Pushcart 2014: Pam Houston, “Corn Maze” (non-fiction) from Hunger Mountain

Hunger Mountain art by Mark Penner-Howell

Hunger Mountain art by Mark Penner-Howell

When I went on tour with my first book, a collection of short stories called Cowboys Are My Weakness, I was asked, more than any other question, how much of this really happened to you? “A lot of it,” was my honest answer, night after night, but the audience grew dissatisfied with that answer and seemed, more than anything, to want something quantifiable, so I began saying, also honestly, about 82 percent.
Eight years later, when I published my first “nonfiction” book, and went on tour with it, I would often be introduced in some version of the following manner: “In the past we have gotten 82 percent Pam, and now we are going to get 100 percent,” and I would approach the microphone and feel the need to say, “Well, no, still coming in right about 82.”

I had some very strong feelings while reading this (excellent) essay (available online). I enjoyed it very much – which added to my feeling of discomfort, because while it’s exactly the sort of writing I most enjoy – meandering around while still pointing to a central theme – it may be saying something I feel is very dangerous. Or I may be misreading. Or I may need to rethink just what it is I find so dangerous, and boy, is that dangerous.

Houston’s essay – listed as non-fiction – is in essence about the blur between fiction and non-fiction. She calls it a companion piece to her recent fiction collection, Contents May Have Shifted, a series of 144 short pieces.

I have no trouble at all with a novel that’s 82% true, or 99% true or 14% or any other figure. Much of my favorite fiction, in fact, is i% true. I have no trouble with fiction that uses the author’s name (Maine author Ron Currie Jr. does something similar in Flimsy Plastic Miracles; hey, The Bell Jar was so thinly disguised, Plath published it under a pseudonym).

But if you’re writing a memoir, an autobiography, essays, or anything else that falls under the heading of non-fiction – is 82% good enough? Isn’t this where we get into Truthiness territory? If it’s ok to be Truthy in essays, why not politics? Or Science? Or math (I just pulled some truthiness out of my ass when I used the term “i% true” since I have no idea if that’s a mathematically valid concept, but it sounds good in the context, doesn’t it? And now I’m disowning it, so it’s ok, right?)?

Maybe this is where Truthiness started; once it became widely known (to everyone but me, apparently) that Truth doesn’t really exist and it’s all about a good story, we ended up with politicians (and witnesses before Congress, for pete’s sake) who will say anything with a straight face in service of the Message: Congress is overrun with Communists, tobacco isn’t addictive, the NSA isn’t spying on you.

Houston explores the question of where truth and fiction run into each other from a variety of angles, all of them interesting, and she does it against a backdrop of the blend of fictional nonfiction that reality itself has become: a Las Vegas of gondolas and pyramids, where a cultural critic comes to analyze and a writer comes to feel suicidal; a corn maze that still claims to be the largest in the world though that was in 2008; and a childhood growing up as a child of alcoholics, where reality is what the person with the raised fist says it is. It’s great stuff.

But when she starts talking about writing fictionalized nonfiction, my skin starts to crawl. Because… shouldn’t nonfiction be nonfiction? Shouldn’t truth be sacred somewhere – or at least, clearly indicated as not?

The reason I have been afraid, until very recently, to make any kind of general, theoretical, or philosophical statements about women, writers, westerners, environmentalists, academics…is that I have never felt comfortable speaking for anyone except myself. Maybe I had been socialized not to make declarative statements. Maybe I thought you had to be fifty before you knew anything about the world. Maybe I was afraid of misrepresenting someone I thought I understood but didn’t. Maybe I was afraid of acting hypocritically. Maybe I have always believed it is more honest, more direct, and ultimately more powerful, to tell a story, one concrete and particular detail at a time.
So I did. I put my boat into the river, some things happened, and I took it back out on the other side. In time though, I began to suspect that linear narrative was not doing a very good job representing life as I experienced it, but I still tried to stretch the things I originally conceived of as Slinkies into straight lines. I don’t mean to suggest that I was unique in this. There are so many of us out there, trying to turn Spyrograph flowers into rocket ships. In time I began to gain confidence in my Spyrograph flowers and Slinkies.

I speak as someone who rails against The New Yorker every time they include a novel excerpt as “short fiction” and, especially, against One Story, my hands-down favorite literary magazine, when they sneak in an excerpt from an upcoming novel that’s probably terrific for circulation figures, but is not, in fact, one story. So I’m familiar with the concept of cutting certain people some slack. And then there’s my own history of untruth, which some day I’ll need to deal with… but not today.

