Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Behind the Books: Does Story Reign Supreme?

There has been an interesting discussion going on over at Oz and Ends, a kidlit blog maintained by writer and editor J.L. Bell. Back on February 18, Bell quoted Ben Mezrich, the author of the ostensibly nonfiction book Bringing Down the House, as saying:

“The idea that the story is true is more important than being able to prove that it's true.”

Bell agreed with the statement, but plenty of children’s nonfiction writers (including me) had serious problems with Mr. Mezrich’s comment. It’s worth noting that this comment was made after a Boston Globe reporter confronted Mezrich about the accuracy of some parts of his book. Mezrich admitted creating composite figures and adding details that could not be confirmed by the real people involved in the situations and events supposedly chronicled in the book.

Basically, Mezrich made stuff up to create a more engaging story. Furthermore, he didn’t seem apologetic or embarrassed when his dishonesty was discovered. Apparently, he doesn’t see a problem with departing from the facts in a nonfiction book.

Well, I do have a problem with that. And I’m not alone.

If you read through the comments following Bell’s post, you can see how the discussion progressed. In his arguments, Bell kept coming back to the importance of story in a nonfiction work.

I know lots of fantastic nonfiction books for children and adults in which the authors spent years of their lives researching and interviewing to find the golden nuggets that allowed them to build scenes, flesh out their subjects, and create a narrative arc that fortified their presentation. I am the first to salute their efforts.

Books like Almost Astronauts by Tanya Lee Stone and Charles and Emma by Deborah Heiligman, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot and The Wild Trees by Richard Preston are masterpieces that were only possible thorough the persistence of writers determined to gather the facts and tell the truth as it emerged. These authors richly deserve all the acclaim they have received.

But is the power of story really SO critical that authors should consider inventing it when it either doesn’t exist or, even worse, when they are too lazy to do the research required to uncover it? J.L. Bell mentions religious tales, family lore, funny anecdotes, national myths and says “The idea that those stories are true is more important to how we experience and see meaning in them than whether we can prove them to be true."

But I disagree. In those cases, we trust the storytellers and assume they are being honest. If we disprove or even question their sincerity, the story’s power is destroyed. We feel angry and deceived.

We’ve all heard the expression “fact is stranger than fiction”, and we all love strange and wacky facts, especially kids. These facts have power because they are real and verifiable.

With this in mind, I continue to maintain that if a narrative is labeled nonfiction, readers have an absolute right to expect it to be 100 percent fact based, and yes “true” to the very best of the writer’s ability.

Still, Bell’s ideas are thought provoking. Why do we like stories so much? Are children even more enthralled by the power of story than the adult readers Mezrich targets?

I got an answer last week during a trip to Disney World with my nephew and two nieces. On the third day, after experiencing “Kilimanjaro Safari” (which features amazing views of live African animals in a setting that includes as much authentic African vegetation as is possible in South Florida), I had an interesting conversation with my 9-year-old nephew.

As our Jeep ride through the “savanna” ended, he complained, “Why do they have to add fake stories to real rides? They should have just told us more cool facts about the animals instead.”

My nephew was referring an anxious voice on the Jeep driver’s “radio” that periodically warned of poachers ahead and told us to beware. Near the end of the ride, the voice asked our help in herding the poachers so that they could be captured. We never saw these poachers, but we passed through what was supposed to be their camp. Then we passed a mechanical baby elephant swishing it’s trunk through a partially open flap in the back of a truck.

I had the same reaction as my nephew, but I thought the kids might like the action and intrigue. Needless to say, I was thrilled by his response. He cared about the animals for the amazing beasts that they are. He had no patience for the artificial storyline. Hooray!

Now I know my nephew is just one child. I can’t state with authority that all kids or even all 9-year-old boys would react as my nephew did, but I truly doubt that he’s so unique in his way of thinking.

What I do know from school visits and book signings is that many young readers, especially upper-elementary boys, love facts, and that’s why they read nonfiction. For them, being able to prove a nonfiction narrative is true is absolutely critical to their love of the literature. And that directly refutes Mezrich’s statement.


