the nonfiction contract

The Great Courses series I currently have on my iPod is Writing Creative Nonfiction. One of the points that the instructor, Tilar J. Mazzeo, spends a lot of time discussing, almost to the point of distraction, is what she calls the nonfiction contract. This simply means that if you portray something as nonfiction, the work, all of it, needs to represent the truth.

Mazzeo does not seem to acknowledge the degree to which writers violate this contract every day, though she does spend some time on one of the most egregious violations, the book A Million Little Pieces, published in 2003 as a memoir, which turned out to be strictly fiction.

Usually the cases are more subtle, as I discussed 2008. Here’s what I said then.

Shortly after I graduated from college, I read Looking Back by Joyce Maynard. Maynard is exactly my age and graduated from high school in 1971 as I did. I thoroughly enjoyed the book as her reflections on life and society very much resonated with mine. Maynard, you will recall, lived with J.D. Salinger for a while when she was nineteen. She chronicles this relationship, as well as her high school years in At Home in the World, published in 1998. She describes how what she wrote in Looking Back and her other writing of the time reflected what she thought her publishers and readers wanted, and not what she really felt and believed at all.

Several years ago I read John Steinbeck‘s book The Log from the Sea of Cortez, in which he chronicles an expedition through the Gulf of California he took with his friend of Cannery Row fame, Ed Ricketts. I seem to recall Steinbeck recounting his wife waving goodbye on the dock as they left Monterey. In any case she is not on the trip as recounted in the book. In 2002 Andromeda Romano-Lax published Searching for Steinbeck’s Sea of Cortez. She recounts the trip she and her family took re-tracing Steinbeck’s voyage and provides some background to the original trip. She mentions that Steinbeck’s marriage was heading into difficult times around the time of the adventure, and that not only was his wife on the Western Flyer with Steinbeck, Ricketts, and the crew, but she did almost all of the meal preparation. But Steinbeck chose to write her out of the book.

Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, wrote in The Long Loneliness of a solo pilgrimage she took to various places in Europe that held meaning for her. The only problem was this was actually a honeymoon trip, according to Paul Elie, in The Life You Save May Be Your Own. But then Elie’s book documents many discrepancies between Day’s life and writing, as well as that of Thomas Merton. (Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy, the other two subjects of the book, don’t escape criticism, but since they wrote mostly fiction the discrepancies are not there to highlight.)

Wendy Merrill, author of Falling Into Manholes, which is classified as biography, told Sedge Thomson in an interview on West Coast Live that to avoid potential legal problems she not only changed names, but circumstances and events as well, and sometimes combined multiple individuals into one.

Sometimes a novel is said to be a “thinly disguised” autobiography, but I’m realizing that we may want to recognize that the “non” in “non-fiction” may not be as accurate or true as we generally want to believe. Maybe we need to appreciate some of our books at face value, and not expect all of our autobiographies and memoirs to be “true” in the strictest sense of the word.

I don’t think anything has changed since 2008. Earlier this year the writer John D’Agata aired his own dirty laundry in a book that described his dispute with a fact checker. D’Agata had no issues with altering facts for the sake of art, literary rhythm or flow. His fact checker felt otherwise.

As for this blog, my contract with you, dear reader, remains unchanged. Everything I say about my life is true, but I will not say everything about my life.


3 Comments on “the nonfiction contract”

  1. Alison Morgan says:

    I remember saying once that “Reality is a matter of perception”. Still true, but then I only wrote fiction at that time….

  2. las artes says:

    In 1947, Steinbeck made the first of many trips to the Soviet Union , this one with renowned photographer Robert Capa . They visited Moscow , Kiev , Tbilisi , Batumi and Stalingrad , becoming some of the first Westerners to visit many parts of the USSR since the communist revolution. Steinbeck’s book about their experiences, A Russian Journal, was illustrated with Capa’s photos. In 1948, the year the book was published, Steinbeck was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters .

  3. […] have been known to complain here, though I haven’t recently, of which I am certain you are grateful, about fabrications in books […]


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