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"Nonfiction" means it really happened 

Within writing circles, debates about the factuality of nonfiction have been raging so long that I, for one, was surprised at the flurry of media attention given to James Frey's fabrications.

I'm on the journalists' side of this debate, which Oprah seems now to have endorsed as well: if you say it's nonfiction, it has to have actually happened. Facts are verifiable, and someone needs to verify them. The vagaries of memory blur the line somewhat (especially when writing about private events that happened a very long time ago) -- but not much.

The postmodern side of this debate (the side that I fear is giving "creative nonfiction" a bad name, forcing people who write the genuinely true-and-deep stories to switch to calling what they do "literary journalism" or "narrative nonfiction") thinks the line is hopelessly blurred -- but that's not such a big deal because so is "truth." They make an intriguing academic argument, but to me the counter-argument, expressed well here, is far more persuasive.

As an aside, I have to note the story of "Nasdijj," the fake-Navajo fake-memoirist. Turns out when we stop enforcing the rules, it is the least powerful members of society (the real Navajos, as well as the real recovering-substance-abusers), who are most taken advantage of.

So what to do about it? Here's what most troubles me in Friday's coverage:
while the Random House legal department checks nonfiction books to make sure that no one is defamed or libeled, it does not check the truth of the assertions made in a book.

Whew! At several publishing houses, these legal requirements have become a bureaucratic nightmare, while publishers have lost sight of the big picture: in order to retain the emotional power (and thus the market power) of stories that purport to be true, we need to ensure that they are indeed true. Does anyone else see parallels to the recent Enron-style accounting scandals?

On the other hand, here's what most encourages me in Friday's coverage:
One former publisher said he believed that the publishing industry would have to change its practices at the behest of its biggest patron, Ms. Winfrey.

Oprah, you go girl!

I'm always interested in feedback, via info at johnclaytonbooks 9d9ot c8o8m

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