TT: The Thin Line Between Fact and Fiction

JANE: All right, Alan.  Last time you tantalized me with the promise of creative non-fiction that works – and when it crosses the line into pure fiction.  Even better, you promised that your examples would come from the works of the same writer.

Fact or Fiction?

Go for it!

ALAN: Here I go…

I think Hunter S. Thompson was particularly good at creative non-fiction. Hells Angels is a brilliant piece of non-fiction about the eponymous gangs, and I am also rather fond of Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 which is a superb analysis of the political environment in America during the 1972 Presidential campaign. Both books contain elements that might be regarded as fictional by a purist, but they are never intrusive and Thompson never loses sight of what he is trying to achieve.

JANE: Could you give me an example?

ALAN: Some of the dialogue in the Hells Angels book flows so smoothly and illustrates the points that Thompson wants to make so well that I can’t help thinking that he’s made it up (at least a little bit). But I may be doing him a disservice here – the whole thing may well be accurate reportage; it’s very hard to tell. Certainly it reads well, it presents itself as journalism, and it tells you everything that you need to know (and probably a bit more than you wanted to know) about the Angels.

JANE: Okay…  I can see why you’d consider this a good use of creative non-fiction techniques.  What about the other one?

ALAN: The campaign book is a bit easier to analyse. Thompson’s style had relaxed a lot by then. “When a man gives up drugs he wants big fires in his life—all night long, every night…”

At one point, worried about the possibility of being mugged, Thompson notes that “I immediately called Colorado and had another Doberman shipped in”. This I seriously doubt. How many spare Dobermans does a man keep on the off chance that he might need to ship one across country at a moment’s notice and at vast expense? Nevertheless it’s a very effective image that perfectly conveys the paranoia of the time and place.

JANE: But he’s not putting words or thoughts in anyone else’s mind, so I don’t think he’s straying beyond the borders of non-fiction.  In fact, I’d guess he probably meant this as a metaphor.

ALAN: It’s definitely not a metaphor – earlier in the book he has a section about his Dobermans. They are very real and fully equipped with teeth.

JANE: I cheerfully surrender to your superior knowledge!

ALAN: On the other hand, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is almost pure fiction masquerading as fact and should be taken with the last pinch of salt that you didn’t put in your stew for fear of spoiling it…

JANE: Ah! I wonder how many people knew to draw the line or if, because they were conditioned by the previous books, they took Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as factual as well.

ALAN: Anyone who believes that a man can ingest that quantity of drugs without killing himself probably isn’t living in the real world anyway. The book does contain real people and real incidents, but they are buried so deeply in the tissue of lies that he surrounds them with that they may as well not be there at all – for example, Hunter’s Samoan attorney, though not mentioned by name in the book, was actually the Spanish-American lawyer Oscar Zacosta and Hunter’s characterisation of him was not quite as exaggerated as you might at first suppose… If you are curious, you can look him up on Wikipedia.

But really it’s best to just relax and read the book as a novel – it’s certainly one of the funniest stories I’ve ever read.

JANE: It’s interesting that your examples are from what, at the time they were written, would be considered contemporary material.  By the purest coincidence, there is an article in the Summer 2017 Author’s Guild Bulletin titled “What Every Writer Needs to Know About Defamation.”  In this, two lawyers and author Susan Cheever (who has made her mark writing biographies and memoirs, as well as novels) talked about what can happen when you put words in other people’s mouths.

It’s a long article, full of legal detail, so I won’t attempt to summarize it.  What I will say is that, if I were tempted to write creative non-fiction, especially about people who are still alive or still have immediate family alive, I would be extremely cautious about putting words in their mouths or thoughts in their heads.

ALAN: Probably that’s good advice – though America is notoriously litigious. In the UK (and here in New Zealand as well), you can get away with a lot of things that might cause problems in the US.

JANE: Actually…  but no.  I won’t go into it.  That would involve too much summarizing of the article.  Let’s just say, you’d be surprised at the stringency of the legal code outside of the U.S.  Many European nations protect the rights of the dead as well as of the living.

That’s why I’d be careful about putting words into the mouth of someone – even if that person is no longer alive and therefore could be thought to be beyond defamation of character.

ALAN: The British author Michael Dobbs has written a trilogy of novels about Winston Churchill set just before, and during, WWII. I recommend them highly. They don’t always paint a flattering portrait of Churchill, and they are stuffed full of imaginary dialogue between real people. Clearly the books don’t step over the line into defamation (the novels are well thought of, and there has never been even a whisper of legal proceedings) but nevertheless, in light of what you say, I imagine that they must sail very close to it. So clearly there is a lot of leeway to play with…

JANE: Churchill didn’t always paint a flattering picture of Churchill – and I’m sure his family was aware of this, and knew what might come up if a lawsuit for defamation was raised.

As I said, I’d be careful.  I didn’t say no one should ever try it!

ALAN: I wonder if any of the comments will take the form of an imaginary dialogue between you and me?

JANE: That would be amusing!

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6 Responses to “TT: The Thin Line Between Fact and Fiction”

  1. Julie Hagan Bloch Says:

    “I immediately called Colorado and had another Doberman shipped in”.
    It says that he called immediately, not that the dog was sent immediately.

    • janelindskold Says:

      Hi Julie… Good point! By the way, I wore one of your alien tee shirts to Bubonicon this year. It received many compliments! I’m wearing it in the picture featured on Wednesday’s entry, actually.

  2. Paul Says:

    Given Hunter Thompson’s penchant for herbal enhancements, he may have believed everything was true.

  3. Julie Hagan Bloch Says:

    Wow, Jane, that’s so cool! Thanks for telling me!

  4. henrietta abeyta Says:

    Above the Clouds, or Underground studying facts of the Seven Archangels and the lesser angels who cooperate with them would probably help you split facts and fiction, or at least choose your firmest beliefs quicker. Angel books aren’t rare at libraries. This would be a way to help yourself be more sufficient and feel more sure of what you wished to share Alan. It would also help you be sure you didn’t overdo the task. And you know how important self-satisfaction actually is.

  5. Louis Robinson Says:

    Is that a Thin Red Line? [sorry, couldn’t help myself]

    As you may have gathered, I’ve been delving fairly deeply into ancient and medieval history lately, and one of the takeaways is that the equation of ‘true’ and ‘factual’ is a rather modern thing. Post Enlightenment, certainly, and I suspect, without having done much research, it’s actually a product of the rise of modern journalism in the 19th century. The audiences for Heimskringla or the Niebelungenlied or the Chanson de Roland or Shah-Nama were unconcerned with how correctly the events and personalities were recounted – or even with whether they were real, in any objective sense. Those epics were _true_, regardless. The readers of The Times, or the New York Times or Die Zeit were. I’m not entirely sure when they learned to be, but it wasn’t all that long ago [and it doesn’t look as if the lesson set all that deeply].

    Defamation suits are an even more recent thing, at least among the general populace – if they weren’t we wouldn’t have had the Impressionists or the Fauves or any number of interesting cultural phenomena: the critics would never have dared coin that terminology 🙂 It’s true that actions at law for defamation in it’s various manifestations have been around much longer, but if you look, they were primarily a political tool aimed at the protection of the sovereign power. More often than not, from the meddlesome fact-finding of those aforementioned journalists, as it happens. Gentlemen had more pro-active means of defending their reputations. And if you weren’t a gentleman, well, what were you fussing about, anyway?

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