The Real Story: Literary Fact and Fiction
CHARLES MCGRATH: It seems fair to say that we’re living in an age of porosity; the traditional boundaries between fact and fiction have become permeable, with factual narratives borrowing techniques from fiction. Edmund Morris’s Dutch is the most notorious example. A better example, I would suggest, is Simon Schama’s Rembrandt’s Eyes, which in the best sense reads like a novel because it has some of the textures and detail that we expect from fiction. On the other hand, we have fictional narrative borrowing the authority of fact—and maybe the glamour of real-life characters and historical incident. I think it’s somewhat suprising to see two of our best and senior novelists, i.e. Joyce Carol Oates and Russell Banks, rather late in their careers, turning to huge historical subjects. You think of this as something that people do when they’re young, or perhaps not at all.
RUSSELL BANKS: Or never again.
MCGRATH: There are a number of questions that might usefully be asked tonight. One is almost metaphysical: Is there such thing as actuality when you’re writing a literary text? As soon as you commit words to paper, aren’t you to one extent or another making something up? Are there any rules? What are the writer’s responsibilities, if any, to the truth and to the reader? Is there a difference between historical novels, so called, and a novel that uses historical characters? What’s the difference, if you’re a historian, between reconstructing a scene and making one up? But first, I think we ought to ask whether this problem is as new as it seems. And I therefore would like to turn to Simon Schama, our historian. Is this new?
SIMON SCHAMA: Noooo. No, what is? Herodotus, the father of history, was a shocking liar, really. Macaulay describes him as a delightful child who babbles away, and you’ve no idea whether anything he says is the truth. It’s half gossip, hearsay, rumor, invention. And Thucydides comes on very much as the genre cop, taking Herodotus to task for disgracing the good name of history, for dealing in the murky waters of myth. Thucydides, who clearly resents Herodotus’s patriarchal status, says that one must be critical with sources. One must be honest and remain relentlessly anchored in the data, or Greek words to that effect. And then he says, “I wasn’t actually there when Pericles was giving this speech, but I think I know what he would have said,” and out rolls the passage in the History of the Peloponnesian War which we all remember as justifying the ideology and principles of that extraordinary book. So very early on, there is a caveat emptor issue being taken on board by those who commit history, or rather those who report on what history commits, but who, even as they’re trying to determine what the rules are, have a very hard job abiding by them. No one is suggesting that Thucydides was deliberately tendentious, or that he was committing some sort of nonfictional fraud. This was all done in good faith; it was owned up to.
The historian’s obligation is to tell the truth. I’m happy to hear, and flattered to hear, parts of Rembrandt’s Eyes compared to a literary work, which was certainly the intention. But there is absolutely nothing invented in that book. In The Idea of History, an extraordinary meditation on the imagination, R.G. Collingwood says that history will not be history if it does not tell the truth, and also if it lacks the faculty of imagination. Imagination is what draws us close to the world of novelists. But imagination does not mean you make things up. Imagine someone who came to dinner last night. Imagine the inside of an egg, from looking at the outside of an egg. Imagine the back of the moon, before we had orbital photos of it. The reach of the imagination is necessary to build the presence of the past with any kind of power and persuasiveness. Collingwood says that there are poles, struts, planted in the ground, and they are authorities, sources that have to be questioned. Across these struts, the historian uses the imagination to weave a web, and if he does his weaving work well, the fabric will come together. It will start to have color and form and persuasiveness and coherence and credibility. Historians use their imagination to tell the truth about the past.
MCGRATH: Let’s look at it another way. At a certain point historically we had novels that were pretending to be history. In the seventeenth century, when the novel was just beginning, Defoe quite deliberately borrowed the techniques of history, as if fiction were in dubious repute. And I’m wondering if we’re not somewhat in that state now. Does apparent factuality have an appeal for novelists that perhaps it didn’t have in the recent past? I’ll be quite cynical for a minute: one appeal might be that nonfiction sells much better than fiction these days, which I think is probably a reversal of what it was forty or fifty years ago.
