fiction began as a blurring of the two genres.

In a 1965 review of Tom Wolfe’s “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby” in The New York Review of Books, writer Dwight Macdonald called it “parajournalism.” He said it “is a bastard form, having it both ways, exploiting the factual authority of journalism and the atmospheric license of fiction.”

Revered journalism figures like Truman Capote, Hunter S. Thompson and John Hersey all faced ethical criticisms of their work. To some, those criticisms can be very costly.

Jonah Lehrer’s “Imagine: How Creativity Works” was pulled from shelves after it was published in 2012, when he admitted fabricating quotes he attributed to Bob Dylan. The Boston Globe reported in August 2012 that Lehrer could be forced to pay back his advance, and could be held liable for other losses incurred by his publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

However, there are ways authors can guard against these accusations:

1) Writers of any type of non-fiction should always tell the truth to readers. You may scoff at such a simple rule, but people writing longform creative non-fiction are deeply invested in their works and subjects. Sometimes that commitment can blind people to evidence contrary to their thesis or point. Or, those deep relationships can lead people to lie or commit other offences. Regardless of that investment, writers need to remember that the best defense is the truth. No matter how good a lie is, the truth is always better.

2) Writers need to research their subjects and provide supporting evidence. Facts are what people expect when they read non-fiction. Providing sources through direct reference or footnotes are ways to back up those claims. Those attributions give readers added assurance that the writer did his or her homework. Additionally, sources give readers the ability to go explore the subject in more detail.

3) Writers should be transparent. Rarely will people know every answer to the questions people have when reading a book. Or, in some cases, writers may have to recreate scenes that rely on piecemeal information. In those cases, writers should be upfront about those limitations. Explain to readers in footnotes or an introduction that some pieces of information may be gleaned from unconventional sources or recreated based on historical evidence. Acknowledging limitations is not a sign of weakness, and ultimately strengthens the final product.

The bottom line is that non-fiction must be true. “The creative part of creative non-fiction comes in the storytelling techniques that a writer uses to give the story color and punch,” wrote Patrick T. Reardon in The Chicago Tribune in 2006, when James Frey’s memoir “A Million Little Pieces” was exposed for fabrications and inaccuracies.

Creativity doesn’t mean making up events and stories – unless you want your book catalogued in the fiction section.

Andrew Seaman is chairman of the SPJ Ethics Committee and a reporter covering health for Reuters. On Twitter: @andrewmseaman

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