The fabulous fabulists.

Media criticism.
June 12 2003 5:39 PM

The Fabulous Fabulists

Mencken, Liebling, and Mitchell made stuff up, too. Why do we excuse them?

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If we insist on banishing Blair, Glass, Newton, and all the other confessed composite artists and embellishers (Michael Finkel, Christopher Jones, Jay Forman, Nik Cohn, Rodney Rothman) from journalism, why do we still honor Mencken, Liebling, and Mitchell?

The first leaky argument goes like this: Standards have changed—yesterday's readers didn't care if stories were some amalgam of truth and imagination. But that point doesn't ring true. If earlier readers didn't care if writers mixed malarkey with fact, why didn't publishers oblige them by hiring novelists and printing plausible fiction instead of fact? It would have been cheaper.

Also, standards weren't so lax in the old days that Mencken, Liebling, and Mitchell could fabricate at will. Remember, all three kept their deceptions secret, at least for a time. And none made up a passage that could be easily uncovered. Yes, the inventions of these three literary journalists are different from those of Stephen Glass. But theirs quickly bump into his on their trip down the slippery slope.

The second leaky argument goes like this: Time tempers outrage. Viewed through history's window, Mitchell appears to be a frustrated fiction writer, and Mencken and Liebling seem like scamps rather than felons for making things up. But journalism has long posited a set of rules that essentially say: Build a narrative or argument out of a set of collected facts, and don't double-cross the reader with flights of fantasy, no matter how noble your goal. If I were king, I'd affix large, bloody scarlet asterisks aside the names Mencken, Liebling, and Mitchell. And why not? If you're going to ticket a bum like Glass for reckless writing, shouldn't you ticket a god like Mencken for doing the same thing?

All fabricators share a common motive: They want to make their story better than the plain truth, which they think gives them license to blend characters into a composite, pipe in dialogue, and edit events into a more logical narrative. If the truth refuses to collaborate, they conjure up something more compelling. The leading exponent of this school of journalism was New Yorker staff writer Alastair Reid. In 1984, the Wall Street Journal reported that Reid had constructed numerous composite characters in his nonfiction New Yorker pieces, rearranging events and scenes and inventing conversations. A translator and a poet as well as a nonfiction writer, Reid rationalized every one of his embellishments.

"The implication that fact is precious isn't important," Reid told the Journal. "Some people [at The New Yorker] write very factually. I don't write that way. ... Facts are only a part of reality."

Reid went on and on in this vein, justifying his embellishments to the Journal:

If one wants to write about Spain, the facts won't get you anywhere. …

If you're writing a piece in the first person, you quite often put your own questions in the mouth of someone else. …

You have to get over this hump that it's fact or else. … There is a truth that is harder to get at and harder to get down towards than the truth yielded by fact. …

There's no attempt to distort facts [in composite scenes]. What this perception does is to combine facts. …

Joseph Mitchell anticipated Reid's grandiosity and self-regard in defending his Fulton Fish Market composite, writing in the preface to the book version, "I wanted these stories to be truthful rather than factual, but they are solidly based on facts." This caveat reveals Mitchell's disdain for the quotidian truths of newspapers. One suspects that Liebling's willingness to bend genres hails from the same territory. Reid spoke for all the arty fabricators working inside journalism when he told the Journal, "Readers who are factual-minded are the readers who are least important."

At first, New Yorker Editor William Shawn defended Reid: "I trust him completely, and he's not trying to deceive anybody, including me." But eventually Shawn retreated, conceding to his publisher that Reid had "violated New Yorker principles. He made a journalistic mistake. He was wrong. The editors of The New Yorker do not condone what he did."

Fabricating a terrific story and ferreting out the amazing truth both require imagination, though I wouldn't equate the two. In the first case, it takes some creativity to cook up something that is both interesting and plausible. In the second, finding a good (true) story and exploiting it properly requires a kind of imagination that most reporters just call "a hunch." Where the two schools of imagination part, of course, is when the fabricator writes what he wishes were true—or what he believes to be true, in some platonic sense—even if he hasn't found the evidence. Meanwhile, the honest reporter gives up when the evidence or facts he's looking for evade him, or he reconceptualizes and starts again.

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