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Does Fiction Based on Fact Have a Responsibility to the Truth?

Friday 30 October 2015

OCT. 27, 2015

Each week in Bookends, two writers take on questions about the world of books. This week, Thomas Mallon and Ayana Mathis discuss whether writers of historical fiction need to keep the facts in mind.

By Thomas Mallon

I knew that my novel “Watergate,” while sympathetic to Nixon, was never going to be stocked at the Nixon library

Back in 1998 I wrote an essay called “The Historical Novelist’s Burden of Truth,” which grew in part from a question I was once asked by an interviewer: “Don’t you fear the dead?” he wanted to know, wondering how I had allowed myself to make the real-life Maj. Henry Rathbone, a character in my novel “Henry and Clara,” momentarily complicit in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Henry, along with his fiancée, Clara Harris, was in the box at Ford’s Theatre, and I imagined him, on impulse, deciding not to thwart the armed man he sees entering the box.

I had sensed something genuinely dark in the real-life Major Rathbone, and taking that gross imaginative liberty was my way of getting at it — as well as proof, I suppose, that I don’t fear the long dead. But I operate inside the situational ethics of my chosen genre, what I’ve called “the always sliding scale of historical fiction.” In that same essay I also expressed disapproval over how some recent filmmakers had depicted the crime-busting Thomas E. Dewey, whose son was still living, as having been secretly corrupt. I noted that even if “one cannot libel the dead . . . one can refrain from distortions as hurtful as they are preposterous.”

This quotation and my objection to the Dewey film were thrown back at me some years later, when I published a novel about the Watergate scandal. Frank Gannon, reviewing the book in The Wall Street Journal, had a number of nice things to say about it, but he asked how the author of that essay I’ve been citing could now “justify subjecting Pat Nixon’s daughters and grandchildren to the creation and elaboration of a fictional adultery on her part.”

Gannon’s objection was not unreasonable — or unanticipated. I knew while I was writing it that “Watergate,” a book in many ways notably sympathetic to Richard Nixon, was never going to be stocked at the Nixon library. Mrs. Nixon’s fictional affair with the merry, mild-­mannered “Tom Garahan,” however brief and tender, would put it beyond the pale. But I could not let myself jettison the relationship, which the book imagines being carried out during Richard Nixon’s pre-presidential “wilderness years” in New York. It represents, at worst, a small human failing, not remotely comparable by any standard of iniquity to the criminal corruption those filmmakers imputed to Dewey.

I kept exploring this invented romance — which, except for a few last chaste and wistful meetings, comes to an end out of loyalty to her husband — because when I did, I felt that I was somehow getting closer to the actual Pat Nixon, a warmer and more complicated figure than the one the public surmised. If I had been unwilling to deviate from what Gore Vidal used to call the “agreed-upon facts,” there wouldn’t have been much point to writing a novel instead of a history. What I did in “Watergate” was a small act of novelistic treachery, designed not to diminish Mrs. Nixon but to make her the emotional heart of my story. I was trying to get at some larger truth through a particular lie, which is finally what all fiction, historical and otherwise, has to do.

“Finale,” the novel of mine that’s just been published, is set during 1986. Did Richard Nixon, a minor character this time, really send a fax to one of the junior American negotiators during Ronald Reagan’s Reykjavik summit with Mikhail Gorbachev? No. But he could have. And on that possibility I thought I might hang another tale. I also have Nixon, on New Year’s Eve, walking in a garden at Sunny­lands, the Annenberg estate outside Palm Springs. He’s looking, amid all the flowers named for first ladies and women of the British royal family, for the bloom dedicated to Pat, the girl he used to call, in real-life love letters, his “Irish gypsy.”

Thomas Mallon’s eight novels include “Henry and Clara,” “Bandbox,” “Fellow Travelers” and “Watergate,” a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award. He has also published nonfiction about plagiarism (“Stolen Words”), diaries (“A Book of One’s Own”), letters (“Yours Ever”) and the Kennedy assassination (“Mrs. Paine’s Garage”), as well as two books of essays. His work appears in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly and other publications. A recipient of the Vursell prize of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, for distinguished prose style, he is currently professor of English at George Washington University.

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By Ayana Mathis

Fiction generates truth independently of fact; it is a repository of resonances.

It is certainly the case that fiction is quite often a bearer of truth — at its best it is an expression of some recognizable and resonant iteration of experience. We might say fiction speaks to what is essential about a thing, which comes pretty close to truth in my book. It does this by any number of methods: aesthetics (in the Keatsian sense: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”); the depth of the writer’s vision of the world she has created; the precision, timbre and tone of the language; or the ways in which narration is used to tell a story. Metaphor is a potent carrier of truth, particularly those nearly inarticulable truths we can only approach through juxtaposition and allusion. I could go on, and if I did it would be some time before I arrived at the matter of factuality — except, perhaps, as it applies to historical fiction, which requires some reckoning with the details of the circumstance being described.

At the risk of stating the obvious, truth and fact are not the same things. Our belief in the truthfulness of facts is mutable. I recently saw Joshua Oppenheimer’s superb documentary, “The Act of Killing,” which takes as its subject the murders of, by some estimates, as many as a million people in Indonesia in the 1960s. The killers were never punished. In many cases, they became powerful people who proudly and publicly refer to their days of heroic government service as the exterminators of Indonesia’s “Communists.” The murder of all those souls was, until very recently, simply part of the national lore. There is another reality of course — the terror of the survivors and resultant silence of the families of the victims. Both are examples of constructed narratives, though only one is a grotesque manipulation of what transpired, a ghastly example of the way facts may be ignored to create a narrative as far from truth as can be.

Fictional truth is narrative truth — necessarily, as it is wedded to story. Let’s consider Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone With the Wind.” The real-world equivalent of Scarlett O’Hara — if such a shallowly imagined creature could exist — may well have flounced about with her crinolines and her fiddle-dee-dees. But what of Mammy? When “Gone With the Wind” was first published in 1936, many readers may have taken as fact Mammy’s content passivity at being a slave. But if the novel had developed her character fully enough to describe, even glancingly, her experience as chattel, well, the whole thing would have come off quite differently. The character of Mammy isn’t just inadequately rendered; it is without reality.

Of course, the aims of “Gone With the Wind” were entertainment and God knows what else, none of which apparently involved the truth. Nonetheless, the novel’s greatest deficiency isn’t inattention to fact. The problem is the book’s failure to infuse its characters or their world with reality. By this I refer not to whether a book is written in the realist vein, but to the intensity of a writer’s attention to her subject and the quality of her observation and description. Granted, reality is not so lofty as truth, but it’s certainly one of its foot soldiers.

E.L. Doctorow said, “It’s the fiction writer’s admission after all that he stands outside the culture of empirical truth.” Fiction generates truth independently of fact; it is a repository of meanings and resonances to which the writer does indeed have a great responsibility, whether his subject is Sherman’s march or a group of Machiavellian rabbits in search of a new home.

Ayana Mathis is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a recipient of the 2014-15 New York Public Library’s Cullman Center Fellowship. “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie,” her first novel, was a New York Times Bestseller, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, one of NPR’s Best Books of 2013 and was chosen by Oprah Winfrey as the second selection for Oprah’s Book Club 2.0. Ayana taught Creative Writing at The Writer’s Foundry MFA Program at St. Joseph’s College, Brooklyn. She is an Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

A version of this article appears in print on November 1, 2015, on page BR31 of the Sunday Book Review.

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