Have you ever learned that a writer you admired has been lying to you? Let me tell you a little about one of my former favorites, and why I think otherwise good writers can fall into deception.
Years later many of his claims about wolf behavior in Never Cry Wolf have been refuted, his tantalizing Norse scholarship in West-Viking has been largely debunked, and journalist John Goddard’s 1996 exposé in the (now-defunct) Canadian magazine Saturday Night documented how Mowat exaggerated and falsified factual material in several of his best-loved books. (Summarized here.) Unable to refute the charges, Mowat excused himself by saying that writes “subjective nonfiction.”
Unlike several high-profile American fabulists, Mowat has remained one of Canada’s best-loved writers, and has continued to publish new books. People in the Canadian Arctic long ago nicknamed him “Hardly Know It,” but others consider him a national treasure whose artistic license serves a higher purpose of raising environmental awareness and lampooning human arrogance.
In “Farley Mowat: Liar or Saint?” (Up Here, September 2009), Tim Querengesser writes:
There’s a trend today in literature to attack non-fiction writers, from those who authored the great works of the past to the bestsellers on Oprah Winfrey’s book list. The list of those who’ve been, for lack of a better term, ‘outted’ as fabricators of facts is constantly growing. Mowat’s condemnation came before all this, but his comments on facts have done little good in the new environment. “Fuck the facts,” he writes in his introduction to his journals in the McMaster archives. When interviewed by Goddard 13 years ago, Mowat said he didn’t “invent.” But he later added, “I never let the facts get in the way of the truth!”
To which I’d respond: Then how do you know the truth, Farley? Because the only reliable path to larger truths is through facts. Human history is a long, painful tale of various attempts to wrap reality around someone’s pre-conceived notions of Truth.
And that brings me to main topic of this post: the tension between wanting to be accurate and wanting to say Something Big.
“It seems to me that in a certain sense we are all made of words; that our most essential being consists in language,” writes N. Scott Momaday in “The Man Made of Words” (1970). He goes on to say that “Storytelling… is an act by which man strives to realize his capacity for wonder, meaning and delight. It is also a process in which man invests and preserves himself in the context of ideas. Man tells stories in order to understand his experience, whatever it may be.”
Indeed. Storytelling is one of the great things about being human. We live inside narratives of our own construction. This represents a tremendous power to shape our interior worlds, and it allows us to comprehend and summarize complex information.
And let’s not forget the parts about wonder and delight. What would life be without stories?
But the other side of it is that in our desire for order and meaning, we impose a narrative on the facts and pretty soon the facts are distorted beyond recognition. It doesn’t start out as a lie, but as a compelling narrative that shapes how facts are selected and interpreted, how events are remembered.
You might say there are two roles you can take as a nonfiction writer: the observer (”just the facts”) and the mythmaker (”I have a Story to tell”). The observer wants most of all to be true to the facts. She presents reality as complex and nuanced, even inconsistent or self-contradictory. Her statements are qualified, her conclusions tentative.
The mythmaker wants to tell a powerful story that means something, elicits strong emotion, effects change. His statements are sweeping, his tone is sure, his conclusions final.
The mythmaker is usually a more inspiring and more popular writer than the observer, but he is also full of shit. Eventually his enemies uncover his errors and distortions and debunk his work. Some myths die right then, but others have enough emotional resonance to survive debunking and people continue to believe them.
The observer, meanwhile, is hardly noticed in the first place, except perhaps as a skeptic and debunker, because her work doesn’t capture the imagination… unless she offers an alternative mythology. Usually the best the observer can hope for is that her work will be relied upon as a resource for others who are also trying to base their ideas on facts rather than wishes.
Most nonfiction writers blend these two roles to some degree. No writing can be completely accurate or even completely honest, because to write is to simplify. You can never say it all. You can only hope to capture the essence of something. Even the observer must be selective, allowing the sample to represent the whole.
“Everything in the world must have a design or the human mind rejects it. But in addition it must have purpose or the human conscience shies away from it,” writes John Steinbeck in Travels with Charley.
And even language itself orders reality. The structure and beauty of sentences, the aptness of words, the pleasing sound they make, the rhythms of speech, metaphor, parallelism, irony, the poetic techniques that writers use — all add order and some level of meaning to the thing being discussed.
The best you can do is to steer your narrative as close to the facts as you can, and be ready to revise your conclusions based on new information, because writing nonfiction carries with it the unspoken assumption that this is what you’re trying to do. You can write passionately, tell stories, express a point of view, but unless you label your work “fiction,” you are making factual claims.
What so disappoints me about Mowat’s “subjective nonfiction” is that he’s trying to have it both ways. He wants to deliver truth that people will believe, but wants to shirk the hard work of crafting a narrative that respects the facts. And defending him by saying, “Well, anyway he tells a good story” misses the point. Most of his stuff wouldn’t work if he called it fiction, because his stories rely on the peculiar emotional reaction we have to things we think are true. When one of your dimwit relatives forwards a paranoid chain email or shares a propaganda post on Facebook, they do so not because they think it’s a good yarn or a fine example of storytelling, but because they really think President Obama is a Kenyan-born Muslim socialist working in league with the devil. They wouldn’t bother with it otherwise. That’s the burden of nonfiction storytelling. People are going to take you seriously, and you have a responsibility not to violate that trust.