MILLICENT DILLON: Maybe I could take this to the personal level for a minute. The book that I just published is called Harry Gold. It’s a novel that began in my mind as a biography, but to go back further, I met Harry Gold about fifty years ago, I was living with my family in Queens. My brother worked in a laboratory in Brooklyn. There was a man working in the lab man called Harry Gold. My brother said he was a sad, lonely guy, and he’d like to invide him to dinner. So one night, Harry Gold comes in the door; I’m going out the door. I have never seen this man before, I look at him and I have the strangest experience. I don’t understand that experience at all. It makes me extremely uneasy. I was not a writer at the time—I was working in science. Three years later I was in Los Angeles, and I went to the corner newsstand and looked down at the newspaper stack. And there was a picture of Harry Gold, and the headline said, “Atom Spy Confesses.” Some years later, I started writing. I wrote fiction and biography. And in the mid eighties I realized I’d been thinking about that man for a long time. It occurred to me that I could write a biography of him, so I did all the research. He had died by this time. I went to the FBI files, read a thousand pages. I went to see his lawyer. I went to see his brother. When I got through, I had all these facts, but he was a flat character. I just put the stuff away.
Then I did a book on Paul Bowles, and after that book was done, a conversation came back to me. I had asked Paul, who was a composer as well as a writer, if he could say something about the way he heard things. At first he was reluctant to say anything, but then he said, “When I used to go on the subway under the East River, at the midpoint I heard a strange hum.” I said to him, “I don’t hear a hum, but I do get this pressure in my ears.” At the moment that conversation came back to me, I saw Harry Gold on the subway going under the East River. He reached the midpoint and he heard this hum and had this pressure in his ears. Now that was an alteration of fact. With this one alteration, everything began to change, and all of the factual stuff that I’d learned about Harry Gold became an undercurrent for me. I did follow the timeline of his history, but I was free to do what I wanted to do in the narrative. So the thing I am trying to say is this: The imagination can come into play in fiction, and in biography as well, when you least expect it.
MCGRATH: Let’s ask the other two other novelists, who didn’t begin in quite the same way. Both of you chose historical subjects, and one could argue that you were tying your own hands. Joyce, you could have written a book about a Hollywood star that wasn’t recognizably Marilyn Monroe. Russell, you could have written a novel about an abolitionist who wasn’t recognizably John Brown.
BANKS: That might have been perceived as a roman à clef, however, and thought to be about a University of Chicago philosopher . . .
No. I have a problem with the vocabulary we’re using right now—the word subject or what a novel is about. And I think there’s an essential difference here between history or journalism, nonfiction, on the one hand, and fiction and poetry, on the other, at least for me. Insofar as fiction, like poetry, has no subject. And I discovered this inadvertently, when I published my first book with a commercial publisher and was asked by the publicist what my novel was about so that it could be better marketed. I no more know what my novel is about than I know what my dreams are about. And my relation to fact as a novelist is very close to my relation to fact as a dreamer. I don’t foreground or background any fact, any detail, any element of a work of fiction because it happens to be historical or because it happens to be autobiographical, or because it happens to be something I read in the newspaper yesterday, or something that happened to my brother, or something that didn’t happen to anybody so far as I know, ever. They all remain in the same plane of reality for me. That is to say they all remain in the plane of imagery, which I use with a kind of freedom that I suppose a poet or a fiction writer takes for granted to arrange into a pattern that makes a story. Ultimately, a story is its own self, and not about something other than itself. Just as a poem is its own self and not about anything else. This to me is the crucial difference.
MCGRATH: Let me be literal for a minute. Your John Brown is not exactly the John Brown of a dream. He lives in Lake Placid. He goes out West. The outline of his life pretty much hews to what we think of as the outline of John Brown’s life.
BANKS: Well, the interests of plausibility are what kept me adhering to some degree, but only to some degree, to historically received knowledge about John Brown. Just as it would if I were writing a novel set in New York City today. In the interest of plausibility I couldn’t have Broadway going from the Upper East Side to the Lower West Side, because most people who read the book would have trouble imagining it. It would be a disjoint, and it would break the suspension of disbelief that I would be interested in sustaining. I could do it, but it would have to be a somewhat different aesthetic program than the one that I work with, which is conventional realism. I adhered to history in the interest of plausibility, which was required from my point of view to obtain the suspension of disbelief necessary for the dreaming state I was talking about.
