Pants on Fire: The Genre That Cannot Be Named

June 22, 2015 | 15 books mentioned 4 8 min read

In her April review of Thomas Kunkel’s Man in Profile: Joseph Mitchell of The New Yorker, Janet Malcolm discussed Mitchell’s beloved, beautiful stories — “cryptic and ambiguous and incantatory and disconnected and extravagant and oracular and apocalyptic” — and his inclination toward invention — toward “radical departures from factuality.” “Mitchell’s genre,” she wrote, “is some kind of hybrid, as yet to be named.”

cover Almost three-quarters of a century after The New Yorker published Mitchell’s first story, Mitchell’s genre, some kind of hybrid, still has yet to be named. Or, rather, perhaps, Mitchell’esque genres have yet to be given a name that fits. Literary Journalism? New Journalism? Literary Nonfiction, Narrative Nonfiction, Immersion, Creative Nonfiction, Faction? Fiction?

Some time ago, I received the suggestion that I conflate two characters in a manuscript I hoped would someday be a book that, in the tradition of, say, George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, combined field reporting, memoir, essay, and history. Some kind of hybrid.

Conflating my characters — two children, in this case — would create a single and more compelling protagonist, I was told. Reflexively, I etched in quotes. “My” characters? But I also felt a different urge: It was true. Inventing one composite kid from two could make the story stronger. Certainly it would make writing the story easier for me, and I wanted that too. But how did what I want matter? I come in part from cheating stock — thieves, adulterers, at least two murderers, as far as I know. I was curious: Could I be a cheater, or, more precisely, a compositor, too?

cover According to Dan Ariely, absolutely. We all are cheats and liars, his research suggests, and, for writers of some kind of hybrid, this matters, perhaps a great deal. Professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University, Ariely has spent more than a decade studying why humans don’t tell the truth. Last month, with collaborator Yael Melamede, he released a documentary film, (Dis)Honesty: The Truth about Lies. In 2012, he published a book, The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone — Especially Ourselves, including a back-cover blurb by A. J. Jacobs, author of the immersion memoir The Year of Living Biblically: “…those who claim not to tell lies are liars.”

Humans, evolved to find advantage at the lowest possible cost, possess “a deeply ingrained propensity to lie to ourselves and to others,” Ariely reports. We are dishonest to serve the self — the ego, Latin and Greek for “I,” distinct from the world and others. We are dishonest to serve our fears — of inadequacy, of rejection, of difference, obscurity, going broke, oblivion, death. We are dishonest to serve our desires — for meaning, love, power, fame, a single compelling protagonist. In Joseph Mitchell’s case, perhaps, for art.

Sometimes, he says, we’re dishonest so we can think of ourselves as good and honest people. As Marcel Proust once also observed, “It is not only by dint of lying to others, but also of lying to ourselves, that we cease to notice that we are lying.” To further complicate matters, says Ariely, “The more creative we are, the more we are able to come up with good stories that help us justify our selfish interests.” This, it seems to me, is both the good news and the bad.

Orwell for one believed that “all writers are vain, selfish, and lazy.” He himself was sometimes a cheat, and also a coward, at least as far as we know. I’ve read Homage to Catalonia several times over now, and an essay he wrote about writing books. “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle,” he observed, “like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”

cover The Polish author Ryszard Kapuściński, complicated, enigmatic, alternately choleric and charming, comes to mind. “One Kapuściński is worth more than a thousand whimpering and fantasizing scribblers,” said Salman Rushdie of his friend. Said John Updike, Kapuściński wrote “with a magical elegance that…achieves poetry and aphorism.” Yet, in Imperium, a personal account of communist Russia — the camps, the purges — Kapuściński reports nothing of his onetime collaboration with the communist party in his homeland Poland. When the director of Iranian studies at Stanford met with Artur Domoslawski, Kapuściński’s biographer and friend, he said to Domoslawski, “You can open Shah of Shahs at any page, point to a passage, and I will tell you what’s wrong or inaccurate.” And then he proceeded to do so.