Houston tells a fascinating story of a couple of articles she wrote. One was early in her career; she had to interview women about adventure vacations, and the three quotes she got were boring and repetitious, so she made up three other women and gave them more interesting quotes.

She doesn’t say whether or not the article was printed, with or without the bogus quotes, or whether she was ever hired as a writer by that magazine again. Maybe I’m ridiculously naïve to think that a writer would do such a thing, even on a fluff piece. I assume most of the supporting quotes made in “soft” articles are, let’s say, carefully selected, maybe even encouraged and cultivated, and I’m pretty skeptical of anything I read or hear anywhere. But come on, doesn’t someone see something wrong with this?

The second incident is even scarier, because the editor of the article subtly solicits a trio of nonexistent kayakers and more pleasant weather than occurred in the subject event. It seems Houston wrote the hell out of that – I bet she did, she’s a fantastic writer – and when the article was selected for anthologization, a chance comment gave her the opportunity to explain the situation, and the editors of the anthology removed the section – but added nonexistent fog. I may cry.

When it was decided (When was that again, and by whom?) that we were all supposed to choose between fiction and nonfiction, what was not taken into account was that for some of us truth can never be an absolute, that there can (at best) be only less true and more true and sometimes those two collapse inside each other like a Turducken. Given the failure of memory. Given the failure of language to mean. Given metaphor. Given metonymy. Given the ever-shifting junction of code and context. Given the twenty-five people who saw the same car accident. Given our denial. Given our longings.
Who cares really if she hung herself or slit her wrists when what really matters is that James Frey is secretly afraid that he’s the one who killed her. Dear Random House Refund Department: If they were moved, then they got their twenty-four dollars’ worth.

Yes, there’s a blurred edge between what happened and what we think happened; it’s fascinating territory, and non-fiction writing can accommodate that (and always has). I think it’s editors/publishers bent on presenting “enhanced” fiction – the extra tug on the heartstrings, the detail that make it real and concrete to the mass market reader as opposed to the connoisseur of ambiguity and nuance – that can’t.

Maybe I’m a hardass, but come on, you can’t make up kayakers in your essay about your vacation. You can have a fantasy or dream passage about what that would be like, or what you wish had happened – that’s marvelous. The James Frey debacle is at the center of this essay, and I’m sorry if it makes me a jerk, but you can’t make up a prostitute who hangs herself then decide she slits her wrists before you give up on her entirely and then fall back on “It felt like I killed her and that’s what matters.” Yes, that matters: and you can say “I don’t remember if she hung herself or slit her wrists or just disappeared from my life and I assumed she died because that’s the path she was on and it felt like my fault” – and isn’t that more powerful anyway than a rope or blood? (I haven’t read Frey’s book so I’m making things up here – but I’m saying clearly my reliance on supposition and other sources, so it’s ok, right?).

Did I mention that when James Frey was an undergraduate, I was his creative writing teacher?

Note: Because of the rest of this essay, I assume this is not true. See, that’s what happens when you lie to people. Maybe she was his teacher; maybe she feels like she was, or that she was his teacher in a metaphorical sense. It’s fine to say it’s 82% true, but me, if I don’t know which 82%, I’m not going to believe any of it, and if you tell me which 82% is true, why not just tell the truth in the first place? Or call it fiction, write a contributor note that says it’s based on real events, and do anything you want with it.

[By the way, I’m copying a couple of huge paragraphs from a blog comment I left for Ken Nichols, one of my favorite bloggers, at Great Writers Steal – yes, that’s the name of his blog, it’s a common writing truism, adding to the surreal feeling of this whole subject – so I’m perhaps plagiarizing myself. But I’m also not trying to hide it. So it’s ok, right?]

