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The Lifespan Of Literary License

from National Public Radio

‘Lifespan’: What Are The Limits Of Literary License?


When an author writes something that’s supposed to be a true story and readers discover he’s stretched the truth, things can get ugly fast. Recall Oprah Winfrey’s famous rebuke of author James Frey for making up much of his memoir, A Million Little Pieces. “I feel duped, but more importantly, I feel that you betrayed millions of readers,” she told him.

Now a new book is making waves by defending an author’s right to embellish the facts. The book is called The Lifespan of a Fact, and is a collaboration between author John D’Agata and his former fact-checker, Jim Fingal.

D’Agata… points out that we often apply a kind of double standard to the truth, depending on the perceived seriousness of the subject matter. “I don’t think it’s OK for us to say, ‘In your memoir about growing up and liking pie, it’s completely OK to alter the facts, but when you’re dealing with huge issues like suicide or nuclear waste or whatever, it’s not OK.’ I mean, the subject in this essay is amped up to get us to pay attention.”

Nevertheless, when readers feel they’ve been lied to, they feel betrayed.

“It is important, and it’s something that publishers think about all the time,” says Jonathan Burnham, a senior vice president at HarperCollins.

Burnham knows a thing or two about the trickiness of truth claims in creative nonfiction — he is the one who gave James Frey a second chance after the A Million Little Pieces scandal. He points out that the medium is important; the expectations are different for newspapers, magazines, literary journals and books.

“But one of the most problematic issues that lies at the heart of all this is this philosophical conundrum: What is the truth? Because the truth is often so subjective,” Burnham says.

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Posted on March 8, 2012 by Editor

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