We’re on the Slippery Slope

November 5, 2012

Today I got caught up in yet another discussion of how important fact is in nonfiction writing over at Brevity’s nonfiction blog. Worrying over fact in nonfiction probably seems like an absurd topic to people who aren’t nonfiction writers. You might ask yourself, “Um, isn’t nonfiction called nonfiction because it’s factual? If you want to make something up you call it fiction, right?” And you would be absolutely right to ask those questions, but the matter of facts in nonfiction–whether it’s an essay, a memoir, an autobiography, or a news article–can get pretty tricky. And while this debate amongst writers might seem academic and irrelevant to someone who isn’t a writer, it shouldn’t.

When writers, advertisers, journalists, politicians, and CEOs manipulate facts, they’re also manipulating the reader, the consumer, the voter. And when they do so, they usually justify themselves by claiming that they’re after truth or they’re after our best interest, and if the facts don’t support the truth they have to create or inflate facts that do. It sounds crazy, but we all know it happens every day, all around us.

And even if we’re in on the game–knowing that photos are airbrushed and news is biased and most politicians are crooks–where does that get us? For far too many, it gets us nowhere. Knowing facts can be painful, especially when the facts don’t seem to make a difference. Knowing about corruption while also knowing corruption continues is depressing and demoralizing. The truth doesn’t always set you free.

Worse is when it all starts to make sense. Where network news becomes a joke and Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert start to sound like the voice of reason (broadcasting from the Comedy Central, how funny is that?), when politicians spend more time tweeting their opinions on Jay-Z and Honey Boo-Boo than doing their jobs–that’s when we shrug off facts in favor of a truth that is completely made-up, but perhaps a little more comforting.

If I sound a little doomsday, it could be because we’re on the eve of a presidential election that was so packed with lies and half-truths, empty attacks and meaningless backpedaling, my head will still be spinning even after I leave the voting booth tomorrow. That there would even be a debate over whether fact is important in nonfiction is absurd, I agree. But we live in absurd times.

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2 Responses to “We’re on the Slippery Slope”

  1. Thank you so much for your thoughtful approach to our roundtable!

  2. That’s nice to hear, especially since I got myself in a little bit of trouble, but squeezed out of it thanks to Dinty!

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