Time for a personal story. When I was nine, my mother died. I remember watching President Kennedy’s funeral on TV, and crying because he died and my mother died, and his funeral reminded me that she died. Throughout years of therapy between the ages of sixteen and 30 or so, I’d tell every new shrink that story. Except… my mother died in January 1964. The President died in November, 1963. My mother was very ill with breast cancer for a couple of years, with multiple hospitalizations; perhaps I cried in anticipatory grief (or perhaps I cried because someone died and there was sad music and horses and I didn’t really understand it but everyone was talking in very sad voices) but I spent twenty years with a memory that simply could not have happened. Now let me ask you this, which is more interesting: a 9-year-old girl crying at a televised State funeral because her mother just died, or someone who later conflates those events and reverses the actual order? I’m pretty sure I did in fact cry; I remember being embarrassed and talking about something else to cover my tears and my brother became angry at me since he, at age 14, had a better grasp of how serious the televised funeral was. Except maybe he, too, was fighting tears, and as I used distraction, he used anger. in any case, to add another layer of untruth: I don’t really know for sure my mother died in January 1964. She died when we lived in a certain place, and we only lived there for a year – I was only there for the school year of 1963-1964 – so that narrows it down a bit, but I don’t really know the date. Now which do you think is more interesting: a 9-year-old crying over a televised State funeral because her mother just died, or an adult who lost her mother when she was in fourth grade but never knew the exact date?

One thing I am sure of, having spent the last five years inside a shattered narrative, is that time is a worthy opponent. It does not give up quietly. It does not give up kicking and screaming. It does not, in fact, give up at all. Time is like when you break a thermometer and all the mercury runs around the table trying like crazy to reconstitute itself. Or like the way PCB can start out in a glass transformer in Alabama and wind up on the island of Svalbard, inside a polar bear cub’s brain. A shattered narrative is still a narrative. We can’t escape it; it is what we are.

There’s truth, and there’s not-truth. Yes, there’s uncertainty, and overlap, always has been, always will be. And then there are the most interesting cases of all: when we’re sure we know exactly what happened, but it turns out we simply must be wrong. The notion that Houston’s childhood was like that – spectacular! And there’s the world that tries to convince us appearance is reality, like the gondolas of Las Vegas. A whole industry of “reality TV” has spun out of control, and you’ll never convince me that Project Runway isn’t pre-arranged. The absurdity of staged reality shows up in movies from Willy Wonka to Postcards from the Edge. Again, terrific material. And there’s stuff we are wrong about but we don’t know we’re wrong, and we can’t know we’re wrong. When someone tells us – when we figure out the date our mother died, because the internet, duh – that’s pretty cool in itself.

But not making up quotes to give punch to an article, or inventing kayakers (even if the editor, shame on her, does strongly hint she wants the fictionalized version of reality). Not just saying, “82%” and figuring that covers it. No (and if I do make things up and call it truth, I’ll have a good reason to justify it, right?). Then again, writing that raises strong feelings and brings up important issues can’t be dismissed. And, by the way, this essay has been included in the craft anthology Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction edited by Jill Talbot; and as my writer friends who keep asking me if I’m ever going to try writing again keep reminding me – I’m not a writer, so what do I know.

22 responses to “Pushcart 2014: Pam Houston, “Corn Maze” (non-fiction) from Hunger Mountain

  1. So happy you’re continuing this conversation. I (obviously) love Pam’s essay, and think she is an important voice in the discussion. And I love hearing other writers like you grappling with the subject. –Miciah Bay Gault, editor, Hunger Mountain

  2. Ha ha, don’t feel guilty about copying your own comment. =) You wrote it!

    As you point out, I think there’s a threshold for “truthiness.” I’m trying to write some CNF about the unpleasantness that my mother dealt the family when I was nine. On one level, I simply can’t remember everything I was thinking as a child. I can’t remember the exact, factual chronology of everything that happened. Whether I blocked the details out or whatever, I just don’t know. I’m not going to beat myself up if I say there was a certain song playing and it is somehow the wrong song. (And how would I know?) But I’m definitely not going to make up some big event that happened or something like that. I’ll have to “invent” dialogue, as I wasn’t taking notes when I was nine. Will everything be as perfect as if I had been rolling tape? Of course not.

    I suppose the big temptation would be of the Frey variety…I would probably have much better chances getting my piece published if I made things up from whole cloth…I can certainly imagine a much more interesting story than the one that happened. I guess the most important word in “based on a true story” is the first.

    • Hi Ken – Yeah, I need to think about this more. Because, and this seems like such a small thing: why would you claim a song was playing if you don’t remember if/which one was? Chances are you’re going to pick a song that has significance, to add to the story, or maybe something that seems incongruous to make it seem surreal. In either event, you’ve embellished events in the service of emotional impact. That seems off to me. And yet… no one would ever be able to write anything if such a strict standard was in effect. I just haven’t found my own personal balance point yet. It may be unresolvable, or only resolvable on a case-by-case basis. What we can’t do, I don’t think, is just throw up our hands and say, “Truth isn’t possible so anything goes.”