JOYCE CAROL OATES: I tend to agree with Russell. I think of works of the imagination as primarily dealing with voice and language—with imagery, as Russell said—and these images do tend to float from the unconscious. A work of fiction tends to be very selective. In writing about a complex and various life, like the life of the person we think we know as Marilyn Monroe, I had to drop out so many facts that it emerges as a kind of simplified dream. I suppose I had in mind something like Moby-Dick. There was actually a white whale, and Melville was writing in meticulous detail about whales. And part of the novel that’s so wonderful, I think, is the reliance upon the objective world. It’s very catalogued and very beautifully written. But then it’s mythic, and one would not think that Moby Dick was just any whale. So I guess Marilyn Monroe became my Moby Dick, so to speak; I’m working with mythic structures and images and much that is imagined. Basically, all of it is imagined, but I try not to invent very much. I think Russell’s position is a little more radical than my own. I would feel that I wanted to adhere to reality as much as is possible, and not be inventing very much. I tend to love reality. There’s a poetry of reality and working with what’s given and maybe transforming it in some way but not violently changing it. In Shakespeare’s plays, for instance, whether they’re history plays or about fabulous situations, nobody really thinks that people were speaking in such words of surpassing beauty. It’s obviously elevated, and it’s poetry, yet there may be some residue of reality. And what we’re all working with is what I would call psychological realism, the inner poetic and spiritual realism of characters who may have had historical existence, but as we reimagine them they become works of fiction.
JAMES ATLAS: It’s interesting to me that Joyce and Russell are struggling with the issue of how close to the truth they should be. For the biographer, it’s a different struggle. All we want to do is break free from this prison of facts and just make it up. It requires tremendous restraint not to do that. And sometimes you do it inadvertently. Because what you discover about fact when you’re a biographer is a lesson in humility. To reconstruct something as it happened is beyond inordinately difficult. It’s impossible to do, and you realize that in a way what you are writing is very close to fiction. And your goal is the same, which is to get at the deeper truth. You’re using a different narrative means in that the biographer is ostensibly trying to deal with things as they really happened and the novelist is also trying to deal with things as they really happened, but within a construct of fantasy and imagination. Yet the two are remarkably alike in the end result. The art, not the genre of the book, brings out truth.
DILLON: It seems to me that there is something that the biographer does that has in it the quality of fiction, and is, in some way, uncontainable. You can’t manage it. It’s the relationship between the writer of the biography and the subject. This is a very odd relationship.
ATLAS: You’re telling me.
DILLON: It gets odder and odder the more you go into it. You find yourself pulled toward the subject, hating the subject, loving the subject, thinking you’re the subject. If you read biographies with the care and attention that you might give to, say, a fine novel, you will see great shifts taking place in that relationship. I am thinking, for instance, of Richard Holmes’s wonderful biography of Coleridge. You get so excited as you read that book, it’s almost as though you are reading a work of fiction that is carrying you and you don’t quite know why. There is something about his relationship to Coleridge that is not only respectful but also quite mysterious.
SCHAMA: One of the reasons that two-volume biography is so astounding is that Holmes has brooded self-consciously on the relationship of the biographer to his subject. The great classic is Footsteps. There is no book I know of that is more astute and more profound. Footsteps is about Holmes’s relationships with a series of Romantic subjects—Romantic in the sense of the Romantic Movement, Gérard de Nerval and Percy Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. It begins when he is thinking about writing a biography of Stevenson, and he is following the footsteps of Stevenson’s travels on a donkey through France. And he thinks that he may never get Stevenson, but at least he’s got the route right. And there is a particular bridge in which Holmes is interested; it looks old and it looks right. And he says, “That’s it!” And he goes to the local bookstore and learns that it’s the wrong bridge. The real one is broken and has been replaced. This is, of course, the metaphor from dreamland. Holmes says the bridges are always going to be broken.
One other thing: Much of what Joyce Carol Oates was saying about fiction’s need to pick and choose in order to create a compelling fiction reality (if that’s not an oxymoron) is somewhat the same for history and biography. History certainly begins with a subtraction of facts. Its form and purpose and significance come about with subtraction and loss. If you believe that your job is to report every known datum about your subject, you’re hopelessly remote from the purposes of history. One has to ask why this person or event signifies something that matters to our understanding of the human condition. That always begins with cutting stuff away.
