The ‘true story’ paradox: Toward a defensible nonfiction

Many writers tell stories about real people and then claim these stories to be nonfiction, that is, “not false,” but this is a problem, because all stories are false (or are so distant from reality as to be false).

A nonfiction story is a sequence of descriptions (of things, people, etc.). These descriptions are the inferences and interpretations of the colors, sounds, touches, smells, etc., that we take in. As we can’t know the world except through our senses, these interpretations may be flawed, incomplete, or speculative.

As such, anything we say about the real world is at best inadequate and at worst, complete fiction. Any nonfiction story that does not acknowledge this is lying.

The problem lies in conflating the label of “nonfiction” with the idea of truth. Truth — the correspondence of any idea with reality — is not only unknowable; there is no “reality text” or “reality idea” against which to compare a human text or a human idea (that is, all ideas we could have, since we know only our own minds and none other). That which we label physical reality — real, touchable things and sensible energies (light and sound) — are not ideas and do not seem to need our labeling. For me, “real things” are those that I do not wish to strike against my head, as they cause me pain. Ideas may confuse me, but they do not make me bleed.

So a nonfiction text may avoid the true/false dichotomy (itself an idea, of course) altogether if nonfiction is defined narrowly as “the expressions of a particular mind speaking as itself” or perhaps “the expressions of a self” (as Kirsch points out).  The truth test isn’t necessary.

If we stopped wondering whether any claimed-nonfiction story was true or false, we could see it just as an idea, an abstraction, a possibility. We could cease the futile struggle of trying to find reality and we could avoid the delusion of thinking that we had found reality. We could understand that all histories, being stories, are not entitled to a claim to truth. We could see that math and all logic systems are merely ideas, as are all philosophical positions and as are all religious beliefs. We’d be left with our own particular experiences and, perhaps, we’d feel a freedom to interpret these experiences anew for ourselves rather than applying others’ concepts to them, but when we did want to borrow others’ ideas, we’d be aware of our borrowing.

Perhaps realizing that our ideas are not reality would allow us to more clearly see our experiences without filtering these through our own, or others’, previous concepts.


This short piece was written after the much longer text below. If the tone above seems oracular, that may be a reaction to my feeling in the earlier piece that I was getting too particular, too bogged down, too chatty. The above is the gist of what I was intending to say below, and what I said below came to mind as I wrote in my journal this morning. I sensed that those ideas could be worth posting on ye olde blogge here. I’m posting the lower piece as perhaps a model in the exercise of writing, and perhaps as an antidote to the lordly-and-or-priestly-simplisitc tone above.


This essay’s point about how humorists like David Sedaris and Sloane Crosley aren’t really writing essays but something else:

The self, then, has always been at the heart of the literary essay. But the new essay is exclusively about the self, with the world serving only as a foil and an accessory, as a mere staging ground for the projection of the self. Formally, one might describe the work of Sedaris, Crosley, Rothbart, and company as autobiographical comic narrative: short, chatty, funny stories about things that happened to me—weird things, or ordinary things that are made weird in the telling. What we now call an essayist used to be called a humorist. Sedaris’s books are sold as essays, but he is plainly trying to be Thurber, not Addison.

This is a particular kind of humor, rooted in the creation of a fictional alter ego who shares the author’s name. This device allows the essayist to claim the authenticity of non-fiction while indulging, with the reader’s tacit permission, in the invention and shaping of fiction.

Sedaris’s essays that I’ve read or heard (as he performed his writings on public radio before he began publishing) are well-crafted, entertaining pieces. By now, I expect that when I’m about to encounter a new Sedaris text, I can relax and prepare to laugh (not that I always laugh — some writings are just a bit peculiar, but I have confidence in a Sedaris piece that I do not in a David Rakoff piece or a Sloane Crosley piece. Somehow those other writers don’t quite feel as entertaining. There’s a fine line Sedaris walks between seeming endearing and empathetic — being Everyman while also displaying his peculiarities ( I recall a “Fresh Air” show a few years back where Sedaris told Terry Gross how he finds bugs to feed the spiders living in his house, and I wondered if Sedaris was putting on a persona in order to make himself seem intriguing (which wouldn’t be intriguing) or if he really were that weird (which would be intriguing, but he was telling this as an anecdote on national media, and I doubt he’d be as successful as he is if he were that socially self-unaware), and somehow Rakoff didn’t strike me as being quite as amusing, and Crosley seemed to not be aware that her story-character, her persona, was not always one I could identify with — particularly in the story in “Cake” where she seemed condescendingly critical of a friend’s wedding, and I sorta cringed to read the story, wondering what this real-life friend would think.

And it matters what one writes about other real people. My brother’s book contained an anecdote about me that was not only “frank and humorous” (as the review at the link says) but also, well, false. The anecdote is that, while camping with my brothers and my uncle, I took our flimsy folding saw into my tent at night so as to defend myself from a bear attack. Amusing, sure, but I have no recollection of that (and nor did my brother, it turned out; he got the story from my uncle). If I took the saw to bed, which I may have, it would have been for the purpose of keeping it dry and/or in a known location. I had no delusions of fighting off bears, but it’s amusing to think that a person would. Clearly, I have a smaller complaint than do many other real people (here’s just one) who’ve been the subjects of works claimed to be nonfiction, but it wasn’t fun to see myself portrayed as a doofus in the seemingly long-lasting medium of print. And because my brother claimed to be writing based on his memories, I felt there was no good way to challenge the story, especially since I hadn’t even remembered this event — and I wouldn’t remember it if it seemed like a non-event to me at the time.  (And of course, in my defense, and for my own publishing purpose, I’m guilty here of writing about my brother.)