      I read (or used to, anyway) a lot of medical non-fiction: what I call “how I became a doctor” books. Every one of them begins with a disclaimer that details were changed to preserve privacy. Did every conversation Oliver Sacks reports take place as reported? Of course not. I never thought about it before now.

      I may also be confusing nonfiction – memoir – with journalism, which is a whole other ball game. In any case, this essay has really got me thinking, and there’s no bigger compliment a reader can pay a writer – even as she’s ranting. 😉

      • Well, I haven’t written any such pieces yet, so I don’t know what I would do with music. I mentioned it as a kind of ancillary detail that isn’t a massive thing. In the scene I’m thinking of most at the moment, I don’t think there was music, but there were photographs involved. (I don’t like talking too much about an idea before I lay it down.) The photographs I write into a piece will be as true to my memory as possible. If the reader could travel back in time, I can’t imagine he or she would point at me and shout, “LIAR!”

        Now, I should point out that I’m also shopping a memoir. Did you know I wrote songs with John Lennon and Paul McCartney even though I was a toddler when John died? Oh, yeah. I mean, it was hard for us to work together because I was on the Space Shuttle at the time. But how else was I going to do my work as a double agent for the CIA? (The KGB never saw it coming.) People might also be interested to learn about the time I wrote a screenplay with Alfred Hitchcock and toured with Springsteen… simultaneously. I’m starting the bidding at a quarter million for the advance. That includes the sequel in which I describe how I managed to be Deep Throat a few years before I was born.

      • I knew about the Beatles connection/shuttle/Springsteen – why do you think I’ve been following your blog? – but the Hitchcock and CIA are news to me. I may have to follow you on Twitter as well. And Deep Throat, I’d just assumed that was something you didn’t want to admit to. 😉

      • I think there are solutions to the “song on the radio” problem that stay within the bounds of legitimate non-fiction:

        “That was the summer that the radio kept playing ‘Sugar Sugar’ by the Archies, The song haunted me because my girlfriend that summer was named Candy, and she had me wanting her. “‘Sugar Sugar’ was probably on the radio that night as I waited for James Frey to bring over the next chapter of his autobiographical novel–he wanted to know if it seemed ‘true’ to me . . .”

        Or you could take the “who could possibly disprove me” approach. Just never tell anybody that you’re actually not sure what the song was . . . Oh, you already did. Damn the internet. Future writers won’t have this problem because they’ll have taken a million selfies that day and the radio will be flashing the name of the song. I’d probably forgive you making up the song, but making up people you “interviewed,” as Pam Houston did, obviously crosses the line, even if she didn’t follow up by blabbing the truth in her essay.

      • And as for the Lennon and McCartney thing, don’t you think you should just go with Lennon, since McCartney is still alive? But I can verify the space shuttle thing, because I saw you there when I flew by in my interplanetary cruiser.

      • Well, as Karen pointed out, there’s a bit of a difference between “journalism” and “creative nonfiction,” a genre in which writers use the conventions of fiction to tell “true” stories.

        I dunno…I think the “truth” lies in the middle ground that you, Karen and I seem to be discussing. If you had a time machine and could prove that “Hey Jealousy” was playing instead of “Until I Fall Away” when, say, my first girlfriend was breaking up with me, well…life is too short to care. James Frey got in trouble because he made up EVERYTHING. It’s not fair to say “it felt true to me” if you make up too much. It’s hard for me to remember every single detail of the sad things I might write about, but the real sin comes in making up something that is 0% true. Do I remember which kind of cake my Evil Ex-Girlfriend liked most? Actually, I do, but I don’t think it’s an earth-shaking deal if I said “carrot” instead of “white coconut.” Again, that’s where James Frey went astray. He could have said that he was arrested for public intoxication or whatever. Instead, he said that he beat up 15 police officers and ran a marathon in 54 minutes or whatever it was. He clearly lied about stuff that was easily verifiable. Here’s a fun example; I can’t lie about having played football for the Ohio State Buckeyes. Why? Well, because I didn’t. But also because that stuff is verifiable via Google and you could talk to the hundreds of people on and around the team to see if I’m lying. Here’s a guy who really DID pretend he was on the team: http://sports.yahoo.com/blogs/ncaaf-dr-saturday/man-claimed-years-ohio-state-american-tight-end-191626603.html

        Am I doing the wrong thing if I write a travel piece in which I describe meeting people I didn’t meet? And if I tell people that I’m making substantial things up in an article that is purported to be nonfiction? The number of opinions I give is directly correlated to the amount of money in my bank account and the number of credits on my CV.