ATLAS: Biography, of course, is primarily a matter of selection. As Lytton Strachey says, you go out in your boat and you dip down your net and retrieve the facts, but then you’ve got to organize these facts. You can’t use this vast array of notecards and manuscripts and documents that you’ve assembled on your shelf. You have to select ruthlessly. And what is it you are looking for? I think you are looking for the details that elicit character and life. Bellow gave a eulogy for a friend of his a few years ago, someone he had gone to high school with who died in old age. Her name was Yetta Barshevsky. And he talked about the mysterious specificity of human beings, the essence that was Yetta, who was a person remarkable in the way that we are all remarkable.
BANKS: We are being very democratic here as we compare fiction and story, let’s say, to biography and history. And I’m normally democratic in my approach to these matters. I resist having a hierarchy amongst works, but nonetheless feel it would be foolish for anyone to read fiction for history or biography. And yet I know that I have all my life read history and biography for story. And this suggests to me that there is hierarchy. That one of these enterprises has a greater and perhaps even universal reach. Story. Whereas the others by comparison, if you’ll forgive me biographers and historians, are parochial and narrow in that way.
DILLON: I think there is another way of looking at it that could still be democratic. When you’re writing, ordinarily you’re not conciously thinking of the reader, but nevertheless in each book there is an implied contract between the reader and the writer.
BANKS: That’s a very important question. And I certainly have in my mind when I have written a historical novel, or any novel for that matter, that it is to be read in the context of other novels. It is to be measured against other novels, and that’s its aspiration. It adheres to the principles of storytelling, not to the principles of history or biography or journalism, no matter what material I might make that story out of. And that’s quite a different contract than I feel is in existence when I pick up a work of history or biography.
SCHAMA: That’s so high-minded, Russell, I can’t bear it. Dickens, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Lampedusa—I mean, some biggies, really—were all telling stories. But if you said, “Come on, Leo, you’re just a storyteller, you have nothing to say about history,” it would be ludicrously disingenuous. I don’t want to blur the boundary between ultimately having the responsibility to tell the truth and having the freedom to create fictions, but I do want to say in terms of attempting to reveal truths about what it’s like to be a human being, there is a shared purpose in some cases of history writing and some cases of fiction writing. L’Education sentimentale is not a bad example.
ATLAS: There is this assumption that fiction somehow is more of an art than history or biography, that fiction is what you want to go for if you’re going to obtain the expressive heights of literature at its most transcendent. And I am not persuaded that this is so. I think that historically speaking it was so, at a certain moment. In the nineteenth century, for example, fiction was the dominant genre. Now we live in a society with different needs and requirements and forms of curiosity about human character, and so we turn to history and biography. And that’s why they are now a more popular form than fiction. We’re not here to debate which is better, but each has its separate purpose, and I think all biographers and historians who aspire to the condition of art have the same ideas in mind that novelists have. They use radically different means to achieve identical ends.
DILLON: To get back to the question of factuality in a literary text or factuality in biography. Is it possible that fact itself is different now, that fact and information do not have quite the same impact on us that they once did?
MCGRATH: Yes. And it seems to me that in some ways we are living in a crisis of confidence in the fictional arts. There’s the whole memoir craze—instead of writing a first autobiographical novel, people now write a memoir, or they write something that they sell as a memoir. And it’s as if the fact that this supposedly really happened gives it interest and authenticity that it wouldn’t have if the author had done what we used to think was the old magic, which is to take the facts and transform them.
OATES: I think it’s perceived maybe as a little easier and more accessible to the reader, but maybe just in terms of a crisis in what nonfiction is, too. How do you classify My Alien Abduction or My Romance with an Alien? You would think that this is clearly fiction, and yet it is being presented as a memoir.
MCGRATH: Recently, I had a case where a well-known writer claimed that the rules for memoir are different than the rules for journalism or biography. That is, “This is how it seemed to me at the time, and it’s how it seems to me at the time of writing. And therefore I am under no obligation to go back and check it.”
BANKS: My eighty-five-year-old mother, who lives in the same town I do, and with whom I’m very close and whom I admire, recently finished, after four years of work, her memoir, her book of her life, and I love the title she gave it. It’s called My Autobiography As I Remember It. So the disclaimer is right up front. And the contract with the reader is very clear. My sister and brother and I have each read it, and it’s not exactly as we remembered. And we brought this to her, and she has a perfect defense and explanation for it: “Well, it’s as I remember it.”
