Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The facts, and nothing but...


While Charleston and the rest of the Midwest suffered under the Polar Vortex, surely 2014's first catchphrase, I visited my grandparents in Phoenix. Each morning, after a jog through the gated retirement community where my grandparents reside (aptly titled "Sunsets and Death by Del Webb"), I watched Fox News with my grandfather. I allowed myself to feel slight pangs of empathy for my Midwest friends and colleagues as the Fox broadcasters talked about the colder-than-Antartica weather.

Beyond the opportunity for cultural observation extended viewing of Fox News provides a young, liberal-leaning, pony-tailed English graduate student, I also witnessed a fantastic example of the tension that exists between truth, facts, and personal experience.

On January 8th, Fox News ran a very long segment about Robert Gates's tell-all memoir "Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War." The story, still on the Fox News website, is titled "Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates slams Obama's leadership style in new book." In a telling example of the differences between media organizations, The New York Times also ran a piece on Gates's memoir. Their title? "The Deliberations of War: 'Duty,' by Robert M. Gates, About Time with Bush and Obama." (Neither Fox News nor The New York Times talked about how it is ironic that a "secretary," which means "secret keeper" in Latin, wrote a tell-all memoir).

Of course, the two article titles raise questions about media bias, and whether or not there is such a thing as fair and honest reporting. A lot of people have rightly wondered whether any news organization in our nation actually reports the facts, or simply tries to persuade readers to their side of some greater argument. Now, I find this conversation especially interesting for two reasons: 1) I wrote for newspapers in high school and college and 2) I am just about finished with a wonderful book by Ben Yagoda called Memoir: A History.

While writing for newspapers, I realized that unbiased reporting is more or less impossible. We write and read linearly, even though events rarely occur in a linear fashion. When writing news stories, I had to put the information in a certain order, which meant I often imposed an artificial linearity on a specific event. I decided what information was most important, and I put that information at the top of the story. This means, regardless of the situation, that it is impossible to not editorialize a news story.

Yagoda spends a lot of time on a similar point in his book when talking about "fictionalized" autobiographies; James Frey's Million Little Pieces is the most well-known example. Yagoda writes about how memory is not nearly as reliable as we like to imagine. The idea of our memory as the world's first recording device is a misguided myth that helps us sleep better at night. When reading a memoir, we should all be a little wary of an author's representation of a childhood experience that occurred decades previous. Yagoda's point is that, while some nonfiction writers knowingly exaggerate or just plain make things up (see Frey), many nonfiction writers just remember events incorrectly.

Beyond the failures of memory, it seems to me that any story told from a single perspective is going to have a lot more interpretations than facts. Gates's book, along with the hundreds of others like it, should not be called a tell-all. It should be called a tell-a-tiny-bit-from-a-limited-perspective. 

Now, the really intriguing part of Yagoda's book, at least for me, is his observation that the lines between fiction and non-fiction used to be far more permeable. People caring about these categories, and defending the lines between fact and fiction with enormous amounts of litigation, is a relatively contemporary phenomenon. (There is a correlation here between memoirs and fiction. Nonfiction writers are often sued for making things up. Fiction writers are often sued for not making things up, characters especially). The New Yorker, for example, used to categorize the personal memoirs it published, known as "casuals" back in the day, as fiction in their in-house catalogs, according to Yagoda. 

If a memoir does not have all its facts straight, is it worth nothing? Is honesty about facts, or about how those facts are presented? (Yagoda provides his own answer to those questions at the end of his book, which I do not want to spoil for anyone.) Gates's memoir, as well as memoir as a genre, has something very important to offer, something more important than "the truth." Memoirs provide insight and perspective. If the memoir is written by someone who had a lot of power, then it provides insight and perspective on a situation of which many are ignorant. Those insights, the recounting of those events, are not important because of the facts they contain. They are important because they allow the reader to share in the experience of another. It may not be the truth, but it is certainly (if it's a memoir worth reading) truthful. And, maybe, truthfulness is all we can hope for.


  1. Though you gotta watch out for truthiness.

  2. The truth is larger than the facts. Especially in matters such as coming of age, falling in love, falling out of love, growing old...the faces change but the situations stay the same. The truth is where the universal life lessons are; there are living narratives and factual data, moving from general to specific; we move from truth to facts (and sometimes vice versa). Yeah?

  3. Whenever I think about "truth" in stories--and I think memoirs as stories--I think about Crane's Red Badge of Courage. Crane didn't serve in the Civil War. He wasn't there. But veterans of the war read that story and thought "this is what I saw. felt. lived". Crane, this fantastic guy (with a fantastic mustache!) that was trained as and worked as a journalist, wrote fiction that was more true than stories that were truth. "The Open Boat" is the same way for me; though it is based on a "true story," it is somehow more than the truth. Twain too. These guys were reporters, and even their fiction ended up giving reports.

    Of course, Crane and Twain were writing before we got so concerned with defining fiction and nonfiction.

    I wonder, too, if audiences were more savvy. Maybe that's the difference? That, as media consumers, we expect an objective truth when we shouldn't.

  4. Same goes for Hemingway's Farewell to Arms since EH was not involved in the retreat from Caporetto. His Green Hills of Africa is a more overt consideration of the intersection of truth and story.

  5. Yeah, I have wondered why previous audiences were less concerned about the factual nature of what was coming out. Part of it is that memoir is moving very quickly as a genre, and nonfiction in general has picked up a lot of speed. But there I think there is something in our culture that values the "facts" and "truth" more than we have previously. Perhaps it has something to do with Watergate and the Middle Eastern wars? Lack of trust in our government means a stronger currency for facts as a culture?

  6. ^ I think it's probably because science.