        There are some guys who claim to have been in the military who weren’t and some who even claim to have won big-time medals…even though some of those things are verifiable, too. However, if I happen to meet a WWII veteran who tells me a crackerjack story, am I going to care if he tells me that he had a Betty Grable pinup and I later find out it was Lauren Bacall? Probably not.

        I don’t quite know why I’m discussing this so much. CNF isn’t my primary field, even though I love it. =)

      • Congratulations to Ken, Kyle, and Pam Houston – I’ve had to increase the number of reply levels for the first time in a year to accommodate this thread. 😉

        For me, it’s a matter of verifiability, though that may speak to the smarts (or chutzpah) of the writer. It’s a matter of what you’re doing with non-fiction: if the true-life story you’re telling isn’t compelling enough without embellishments, maybe you shouldn’t be writing it. Maybe you should be writing it as part of a fiction story. Non-fiction has the inherent implication of “this happened” with all its attendant heartstring-tugging, and to take advantage of that, while padding it out with details to make it just a little more heartstring-rending than it reallyh was, just doesn’t sit well with me.

        As for the issue of getting paid, boy, that’s a can of worms I can’t address. Writers are right up there with teachers in terms of American disrespect. If a mag calls for nonfiction, then tells the author to add kayakers, that’s a reflection on the mag.

        I’m not even sure what “creative non-fiction” means, if there is a definitive definition – as opposed to journalism? Is all memoir CNF? I’d always figured it was something akin to experimental fiction, a less narrative approach to telling a true story. But the term seems to mean different things to different people – does it, in fact, mean enhanced nonfiction? Because if that’s the case, the discussion is over for the same reason I stopped watching Project Runway: it is what it is. Whether it’s an outrage that it should be like that is moot.

  3. I too have strong feelings about Corn Maze. Pam Houston is a talented and engaging writer, but it’s astonishing to me that anyone would think that this piece of humbug was one of the best essays of the year. What Houston has done is take a very simple linguistic distinction that everyone understands perfectly well, and thrown a blanket of word-fog over it so that she can pretend that the distinction is blurry. The word “true,” like many words, has more than one meaning. (1) It can mean “it actually happened” or “it really exists.” This is what we mean when we say that a fact in a non-fiction text is true. (2) By extension, and as a sort of metaphor, we sometimes use the word “true” to mean “true to life, having verisimilitude.” This meaning is usually applied to fiction. Because of meaning #2, there’s no real contradiction in the old saying, “Art is a lie that tells the truth.” (3) We even sometimes say, rather loosely, that an interpretation of a set of facts is “true to the facts,” though it would be better if we said that it was a convincing interpretation of the facts. I believe that Houston understands all these distinctions perfectly well.

    When she says that the story of the three Italian kayakers is “the truest thing in the entire essay,” what she means is “it didn’t really happen (meaning #1), but it’s the sort of thing that could have happened (meaning #2), and [she implies] in an essay as inconsequential as my travel essay, it doesn’t matter if it’s literally true or not.” Houston tries to muddy the waters and convince us that the nature of truth is in doubt here, but the confusion is purely verbal. The real question which she would rather not discuss is whether it matters that she invented the kayakers. The answer is: of course it matters. Houston admits that telling the truth matters in the case of war crimes, genocide, sex offenders, and presidents who lie about weapons of mass destruction; the only difference in the case of her kayakers is that nothing momentous hangs on whether they’re real or not. But people tend to resent being lied to, even when nothing vital is at stake. The magazine editors who aided her in her deceptions weren’t thinking “who knows what is really true in this case?” They were thinking, “we’ll never get caught, so why worry?” They are probably mortified that she has now exposed their complicity in her lies.

    Houston throws out another red herring when she talks about how people have different interpretations of Venice and Las Vegas, and that sometimes a cultural critic “goes to Vegas and lets it serve as proof of everything she’s been trying to say about the world.” But all of us understand the familiar distinction between facts and opinions, a distinction which middle school teachers in California are required to explain to their students. Whether Las Vegas is “a distillation of American-style capitalism” is a matter of opinion. Whether Pam Houston actually visited Las Vegas is a question of fact, true or false, and whether or not she actually had a water fight with the kayakers is also a question of fact.