Kapuściński once yelled at a friend asking about his books’ omissions and fabrications. “You don’t understand a thing! I’m not writing so the details add up — the point is the essence of the matter!” On this point, Kapuściński was right. In literature, the essence of the matter rather than the adding up of details is the point. But, if in the end, readers perceive that “essence” comes in disregard of the worlds of possibility found between writer and reader — and if readers never pick up another of your books again — what’s the point at all?

Fabricators like Mitchell and Kapuściński may now be the exception, as Charles McGrath wrote in his New Yorker review of Man in Profile: Joseph Mitchell of The New Yorker, “because now…it’s harder to get away with,” but their stories, Ariely’esque in the telling, are enduring, and enduringly stirring.

cover Consider anthropologist Wendy “Wednesday” Martin, for instance. Her new book, The Primates of Park Avenue, one of two books she’s written that she describes as “very research-intensive blendings of memoir and social science,” earned this New York Post headline in early June: “Upper East-Side Housewife’s Tell-All Book Is Full of Lies.”

After The Post published its revelations of Martin’s practices — compression, conflation, fabrication — Cary Goldstein, vice president and executive director of publicity at Simon & Schuster, told The New York Times, “It is a common narrative technique in memoirs for some names, identifying characteristics and chronologies to be adjusted or disguised, and that is the case with Primates of Park Avenue.”

cover Ariely argues that the human inclination toward deception, highly evolved and driven by dread or desire, has a slow corrosive effect on society. Think subprime mortgage crisis. Neural MRIs show the more we lie, the less the region of the brain associated with guilt responds, suggesting the act of lying desensitizes us to the shame of lying. There are those who argue dishonesty has a slow, corrosive effect on nonfiction. Think Jim Fingal, the one-time Harper’s fact-checker who took John D’Agata and his fictionalized essay “About a Mountain” to task in the book they co-wrote, called The Lifespan of a Fact. Near the end of the book, Fingal and D’Agata come to verbal fisticuffs. Fingal writes, exasperated, “I mean, the whole point of all these shit storms over the last ten years…isn’t that the reading public doesn’t understand that writers sometimes ‘use their imaginations.’ It’s about people searching for some sort of Truth…and then being devastated when they find out that the thing they were inspired by turned out to be deliberately falsified…for seemingly self-aggrandizing purposes.”

Or maybe don’t think of Jim Fingal, however spot-on his words. Maybe we ditch Jim Fingal, who, it was revealed in post-publication coverage, partially reinvented his correspondence with D’Agata for their nonfiction book. “Contrary to the impression created by the promotional material, and the way it has subsequently been characterized in reviews,” wrote Craig Silverman on, “…The Lifespan of a Fact isn’t, you know, factual. D’Agata never called Fingal a dickhead, to cite but one example.”

In journalism, where truth is an explicit part of the deal between writer and reader, shit storms are understandable and necessary, as real harm is often a consequence.

Ironically, during filming, Ariely and Melamede couldn’t find any journalists who’d talk to them about deception in their field.

Yet in hybrid genres where rules are less clearly defined, the consequences of unreliability are also often felt at great intensity. Even in memoir, recently described by Daphne Merkin as an “elasticized form for truths and untruths,” outrage and pain seem to register when a writer is perceived to betray the trust.

coverIt is curious to note the research that suggests the emotional experience of social pain, and betrayal specifically, lights up the same regions of the brain as physical pain. Humans remember social pain more acutely and for a longer duration than physical pain. Neurologically, the experience of being cast away appears to mirror that of being burned. Like, with fire. I confess to feeling something akin to this when I learned the cat in Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek didn’t exist. It was a metaphorical cat. Jesus Christ. Annie Dillard. I thought she was perfect.

cover The truth is, many readers want to believe they know who the author is. Readers have for millennia. In Tiger Writing: Art, Culture, and the Interdependent Self, novelist Gish Jen reminds us that the independent self — “the self unhitched from the collective” — has been “making things up [since] even before the words ‘fiction’ and ‘poetry’ were coined.” In ancient Rome and Greece, writers who fabricated were eyed with suspicion, “not only because they could make the untrue seem true, but because they tended to be highly individualistic, with interests that might or might not be yours.” This has not changed. Many readers still eye with suspicion writers who fabricate. Which, if we’re really being honest with ourselves, (which, as Ariely notes, is harder than it might first appear) is quite a lot of writers. Hell, many readers eye with suspicion writers who don’t fabricate. As author Robin Hemley observes in A Field Guide for Immersion Writing, “Whether you’re putting yourself in harm’s way emotionally, psychologically, or physically, it’s almost a guarantee that you’re going to get pummeled in one way or another.”

