Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Fact and Fiction

About 10 years ago, I borrowed a co-worker's copy of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. I read it with some interest, but about halfway or two-thirds of the way through, I encountered about the third scene full of remarkable, telling coincidences that the narrator had witnessed. I went back, re-read the first five or ten pages, and then continued. For the rest of the book, I read with diminished interest, confident enough that characters said to have died were in fact dead and that any matters relating to legal cases were probably correctly described, but with no interest in whether reported conversations and meetings took place, and with diminished interest in general.

What brings this to mind, of course, is the fuss over an essay by John D'Agata, who considered it pedestrian to be held to the accuracy of number, names, and places in an essay purporting to be nonfiction. I had heard of this on-line over the last week or so, but I find myself astonished. The effect is one I remember from the 1960s and 1970s, when lone Japanese soldiers occasionally walked out of the jungle on Pacific islands--how had they not heard that the war was over?

Long ago, I read some of Ford Madox Ford's essays on certain writers he had known, probably collected in Portraits From Life. I was troubled a little later to read that Ford was not particularly careful of the truth of what he related. A little after that, I encountered in the Goncourt journals an account the meeting between De Maupassant and Swinburne that entirely contradicted Ford's. At that point, I lost interest in whether Steven Crane had smashed flies with the sight of his revolver, or what clever things Hudson, Belloc, and others might have said.

In extreme cases, the habit of offering fiction as fact can affect the author beyond his reputation. I find in an essay of Malcolm Muggeridge's, "Public Thoughts on a Secret Service", collected in The Most of Malcolm Muggeridge
The real danger of trafficking in lies, which Intelligence work necessarily involves, is that it develops a propensity for believing them. In the same sort of way newspaper proprietors, unless they watch out, are liable to each a point when they actually believe what is put in their newspapers at their own behest. A skeptical turn of mind like Dr Johnson's is induces only by holding fast to the truth.
 This seems to have happened to Ford, then known as Ford Madox Hueffer. He let his publishers fall into a libel case brought by his estranged wife Elsie Hueffer when they described Violet Hunt as "Mrs. Ford Madox Hueffer". Elsie Hueffer won easily; the publishers lost a couple of hundred pounds, as I recall, and no doubt came to have doubts about their author.

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