    I read part of James Frey’s “A Million Little Pieces” after it was exposed as a work of fiction. I thought it was a very well-written and even riveting piece of fiction. But that’s not the point. I think Frey made a calculation that he would get more attention and sell more books if he passed his book off as factual. He was right, at first. After he was exposed, people felt irritated at his lies and didn’t feel like checking to see if his book was good if treated as fiction. The book is a good piece of fiction, but its author is a liar. No doubt the book was based on Frey’s experiences, but we all know what “based on” means here. When a movie about the paranormal proclaims that it is “based on a true story,” we understand it really means that it is “not a true story.”

    It’s perfectly possible to write a work of fiction and give the central character your own name. You call the book “fiction,” and people understand that the “Pam” in the book is similar to, but also different from, Pam the author. I know this has been done more than once, though I can’t recall the particular books. Maybe someone else remembers. In any case, her editor clearly understood the issue: “I think we want people to think that it is both you and not you.” Note that the editor did not simply say, “I think we want people to think that it is you.”

    Houston mentions on p. 50 that she has been “afraid, until very recently, to make any kind of general, theoretical, or philosophical statements . . .” She was right to be afraid. She may be a good fiction writer, but she is horrible at general, theoretical, philosophical thinking. Analytic philosophers will have a hearty laugh if they read “Corn Maze.”

    • Hi Kyle, good to see you here. I’m very glad, seeing as it’s always nice to have someone around who’s an even harder hardass than I am.

      I did very much like the essay, both in style and in the issues raised; that “Did you know” line is perfectly dropped, even though I don’t know if I believe it. I saw her use of Vegas as background against which she put her own story – the world has gone nuts, no one seems to know what truth is any more, or care (except for a couple of hardasses) as long as it doesn’t cost them anything. Then we’re surprised when a politician lies or a kid’s caught cheating (which, of course, both have always done, but it seems it’s more common, and less heinous, now).

      I’ll let Ken speak for himself above (except for the interplanetary cruiser – so you’re the one who left it fresh out of plutonium that night) but I can see some issues there. Yes, the song can be handled many ways. But a conversation – no one can remember a conversation verbatim, so we report the important parts, and maybe it isn’t precise. Then it becomes a matter of judgment about where we start padding the truth to make a better story – and to me, that’s the real problem, altering fact to improve readability. So many other ways to make it readable!

      But that this has raised so much feeling is important in itself. Maybe it means the tide’s turning back. I doubt it, but we can always hope.

      • I totally agree that Pam Houston is a brilliant stylist. She has to be in order to win any acceptance of her argument in “Corn Maze.” And I’m sure I’ll read her fiction again some time. I don’t know that it makes me a hard-ass to insist that clear distinctions be acknowledged as clear, but if so, then whatever. Let me add that when there is a blurred boundary between two concepts, that does not make the concepts interchangeable. Let’s continue to discuss twilight, but in doing so we will not invalidate the concepts of day and night.

  4. I think we’re all basically agreeing that if you don’t remember what was on the radio 30 years ago, and you think to yourself, “Well it could have been ‘Sugar Sugar,'” so you say that it was, then that’s okay, and anyway, nobody can prove you’re wrong about that little detail. And we all also agree that it’s not okay to say to yourself, “The interviews I got for my article weren’t very good, so I’ll make up some better ones,” or “My life isn’t as interesting as I’d like it to be, so I’ll add some things that never happened.” There are bound to be blurry borderline cases, but most cases aren’t borderline, and it’s fairly easy to draw the line between what’s okay and what’s not–easier than Houston thinks it is.

    • Hmm, I think I changed my mind without noticing,

      I read a political book recently–definitely not creative non-fiction–that handled these issues like this, and explained in the foreword what they were doing: if sources, particularly the person speaking, could verify the exact words, the authors used quotation marks. If sources could verify what was discussed in a conversation but couldn’t remember the exact words, the authors used indirect discourse. And if the authors were just speculating, then they introduced terms like “perhaps” and “probably” and “might have.” In a genre where the facts were important and creativity less so, this seemed like a reasonable procedure, allowing the authors in some cases to speculate about what was likely to have been thought and said in order to bring scenes to life, but also making it clear when they were just speculating. But I’ll grant that in creative non-fiction, it’s probably okay to say The Archies were on the radio rather than use the roundabout method I suggested above. People understand that memories are not perfect, and when nobody’s political career is at stake (and no lawsuits likely), a case that might have been borderline can become acceptable (I now think)–though there would always also be the option of saying that the Archies were on the radio a lot that summer, and so maybe that day, etc.

      Sorry to go on and on about this.

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