To write nonfiction stories, anecdotes, or memoirs is to fictionalize. Stories do not exist objectively in the world and so they must be created by a person’s mind, and even if that mind is not intending to lie, that mind can only tell what sense data it took in (which must be incomplete — our brains are constantly choosing which “inputs” to attend to and which to discard) and that mind can only tell what it interpreted that sense-data to mean. A story can only come from a perspective, but every perspective is limited to the point of being untrustworthy. Where one person sees a threatening man, someone standing to that person’s side might see only a villain on a movie poster, and unless these discrepancies are ironed out while there’s recourse to rechecking the evidence, both interpretations exist and both may be no more true than “that’s what I remember,” which is both inadequate and unassailable.

Sedaris’s stories are unassailable. He tells stories about himself and other real people (he’s pretty hard on his father, for instance, in “Me Talk Pretty One Day,” which  Wikipedia article contains a reference to these troubles, how Sedaris called off a movie of the stories “after a conversation with his sister aroused concerns as to how his family might be portrayed on screen”) while these other people aren’t around to defend themselves. But the stories are entertaining. Sedaris’s essays are well-crafted so as to be entertaining, so as to make them easily digestible for the audience.

An article by Nathan Heller in the 25 Feb. New Yorker (mostly behind paywall) contains this distinction:

“Artists are pulled these days between two warring camps. On one side lie what might be called the Experientialists: those who believe that the point of art is to have the audience undergo a particular experience in time — and that the audience’s responsibility is to submit as fully as possible. (Think of Antonioni, who kept his cameras open to the unexpected.) On the other are the Arrangers: people who think that the role of art is to order, burnish, perform, and engage desire. (Think of Hitchcock.) Experientialism honors the artist’s sensibility: ‘A la Recherche du Temps Perdu’ may be dilated and slow, but it’s only by giving in to the author’s method that we can experience its genius. Arranging, by contrast, defers to the audience: what makes ‘The Great Gatsby’ better than any of a hundred novels with comparable cultural freight is that it’s economically written and smartly plotted, seducing us without special conditions. Diehard Experientialists accuse Arrangers of pandering with ‘easy art’ and cliche. Arrangers mock Experientialists for self-indulgence, tedious abtruseness, and bad faith. (The lousy Experientialist claims that his disjointed, boring novel is supposed to be that way.) The ablest artists are those who inhabit a middle landscape, mastering the art of special attention while meeting the challenges of effortless appeal.”

Clearly, if one’s goal is to make money by appealing to a wide audience, one would make one’s art as effortless as possible, and one would stick to familiar forms. But these familiar forms can sometimes become part of the fabrication that an artist wants to expose.

Sedaris’s stories do not include caveats or doubts that would at least bring in the possibility of an unknowable reality — Sedaris relates reality in his stories. Well, not quite: there is a sense, as Kirsch writes, in Sedaris’s work of an irony that calls “the whole story into question.” But in a sense, this is OK because, I suggest, Sedaris’s essays are never essays (particularly if essays are defined as “attempts” (per the French etymology) in which doubt plays a primary role) — instead, they are scripts for his performances. As a performer, Sedaris is directly in front of an audience, which can boo or leave and so must be entertained. He is able to charge significant prices ($40 to $65 for a ticket in Salina, Kansas) for his public performances — these are not just readings. In giving a performance, there’s not a lot of room to invite philosophical debate — people wanna laugh, and if Sedaris were improvising onstage, or merely telling off-the-cuff anecdotes, people may not be amused. It’s better to go with your best — prepared — stuff in that case.

In contrast, David Foster Wallace’s reportorial essays are not pared down for performance but are stuffed with self-conscious attempts to explain and overexplain — thus, the footnotes. Wallace seems aware, obsessively so, of the problem of writing nonfiction about reality. Yet, he still (as here) does characterize — turn real people into descriptions that might as well be fictional for all the reality about a person that they could possibly capture.

His digressions, while they may reveal the associative nature of his thinking, may also give a sense that he is actually trying to paint a picture of reality through sheer thoroughness.

What I want to suggest is a method of nonfiction that does not attempt to tell stories. (Even when newspapers tell stories, they try to avoid the problem of perspective by simply retelling, by quoting, the stories of those who were there — thus, news gets abstract — and unassailable — by not even trying to discover reality but by mainly retelling others’ stories. Reporters defend themselves by saying “I can only report what sources tell me,” which info could be fact-checked against other sources, but that’s just a matter of comparing stories to stories. I suppose it would be possible to report what one actually sees, but then one is limited by one’s own perspective and interpretation.

[And at this point, I was going to write the ideas that went into the shorter piece at the top.]

2 responses to “The ‘true story’ paradox: Toward a defensible nonfiction

  1. Sooo, I agree ideas can confuse. I’d add they can also irritate, frustrate, delight and comfort. I’m not in agreement that ideas cannot hurt. Enough mental stress or pain from ideas can cause physical symptoms in many different forms, including bleeding.

    Another point of discussion: when I was working on my Masters, a professor I very much respected explained that learning cannot occur unless or until a person has something to tie the new concept or idea to. We say “X is like a toaster” or “You know that fish can extract oxygen from water. Well, then A B and C.” So, without previous concepts to compare or contrast new ones to, how could we have any concept of reality? That said, I know for certainty that my reality is peculiarly mine and that I have to allow others to have their own realities and that my reality has to be big enough or flexible enough to allow space for others’ realities.

  2. I’m not sure what you’re saying about the ideas causing bleeding …
    Sure, I can agree that we have to connect new ideas to old ones, and I certainly learned many ideas on my way to stating that ideas are all questionable — but questioning one’s concept of reality is kinda my point above, and so I’d ask how you can be so certain about your idea of reality?

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