  1. The best link to my post is here. And I have a couple of quibbles with the interpretation here. First, my response to Mezrich’s statement was “Unfortunately, he's right.” Agreeing with it as a statement of fact doesn't mean I like the fact, or endorse Mezrich’s way of playing fast and loose with history. Rather, I think he accurately identified a way we read what we understand to be nonfiction—and proceeded to exploit it.

    I also don't mean to emphasize story, although that's a way facts become meaningful, by accruing connections and emotional content. In this case I focus on belief. If we believe a story, or an isolated fact, is true, our brains process it differently from a story or statement we believe is fictional. All the more reason to approach books, movies, press releases, amusement park rides, and other things with skepticism—but we don't always do that.

    Kudos to your nephew for perceiving how Disney World tries to amp up the experience of its jungle ride with the drama of poachers. But doesn't that ride get to the very question of what we believe and what we don't? How do we separate the experience of fake poachers from the experience of fake elephants? We believe the robots are representations of real elephants, but aren't there also real poachers? And why do we believe in those real elephants anyway?

    I agree boys love facts—I did myself. I also loved "facts" that were actually fictional (e.g., details about book series). I think it's the mastery of data that matters, whether it’s US Presidents or Pokemon. Facts have the added power of seeming more important—as long as we believe in them.

    But what about facts that many people believe to be true, but turn out not to stand up to scrutiny, such as the importance of Abner Doubleday to baseball, the Brontosaurus fossil, how Pluto qualifies as a planet, or something we all believe today that will turn out to be wrong? Our beliefs determine how we approach such statements and what importance we attach to them. Verifiability doesn't matter unless we're willing to demand evidence.

    I think we're actually in close agreement, based on this statement: "we trust the story tellers and assume they are being honest. If we disprove or even question their sincerity, the story’s power is destroyed. We feel angry and deceived." We wouldn't have that emotional reaction unless we previously held "the idea that the story is true."

  2. John, I apologize if you feel I misrepresented your earlier comments. I know you do not approve of Ben Mezrich’s tactics.

    My concern is that you consider the quotation to be a “statement of fact.” That’s where we differ. I see Mezrich’s statement as completely false and nothing more than a weasely attempt to get out of the hole he had dug for himself.

    If a work is labeled as nonfiction, NOTHING is more important than being able to prove its truth, its accuracy, it’s adherence to the facts. A book in which facts are manufactured or massaged is not a work of nonfiction. Period.

    Of course, writers can make mistakes, and our collective interpretation of facts can change over time as new information comes to light (as is the case with our current ideas about Allosaurus—formerly Brontosaurus—and the reclassification of Pluto). That’s the reason why it’s often a good thing when nonfiction books go OP. The facts may be out of date.

    But that’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about a writer’s techniques and intentions. John, you say, “Verifiability doesn't matter unless we're willing to demand evidence.” But we, as readers, shouldn’t have to. If a book is labeled as nonfiction, we have a right to believe that its content is true and verifiable. Perhaps publishers should scrutinize manuscripts more carefully. I know some houses are more rigorous about vetting than others.

    But ultimately, the responsibility lies with nonfiction writers. They owe it to readers to be thorough in their research and forthright in their presentation. Sure, a story can bring events and individuals to life for readers. But in nonfiction story MUST be a secondary consideration. If a satisfactory narrative arc emerges from research, that’s great. If not, the writer has an obligation to his readers to use a different technique to craft the book.

  3. I think what you’re expressing is a credo, and a good one, of how things should be. I agree with Mezrich’s comment only as an observation of how things most often are.

    Credos depend on what we believe even more than our reading experiences; indeed, “credo” means “I believe.” Mezrich obviously doesn’t share the same belief, or ethos.

    Ironically, your expectation that “If a book is labeled as nonfiction, we have a right to believe that its content is true and verifiable,” was precisely the belief that Mezrich exploited in calling his massaged narratives nonfiction.

    I think it might be safer to say, “If a book is labeled as nonfiction, we have a right to see the evidence that its content is true.”

  4. I think what I'm expressing is how things ARE, with a few rare exceptions. And those exceptions need to be nipped in the bud. Otherwise, we truly will reach a point where it will be impossible to trust the accuracy of any nonfiction text or the credibility of any nonfiction writer.