DILLON: I’m reminded of the works of W.G. Sebald. He’s a writer, originally German, now living in England, who does something with memoir, and does something with fiction, so they are meshed so strangely that you feel you are really in a dream.
BANKS: And yet when you read it, you measure it against fiction, not against autobiography or against memoir, and you experience it as fiction.
MCGRATH: Let’s go back to something I began with, the notorious case of Edmund Morris’s Dutch. Much of what all of you have said the historian is supposed to do, I can say, “This is what Morris did.” I’ll go further and say that the Hollywood section is, from a literary standpoint, the single best part of that biography, and that it told me more about Ronald Reagan than the rest of the book. I suddenly understood where Ronald Reagan came from. As we all know, the boom got lowered on Mr. Morris. It was felt that he had clearly gone over some line.
ATLAS: The book is fabulously entertaining and accurate in large patches, but when he deconstructs and fictionalizes his own work, he creates a tremendous problem for the reader.
MCGRATH: Would it have been so bad if it was clear what he’d been doing?
ATLAS: I think that his own personal struggle to write this book interfered and he finally had some kind of unconscious rebellion against the material. I mean the opening scene, when he’s actually with Reagan, is great writing. It’s really a masterpiece of a scene. He can write. He can create character. Even real character he can create.
MCGRATH: According to a lot of what we’ve been saying tonight, that seems like all we need.
ATLAS: No, that’s not all we need. We need an agreed-upon framework.
BANKS: If he had titled it Reagan’s Biography As I Imagined It, that would have been okay.
OATES: I may be the only person on the panel, or perhaps even in the room, who is the subject of a biography. It is a very interesting experience because we tend to live our lives without any great sense of pattern or design. I mean, we’re really not fictitious characters, and yet when you read a biography that’s about yourself and the biographer has done this sort of Leon Edel thing, looking for the figure in the carpet and seeing a pattern or maybe a myth in your life, you start to see that someone has invented you in order to conform to a possibly interesting story or a plausible story. And I didn’t want to interfere—I’m on a panel with biographers and they do not want to be interfered with by their subjects. This biography was really well done by a young man named Greg Johnson, whose focus was on literary criticism. But I could see that he was extracting some things and dropping out other things in order to make a story. I don’t know what the story was, a sort of Cinderella up from the ashes of upstate New York, or something like that. The story was plausible, and yet one could argue that it was a completely invented fairytale that my life could be used to exemplify.
MCGRATH: Did you feel it was you?
OATES: I don’t know how to answer that. My husband read it. I think we just sort of read it and thought, well, it’s like seeing a photograph of yourself in some way that you don’t remember where you were and it doesn’t look too much like you but maybe it was you. But I will say one thing to the biographers who are on this panel with me: there is a lot that’s confabulated. If people don’t remember too much about, say, Saul Bellow, they will deliver memories to you because they don’t want to disappoint you.
ATLAS: You’re telling me this now, Joyce? I just handed in my book today!
OATES: You know this. They also don’t want to not be in a biography. They won’t say, “Jim, I just don’t remember one thing we talked about.” They won’t say that. They’ll seem to remember some things and if it sounds good you may put it in the biography, and it’s confabulated. It’s fiction.
ATLAS: I don’t want to be boastful here, but I have come to believe over many years that you can hear a truth as accurately as you can hear a note of music. This is not scientific, nor is it even biographical, but an instinct develops by which you edit out what people are saying while they’re saying it and arrive at certain essences that just are true.
OATES: How would you know that? People lie on witness stands and they lie in the throes of a delusion—how would you know that? We can’t wait to read this biography!
ATLAS: No, actually, after ten years of working on this book, I drove up to Bellow’s house in Vermont, and he said, “So tell me, what have you learned?” I said, “What I’ve learned is that you can’t know anyone.” And I meant that.
MCGRATH: Let’s open it up to questions from the audience.
As you talked about history and biography, I’ve been thinking in terms of representational and abstract art, having some thoughts about different ways of coming to truths about characters. What about parallels between painting and writing?
