Little White Scholarly Lies

By John Gilstrap

One of the few undeniable, irrefutable take-to-the-bank rules of the publishing industry is that nonfiction is easier to sell than fiction. It’s as true in the bookstore as it is on an editor’s desk. If you’re a celebrity, your book is a slam-dunk, even if you have precious little to say. If you’re just an average Joe, on the other hand, you’d better have a pretty enticing angle.

James Frey had just such an angle in his explosive memoir of addiction entitled, A Million Little Pieces. You might remember that book as the target of the Greatest Oprah Meltdown Ever, when she found out that the ridiculously unbelievable, over-the-top autobiography was, in fact, fiction. The world learned this when The Smoking Gun did a little elementary school-level fact checking. Frey’s publishers, Doubleday and Anchor Books, were shocked—shocked, I tell you—that a book with their name on the spine (and its earnings in their coffers) was not everything that the author had crossed his heart and hoped to die and pinky-swore was absolutely true.

After all, if it weren’t true, they couldn’t have marketed it and promoted it as vastly more profitable and easily promoted nonfiction.

Stephen Glass had gasp-inducing angles, too, on all the wild news items he wrote for The New Republic in the late nineties. For a kid in his twenties, he had remarkable access to some of the world’s most interesting people and fascinating stories. After stories were published—many of them fantastical and negative—the subjects (victims?) wrote letters to the editor complaining about inaccuracies and fabrications, but hey, isn’t that what people always do when they’re called out by hardworking investigative reporters? It took different elementary school-level fact checking from a Forbes Magazine reporter to knock down that house of cards.

The Stephen Glass scandal rocked the journalistic world. So many investigative reporters, quoting so many unnamed sources, all of them looking for a marketable angle, were shocked—shocked, I tell you again—that one of their brethren had cheated.

Truth is, I expect a fair level of fabrication from young and hungry “journalists” who are looking for their marketable angles. What’s the harm in a little fantasy, after all, if you’re giving the editors and the audience what they want to read? Isn’t the fact that targets can never confront their accusers part of the beauty of using unnamed sources? And if anyone presses too hard on the accuracy thing, there’s always the convenient excuse that the 24-hour news cycle demands corner-cutting, thus transforming the reporters into victims themselves.

Sorry, Killzoners, but you don’t live and work in Washington, DC for as long as I have without becoming cynical.

Even my cynical outlook, though, didn’t prepare me for the New Yorker’s revelation in April that the late, presumably great Stephen E. Ambrose was himself a serial fabricator of facts. His claim that his benchmark autobiography of Dwight D. Eisenhower was based on “hundreds and hundreds of hours” of one-on-one interviews was a bit overstated. The real number of interview hours, while apparently hard to nail down specifically, numbered “less than five.” I understand that we all succumb to hyperbole from time to time, but even the forgiving, non-cynical among you have to concede that there’s no innocent way to exaggerate less-than-five into hundreds-and-hundreds.

Ambrose cheated. Apparently, his many Eisenhower-related books (I confess I’ve never read them) are replete with footnotes and annotations referring to these one-on-one interviews that never happened. All those quoted passages, then, really are only quotes from Ambrose’s imagination—a representation of what he thought Ike would have said if asked.

This one hurts, folks. We’re talking about the author of Band of Brothers here. The author of D-Day. The guy was a freaking brilliant author. He just, you know, made up a lot of his nonfiction facts. The income from his work, however, was very real, and I’m sure that continuing royalties will continue to pay a lot of bills for his descendents.

Let’s be clear: I don’t begrudge the Ambrose estate a penny. Nor do I begrudge the incomes of Messrs. Frey and Glass. They’re gifted writers who understood the markets they were selling to, and they gave their publishers exactly what they craved. I think the authors did a crappy unethical thing, but I know a lot of people who make their livings doing crappy unethical things. (I mentioned that I work in Washington, right?)

When Kurt Muse and I wrote my only nonfiction opus, Six Minutes to Freedom, I made it clear from the beginning that while the story would be 100% true, I was going to take shortcuts for the sake of pacing. Since I was changing names anyway—a requirement of many of the participants before they would agree to be interviewed—what difference would it make if I combined some personalities and created dialogue that represented the gist of what was said, even if the direct quotes were fabricated? Hell, in the “true” movie The Perfect Storm, Warner Brothers took us into the wheelhouse to witness the conversations of people who never lived to be interviewed, and the world ate it up.

Unlike the other examples I mention of fabrication, when I wrote Six Minutes to Freedom, I was protective enough of my integrity as an author to clearly explain my shortcuts in my Author’s Note. I was honest. And I paid a price. More than a few nonfiction purists objected to my admitted juggling of reality, preferring, no doubt, to read works of history by true scholars like Stephen E. Ambrose. He used footnotes and everything.

So, Killzoners, what do you think? Borrowing from the great Stephen Colbert, is “truthiness” a high enough standard in the world of nonfiction? On a scale that measures ethics alone, absent personal preference, are the offenses of Frey, Glass and Ambrose all equal? And the depressing, distressing elephant in the room: Does any of it matter in the end if the little white scholarly lies sell books?