Orwell called for “discipline.” In Homage, he copped, “…beware of my partisanship, my mistakes of fact and the distortion inevitably caused by my having seen only one corner of events.”

coverIn her essay for the anthology Blurring the Boundaries: Explorations on the Fringes of Nonfiction, Naomi Kimbell advises, “[T]he first and most important gesture a writer can make to the reader is letting him or her in on the joke.” And yet, in the words of author Lee Gutkind, founder of Creative Nonfiction magazine, there are no “creative nonfiction police” handcuffing those who don’t, nor should there be.

Gutkind, identified on his website with a quote from Vanity Fair as “the Godfather behind creative nonfiction,” advises writers to rely upon conscience. Yes, fact-checking is critical, he writes in You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction, but so too “following the old-fashioned golden rule by treating your characters and their stories with as much respect as you would want them to treat you.” “Conscience,” he writes, “a reminder and an invisible artbiter over us all.”

And, yet, as Ariely’s research and the nonfiction world’s regular shit storms reveal, relying on conscience is slippery business.

Ariely recommends concrete approaches designed to address the conflict of interest between self and other — a signed legal contract, if you’re a trader at J.P. Morgan Chase & Company, for instance. If you’re a writer of some kind of hybrid that blends fact and invention, an author’s note, disclaimer, afterword, use of the conditional tense, caveat, or limitless other artful and crafty techniques. It’s reasonable to assume this is why Simon & Schuster announced soon after The Primates of Park Avenue shit storm that they would add “a clarifying note” to the e-book and subsequent print editions. At the back of the Kindle edition I consulted in mid June, in addition to an introduction that describes the book as “an academic experiment,” is now an author’s note:

This work is a memoir. It reflects my experiences over a period of several years. Some names and identifying details have been changed, and some individuals portrayed are composites. For narrative purposes and to mask the identities of certain individuals, the timeline of certain events has been altered or compressed.

“Every time we lie, we dilute the trust,” Ariely said when we corresponded. Ariely can’t prove this with empirical evidence, but he believes it to be true. When Ariely was in high school in Israel, a magnesium battlefield flare exploded at his feet, and he was trapped in a chemical fire. He spent three years in a hospital. “The experience of pain has led me to beauty,” he later wrote in an essay. Also, “as I am not very concerned with my personal ‘small problems,’ I…can’t get too excited about the ‘small problems’ others are experiencing.”

All the same, Ariely took time to respond to my questions: Given everything we know, why do nonfiction writers continue to make stuff up and not tell readers? Given everything we know, why do readers continue to feel betrayed and outraged when nonfiction writers do this?

“I don’t think this is planned,” Ariely said in a recording he made because typing can be hard. “I think people start writing something that is based in reality, and then the boundary for what is acceptable and what is not acceptable is not very clear.” He said, “It’s very human.”

coverSo, too, the timeless desire for a good story well told. Writes Malcolm of Mitchell, “We should respect his inhibiting reverence for literary transcendence and be grateful for the work that got past his censor.”

While Mitchell’s genre remains nameless, there is a name for the startling discovery of the truth of it: Anagnorisis, Aristotle wrote in his Poetics, the moment of change from ignorance to knowledge. I was wrong. It is here, he believed, “the finest recognitions.”

This essay was adapted and updated from a longer article about constructing nonfiction personae, originally published in the pedagogy department of Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies.

Image Credit: Pexels/Sergey Zhumaev.

is a writer whose articles and essays have been published or anthologized by The Atlantic online, The New York Times, The Rumpus, Soul of the Sky, and The Writer, among others. She believes she's nearly finished her first book, some kind of rigorously fact-checked hybrid, as yet to be named. It does not include composite characters.