OATES: Certainly, in the past our ancestors believed that if a portrait was painted of a specific individual, the portrait should resemble the way this person actually looked; it might have symbolic or cultural significance as well. Through the centuries, however, this fundamental principle has altered. By the twentieth century, for instance, if we consider Picasso, portraits are very different. They’ve become violently subjective: people’s eyes are on one side of their noses, etcetera, yet they may exude a true personal identity you might call poetic. The more recent portraits by Francis Bacon, for instance, I find very exciting as art and as psychology. I feel a kinship with Bacon; that’s probably the kind of portraiture I would be interested in creating, and possibly in my fiction I’m moving in that direction. But I would not be contemptuous or even critical of someone who simply hates this; who denounces it as immoral or unethical. The Picasso/Bacon species of portrait can be perverse and “unlike” the historic person . . . unless in a way it’s the very essence of that person. We could discuss it forever, even those of us who’ve written fiction in which we transgress boundaries. (Writing is by nature a transgressive act.) Still, we would have to acknowledge that there is a reality there that should perhaps be honored.
BANKS: That’s a lovely analogy. I mean to speak especially of Bacon, but also to speak to the history of portraiture and how it’s changed and altered, and the use for the human body that artists have as being approximate to the use a novelist might have for another kind of fact. I was just thinking that there are stories I have not told. There is material I have not used in fiction because it would be read by individuals as fact. For instance, there are members of my family and friends who have fascinating stories, and if I used their story in fiction, they would read it as being biography, or about them. And so I’ve not done that. I’ve not written that. It would be misread to such a degree that it would hurt and embarrass people whom I love. And that tells me something about my relation to fact, and to my reader. If my reader can’t see it as fiction, then I can’t use it.
Why would you choose to inhabit someone who actually existed instead of making it up?
OATES: I saw a photograph of Norma Jean Baker when she was seventeen years old in 1944, and she was a girl who looked like someone with whom I might have gone to junior high school. She even looked a bit like my mother. She did not look like Marilyn Monroe. She didn’t have the synthetic, platinum blond hair. She had brown hair that was very curly. She had a little heart locket. She wasn’t glamorous; she wasn’t beautiful. But she was very sweet, very pretty, and she was just smiling so hard. And my heart went out to her, and I thought, she’s seventeen. She’s not the quintessential American girl because she was very deprived economically and in other ways. Her mother was a paranoid schizophrenic who could never really be a mother to her. Her father never acknowledged her. She was powerless. She belonged to that region of humanity Dostoevsky spoke of as the insulted and injured. Anyway, I had this feeling, this very strong emotional feeling: I would like to write about the girl who was transformed into an iconic figure. But I was going to write a novel about a hundred seventy-five pages. It was going to be sort of mythic and postmodernist and it would end with the name Marilyn Monroe being given to her. However, I did get involved and eventually wrote fourteen hundred pages.
BANKS: I was going to write a magazine article about John Brown, about his farm and his burial place, because of the trivia question, “Where does John Brown’s body lie moldering?” The answer to that is in North Elba, New York, which is only a few miles from my house. And that would have been all right except that Brown entered my dreams, and the image of John Brown became as powerful and irresistible to me as, say, the image of my dead father. So I wrote him that way rather than make it a roman à clef. And there were other reasons, too. Why you choose a particular body of material to make a story out of is very complex, and many of the reasons are just intuitive, as the pressure in your ears just changes.
DILLON: I think there is also the question of investigating a certain era in time. In other words, you not only inhabit a character, you inhabit a world.
BANKS: But the world that I was trying to gain access to is really my own world. Just as sometimes we travel to another place in order to understand our home more clearly, I think we often travel to other times in order to understand our own time more clearly. That was certainly one of the reasons for going there and trying to look at the world through John Brown’s eyes.
I just feel that I’ve learned more about the history of the Civil War from reading Cloudsplitter than I have from reading history books.
SCHAMA: You were reading bad history.
BANKS: You wouldn’t want to read Homer in order to understand the Trojan War. I think that it’s a bad idea to read Cloudsplitter as history. It’s one of the objections I’ve had to the reviews of the book, which have objected to its historical inaccuracy, as they see it. Historians in particular felt territorial about this particular period and characters and so forth and held me to the standard of history. If you read the novel for history, you’re making a mistake. I lied. Frequently.