by Peter Trachtenberg
I’ve publicly identified as a cat person, but I also like dogs and have spent a lot of time watching them. I was watching them even before I liked them, mostly because I was an anxious kid and was never sure of the intentions of any strange dog that came bounding up to me. Yeah, that looked like a smile, but what was with all the teeth? There was an area in the park where I played after school—I’m old enough to remember a time when parents were so negligent that they let their kids play in the parks unattended—where a bunch of dogs congregated. Unlike children, they were attended by their adult owners, who watched on as the dogs lunged and darted and barked furiously, raced in circles, reared like stallions, collided, grappled, opened their dripping mouths and bit (or appeared to bite) each other, tried to swallow each other whole. The snap of their teeth sounded like bones breaking. Horrible. Once, after spying on this scene, I went up to a cop and told him some men were making their dogs fight. I couldn’t understand why he laughed.
I’ve thought of this moment lately in connection with the longstanding controversy about departures from fact in nonfiction. ‘Departures from fact’ sounds evasive: many no doubt would prefer ‘lying.’ And we all know it’s lying when a memoirist who once spent three hours in a police station for a driving infraction turns that into 18 days for punching out a cop. We know it’s lying when Martha Gellhorn writes an eyewitness account of a lynching in Depression-era Mississippi and later admits she made it up (which might have mitigated the falsehood had she made the admission to her readers and not just in a letter to a friend, even though the friend happened to be Eleanor Roosevelt)? But what do you call it when John D’Agata falsifies minor and not-so-minor facts in a story on a teenager’s suicide in Las Vegas and dismisses his fact-checker’s protest (squeal, murmur) on the grounds that he, D’Agata, isn’t a journalist but an essayist? (I think of this as the Peewee Herman defense: every time Peewee was caught doing something stupid, he’d snap, “I meant to do that!”) Do you call it something else when it becomes apparent that the fact-checker knew all along what D’Agata was up to? Was Joseph Mitchell lying when he quoted down to the comma his heroically odd subjects holding forth with Shakespearian eloquence and at Shakespearian length, though he wrote his legendary profiles long before the advent of the hand-held recorder? Could his short-hand really have been that good?
Maybe my semantic uncertainty reflects my varying respect for, and attachment to, these different writers. I have no trouble calling James Frey a liar: Oprah Winfrey called him a liar. But Joseph Mitchell is a hero of mine. Few other writers have such a sense of the essential strangeness and solitude of their fellow humans or observe them with such humor and such tact. Do I have to call him a liar, too?
Maybe we first have to consider the ethical consequences of untruth. By lying about a lynching, Gellhorn potentially gave ammunition to the forces who wanted to dismiss all such reports as lies, who wanted Americans to believe that lynchings did not take place or that if they did they were only instances of ‘popular justice’ enacted against murderers and rapists. So the first objection to authorial lying might be called tactical: when a writer lies about real events, he or she may make the events themselves seem like lies, and give aid and comfort to liars who are far more organized and accomplished and ill-intentioned.
I’d say that all meretricious nonfiction has two ethical dimensions, or say two axes. The first axis is that of the story’s subject matter, the facts it relates, or purports to relate: a lynching in Mississippi or a suicide in Las Vegas or a young man’s drug addiction and driving habits. Some of those facts possess more gravity than others and some of that gravity has to do with whom those facts involve. Or, put another way, whom those facts belong to, who owns them.
The lies James Frey tells in A Million Little Pieces are fundamentally about James Frey, all its other characters being essentially supporting players, and bit players at that. There’s a thing parents say when their children are about to go off and do something stupid. At least my parents said it, after they’d finished yelling and weeping and realized they still couldn’t keep me from being a moron: It’s your life. And it seems to me that’s true of every memoirist. It’s his or her life.
But when Martha Gellhorn lied about what she saw in Mississippi, she appropriated facts that concerned real people, real share-croppers who died horribly at the hands of their white neighbors. Those facts—and what fact is more final than death?—belonged to them. I suppose you could argue that nobody owns truth, but if anything establishes a claim to it, you’d think it would be suffering.
The second moral axis of this model is the axis of the audience, the reader or listener, who has been conned into believing that a false story was true. Every writer who hopes to be read makes a contract with the reader. The contract is usually implicit, but one sometimes sees it spelled out in a book’s disclaimer: “All characters in this book are fictional and any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.” “This story is true, only the names have been changed.” “My family will dispute everything I say about them, but I’m still right.” What these disclaimers do is give the reader a cue as to how literally to take what follows. That can also be done implicitly. Anyone who sees a story that begins “Once upon a time” is unlikely to think she’s reading Lawrence Wright.
And anyone who reads Joseph Mitchell’s profiles—of a ticket-taker in a Bowery movie theater or a drink-cadging Greenwich Village bohemian known for his imitations of seagulls or the trustee of an African-American cemetery on Staten Island—knows almost at once that these aren’t standard works of journalism: they’re tall tales whose central figures happen to be real. Look at how Mitchell begins his beautiful, mournful “Mr. Hunter’s Grave”: “When things get too much for me, I put a wildflower book and a couple of sandwiches in my pockets and go down to the South Shore of Staten Island and wander around awhile in one of the old cemeteries down there.” Not Gay Talese or Elizabeth Kolbert but Melville and Ecclesiastes.
Which brings me back to the dogs. The reason that cop laughed at me all those decades ago when I reported the presence of a dog-fighting ring in Riverside Park was that he knew those dogs weren’t fighting. They were playing. One of the things that may have told him this was something dogs do when they signal they want to play: they thump the ground with their forepaws. Try it with your dog some time: it’ll drive him crazy. This thump is the dogs’ equivalent of the cues good writers give their readers to signal how they should take the story to come, how fully they should swallow its facts. Can one bet money on them, or should one just enjoy them, as the writer so plainly did? Of course devising such cues is harder than smacking the ground with your forepaws—hands—but it seems a useful thing for any writer to know, especially at a time when disappointed readers can vent their displeasure on Amazon and Goodreads or even—who knows?—with lawsuits. It does for people what its counterpart does for dogs: keeps them from getting bitten.