Of course you should click through and read it. It’s a book review by Janet Malcolm. Yes, Janet Malcolm. In the New York Review of Books. The Master Writer of the City is Malcolm’s review of a biography of a writer, Joseph Mitchell. And in the course of the review Malcolm writes about writing. That alone makes it worth your while.
Apparently the biographer discovers that some of Mitchell’s non-fiction pieces in fact included quite a lot of fiction. Malcolm ostensibly does not approve of such creative flights. Or does she?
The obvious answer to [the biographer’s] question—the one that most journalists, editors, and professors of journalism would give—is yes, of course, the reputation of [one of the writer’s pieces] should suffer now that we know that Mitchell cheated. He has betrayed the reader’s trust that what he is reading is what actually happened. He has mixed up nonfiction with fiction. He has made an unwholesome, almost toxic brew out of the two genres. It is too bad he is dead and can’t be pilloried. Or perhaps it is all right that he is dead, because he is suffering the torments of hell for his sins against the spirit of fact. And so on…
Every writer of nonfiction [knows the problems of working with difficult material but] few of us have gone as far as Mitchell in bending actuality to our artistic will. This is not because we are more virtuous than Mitchell. It is because we are less gifted than Mitchell. The idea that reporters are constantly resisting the temptation to invent is a laughable one. Reporters don’t invent because they don’t know how to. This is why they are journalists rather than novelists or short-story writers. They depend on the kindness of the strangers they actually meet for the characters in their stories. There are no fictional characters lurking in their imaginations. They couldn’t create a character like Mr. Flood or Cockeye Johnny if you held a gun to their heads. Mitchell’s travels across the line that separates fiction and nonfiction are his singular feat. His impatience with the annoying, boring bits of actuality, his slashings through the underbrush of unreadable facticity, give his pieces their electric force, are why they’re so much more exciting to read than the work of other nonfiction writers of ambition.
Unreadable facticity. Love it.
Thanks for posting the link to this article. How fascinating. Interesting, too, that Janet Malcolm should write it. I was rather surprised by her final paragraph.
Intriguing isn’t it? To what extent does it matter if a work is ‘true’ or not, if it reveals an essential truth?
[…] in April I drew your attention to a marvelous review by Janet Malcolm of the non-fiction work of Joseph Mitchell. In the course of the review Malcolm […]