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To Tell the Truth

USC College’s Master of Professional Writing and Master of Liberal Studies programs’ symposium examines the slippery slope where fact meets fiction.

By Pamela J. Johnson
November 1, 2007

To Tell the Truth

 

In the end, if a work of nonfiction is well written and well executed, does it really matter if it is factually true?

According to novelist John Rechy, no. After all, the writer — in fact all artists and the entire creative act — deals in lying, he said at a recent USC College symposium.

“In writing, I think the autobiographer is the biggest liar of all because he dares to say, ‘This I remember and it is exactly as I told it.’ ” Rechy told the group. “Memory is quite a censor. I think the most honest of writers are fiction writers who say, ‘This is a lie and I want you to believe it.’ ”

Rechy, a longtime instructor in the College’s Master of Professional Writing (MPW) Program, made his remarks at a panel discussion sponsored by the MPW program and the College’s Master of Liberal Studies (MLS) Program.

About 80 attended the discussion — “Truth, Lies or Scam: Can You Believe Anything You Read?” — which followed an open house for the two College programs. The MPW program targets graduates seeking careers in writing and the MLS program is designed for professionals pursuing advanced education in an after-work setting.

The symposium examined the boundaries of truth and the ethical land mines writers face. The panelists also gave some attention to the controversy unleashed in the publishing industry last year when author James Frey belatedly admitted to fabricating significant parts of his bestselling memoir, A Million Little Pieces. His story of redemption from addiction gained widespread attention when Oprah Winfrey boosted his memoir through her book club, then rebuked Frey on her show some months later for misrepresenting his life. Panelists included Rechy, the first novelist to receive PEN-USA West’s Lifetime Achievement Award; M.G. Lord, author, book critic and instructor in the MPW program; William Thalmann, professor of classics and comparative literature, and MLS instructor; and Mark Jonathan Harris, Academy Award winning documentarian and Distinguished Professor in the USC School of Cinematic Arts.

The moderator was Jonathan Kirsch, a Bible scholar, book critic, attorney in publishing law and intellectual property, and bestselling author.

Other panelists strongly disagreed with Rechy and his claim that the genre of nonfiction does not have a monopoly on the truth. The disagreements were impassioned at times, particularly around Rechy’s critique of autobiography and his assertion that fact can be fiction.

“To suggest that there are no verifiable facts really is to mock the work of centuries of historians and meticulous reporters,” Lord said. “I don’t think all autobiographers necessarily assert that they know the truth. … No one can remember every single conversation that took place when one was a little child.”

Memoir writers such as James Frey grossly cross the line, she said.

“If you were in jail for 45 minutes, you do not say 45 days,” she said. “Or if you were in high school in 1971, you do not say 2001.”

Thalmann and others said the matter amounts to truth in labeling. If reading a history book, the reader expects truths; if the book is fiction, they expect non-truths. A public belief that no line can be drawn, that everything is relative, Thalmann said, has a grave consequence.

“It becomes very dangerous,” he said. “This phenomenon that has become to be known as ‘truthiness’ — you don’t like the facts? You make them up and that’s the truth. You don’t like the fact that our ecology seems to be threatened by global warming? Well, you just call it bad science. And ‘truthiness’ has caused tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of deaths and untold misery in Iraq, so I think it does matter.”

But Rechy said that labeling is too obtrusive and “removes the magic of conviction” — the act of persuading readers to suspend their disbelief. Even when he read Outlaw: The Lives and Careers of John Rechy, a biography about his own life, he didn’t mind when the author fudged the facts.

“It’s suspenseful as hell,” Rechy said of the biography. “What’s going to happen next? What will happen here? … And when people ask me, ‘Did this happen?’ If it’s something that’s good, I say, ‘Yes, it did.’ And if it’s something that’s negative, I say, ‘That never, never ever happened.’ It amuses me that, if anyone is ever going to write about me again, they will use this as a source.”

Kirsch asked filmmaker Harris whether the cameraman is just as capable of lying as the writer.

“We know the accusation that was made against Robert Capa that the iconic pictures of the Spanish Civil War of a Spanish soldier caught at the moment of his death, that that was a fake and was staged,” Kirsch said. “We know for a fact that the very famous rising of the flag at Iwo Jima was in fact a retake. ‘Do it again boys, we didn’t get a good shot.’ ”

“Absolutely, the camera is capable of lying,” said Harris, who has made several historical films. “You find footage that is very seductive and it’s an iconic image and an image you want to use. I always have researchers or historians, who look at the material.”

Harris said he takes special care when making films about the Holocaust.

“There are Holocaust deniers,” he said. “So you run a risk if anything in your film is suspect.”

In such cases, he has experts check for authenticity. For example, he found old footage of German censors going through letters during World War II — a perfect sequence for his film that involved the Holocaust. His researchers learned that the March of Dimes created the footage.

“It was all taken in New York and was all staged,” Harris said. “And it was very disappointing to find that out. But I felt that once I learned that, I couldn’t use the material.”

Even famous footage can be misleading, he said. For example, filmmaker John Ford created the most frequently used footage of the destruction of Pearl Harbor. It was a reenactment.

“They’re so commonly used now, those [Ford Pearl Harbor] images,” he said. “And it was all manufactured.”

Harris also said that a filmmaker can lie by choosing where to point the camera and how to cut the footage.

“We live in a world now where the idea of documentaries being an objective reality is no longer a generally accepted premise,” Harris said. “I think everyone realizes that documentaries, even though they purport to be the truth, are subjective. … It’s all seen as filtered through the filmmaker’s perspective.”