Navigating the Truth, Part I — The Line Between Fiction and Nonfiction: A Guest Post by Leslie Hsu Oh

In May, Andromeda asked whether you were reading nonfiction differently these days in light of news about Frey, Mortenson, and Steinbeck.Leslie Hsu Oh teaches creative writing and business communications at the University of Alaska Anchorage.  Her essayBetween the Lines” was listed as a Notable Essay in The Best American Essays 2010. She will be teaching a workshop called “Truth or Dare: Nonfiction Workshop” from Oct. 7-9.    In this course, you’ll examine ethical dilemmas that poets, fiction, and nonfiction writers successfully navigated in their critically acclaimed nonfiction.  You’ll  also write and workshop pieces that you might be afraid to publish.  Register today!
When Mary Karr sprang up to the podium in her leather knee high boots at the Northern Virginia Fall for the Book Festival and hammered the point that there is no thin line between nonfiction and fiction, I stopped seesawing on my theater chair.
The Liar’s Club, Mary Karr’s first memoir, “won the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction, sold half a million copies, and made its forty-year-old author, who was then an obscure poet, a literary celebrity.”
Some critics claim that The Liar’s Club changed the landscape for the memoir form and “jump-started the current memoir explosion.”  We studied The Liar’s Club in my MFA program to see how a novel transformed into a memoir.  We admired the poetic and novelistic devices Karr used to construct a child’s narrative voice.
Now, she made sure we all heard her loud and clear: “In nonfiction, there’s a contract with the reader: you don’t make stuff up.” I imagined her wielding two pistols, one pointing to each side of a fat line. 
“It pissed me off when I saw James Frey on Larry King saying there’s a lot of argument between fiction and nonfiction.  You know what?  There isn’t.  If it didn’t happen, it’s fiction.  If it did happen, it’s nonfiction.”
Karr told us that critics and editors suggested that she fictionalize parts of her memoir like adding a touching goodbye scene with her mother at the end of The Liar’s Club.  She refused, arguing that sometimes forgetting an event may be the most radiantly true way of representing it.
On the podium, Karr laid down her law: “In fiction, you manufacture events to fit a concept or idea.  With memoir, you have the events and manufacture or hopefully deduce the concept.  You don’t remember something?  Write fiction.”
She illustrated this with examples of how Frey messed up.  The audience started to look at each other nervously, especially when she rattled off names of her friends like Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolff, and David Foster Wallace.
Then, she ended her rant about Frey by calling him something akin to “skunk,” saying “it’s really sad.  He thought his own suffering was insufficient material.”
In the workshop I’ll be teaching on October 7, we’ll take a closer look at where Karr and other nonfiction writers (the ones who got in trouble and the ones who didn’t) draw their line between fiction and nonfiction. 
Karr believes that “novelistic devices, like reconstructed dialogue or telescoping time, isn’t the same as ginning up fake episodes.” For example, she openly admits that she made up the stories her father spins for the “Liar’s Club;” however the stories “are not represented as truth in the book.  I sort of defend doing it that way. They are seen as bullshit, and represented as bullshit.
Among the authors who have a murkier line between nonfiction and fiction, the worst might be Binjamin Wilkomirski.  Wilkomirski’s memoir, Fragments, was considered an award-winning masterpiece, a bestseller, one of the greatest works on Holocaust literature until a journalist discovered that “he wasn’t, in fact, a survivor of the deathcamps.  That he wasn’t even Jewish. Or Polish.  That his name wasn’t even Wilkomirski.”
There’s a fascinating republished version of Fragments retitled The Wilkomirski Affair: A Study in Biographical Truth, which includes a 374 page investigation by the historian his agent hired.  The controversy is juicier than Frey, Mortenson, and Steinbeck.  Despite all his publishers withdrawing publication with some stating “I feel pity for him,” Bruno Dössekker believed with absolute certainty that he was Binjamin Wilkomirski.
We’ll look at how Dössekker/Wilkomirski reframed events in his real life to a fictional life story constructed in painstaking detail over decades.  Did he do this deliberately or did he become so immersed in his craft that he believed what he had written? More importantly, we will examine how these scandals affect your craft?  

2 thoughts on “Navigating the Truth, Part I — The Line Between Fiction and Nonfiction: A Guest Post by Leslie Hsu Oh”

  1. Sometimes I wish stories were not allowed to be labeled, just for the fun of it, for a while. Then, readers would just be free to enjoy a story line…

    In the enduring conversation about truth, and lines btwn fiction and non-fiction, I couldn't resist offering this tidbit that I happened upon today:
    Somebody tells you a story, let's say,and afterward, you ask, "Is it true?"
    And if the answer matters,
    you've got your answer.

    Tim O'Brien,

    The Things They Carried

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