Mark Bowden: Why Journalism Can’t Be Both Fact and Fiction

Truth is never less interesting than fiction, and is usually more so. All of us go through life with a general idea about people, places and events that we’ve never seen. That general idea is based on guesswork and is tainted by presupposition, bias, received wisdom, etc., etc. Real reporting replaces such guesswork with a solid, firsthand account, and in my experience nearly always demonstrates that what we thought was true was wrong, in ways large and small. Our world and the people who populate it are infinitely various and complex and are always changing, so a truthful account of anything ought to be, by definition, surprising. That’s why reporting has inherent value: There are things fiction can do that journalism cannot, but truthfulness is the thing journalism has over fiction. A made-up general or prostitute can offer me many things in the hands of a great writer, but it cannot replace the intrinsic value of a well-drawn portrait of the real thing. When a writer embellishes reporting with his imagination, whether by creating composites, rearranging the sequence of events or inventing dialogue, he creates something that is not just a fraud, but which is less than either fiction or fact.

Mr. Weingarten doesn’t dwell very much on why journalism morphed into something new in the last half of the 20th century, other than to place the phenomenon alongside the wider upheavals of the decade. The stories we tell reflect the world we live in. The era of epic poetry and popular drama predated the printing press, which freed lovers of stories and myths from the need to memorize stanzas or see literature performed. The printed word enabled longer and more complex work, and right from the beginning the appetite for true stories was strong. The earliest novels often pretended to be true, and much of the greatest fiction is thinly disguised fact. Literary journalism taps into the craving to know what really happened, how people really are. Today, we are all bombarded with facts from a variety of media; we learn very little about a lot. Every day we catch fragments of intriguing stories, often just enough to whet our appetite—to make us wonder, for instance, how a group of relatively inexperienced climbers found themselves fatally stranded on the top of Mount Everest. What happens to a man inside the bubble of a campaign for President of the United States? Why would two drifters with no apparent motive coldly execute a small family in Kansas? What decisions weigh on the mind of the manager of the Saint Louis Cardinals in the ninth inning of a critical game? Why was a mob of angry Somalis dragging the bodies of dead American soldiers through the streets of Mogadishu? It’s a peculiarity of modern times that we even have such questions in our head. Journalism becomes art when it attempts to give a full answer, when it tries to plumb the nuances of character and motivation in the way that novelists have always done. Now and then, the answer is so subtle and well knit that it entirely transcends the circumstances of its birth to become a thing of lasting beauty.

—From Mark Bowden’s review, “Rambunctious Heyday of Gonzo, When Journalism Aspired to Art,”  of Marc Weingarten’s book, The Gang That Wouldn’t Write Straight, in the Observer.


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