Truth in Oxiana
Tom Bissell explores the notion of truth in travel literature, from Robert Byron’s “The Road to Oxiana” to his own book, “Chasing the Sea.”
James Frey’s “A Million Little Pieces” sparked a national debate about the rules of nonfiction. Here, Tom Bissell explores the notion of truth in travel literature, from Robert Byron’s “The Road to Oxiana” to his own book, “Chasing the Sea.”
This essay, about the inevitability of fictionalizing in some forms of nonfiction, began as a lecture I gave to Bennington College’s low-residency MFA students in early 2004. I intended to provoke a response and did not get much of one beyond some friendly congratulations. Sven Birkerts, editor of the journal Agni, was among the audience to whom I gave the lecture, and afterwards offered to publish a version of it. I retooled the piece somewhat for publication, hoping to get a response. Again, I was told by those who read the essay that they enjoyed it. And that, more or less, was it. Now that James Frey’s exaggerations and distortions in his memoir A Million Little Pieceshave traumatized Oprah Winfrey, scandalized the American reading public, and become the most recent benchmark of nonfiction-writing wickedness, the editors have asked to republish my essay here on World Hum, to which I have contributed before.
The great nonfiction writer Lawrence Weschler once said to me that there are two kinds of nonfiction writers: Those who basically accept the idea that some type of fictionalizing almost always occurs in narrative nonfiction and those who cannot accept this idea. I am of the former camp. That said, what Frey did is clearly beyond the pale. I have not read “A Million Little Pieces.” Frey’s early interviews, wherein he enthusiastically and ignorantly trashed every young male writer he understood himself to be competing against, were so unappetizing I decided that his was a mind with which I had no interest in seeking communion. Yet while watching Frey slink into the slaughterhouse during his now infamous “Oprah” appearance I could not help but feel some nagging sympathy for him. It seemed to me that the ad hoc vocabularies Frey’s various attackers kept resorting to seemed as wide of the mark as Frey’s own distortions were from reality. “The truth,” for instance, kept being addressed as though this were something we all implicitly agreed upon and understood and valued, like the flag. Frey was guilty of distorting and eliding the facts of his life, but the truth of his life, whatever that could be, and how he sought to communicate it, seemed to me another question altogether, and not one for strangers to judge so confidently. What was most grievously lost in the discussion was any acknowledgment at all that many beloved classics of nonfiction took as many liberties with the facts as Frey did, and yet the sky somehow stayed in its place and wider notions of the truth remained intact. We seem to have become a culture that begs to be lied to, and which then viciously turns on the liar for giving us exactly what we want. I do, however, remain confident that if Frey’s book is still being read 50—or even five—years from now, much of this tempest in a cathode tube will seem curiously beside the point, even though I suspect that Frey’s career as a nonfiction writer is essentially over.
I was a bit slippery with the facts myself a few paragraphs ago. I wrote that my lecture did not get much of a rise out of my audience. In fact, one earnest nonfiction-writing student—a professional journalist in his other life—took me aside to ask that if I really believed one could fictionalize a little in nonfiction, where did one stop? I have long regarded the slippery-slope argument as a rhetorical desperation move, but nevertheless told the young journalist that one stopped at the same place one stopped when arguing with someone, for one did not often knock out someone’s teeth over an honest disagreement. The line between arguing and physical confrontation is, for most people, clear and obvious. Just as, I said, the line between what is acceptable and unacceptable in nonfiction writing is clear and obvious. This did not at all satisfy the journalist, and now I have to admit that the Frey imbroglio has made me somewhat less confident in the clarity of this line’s placement. I should also say that nothing I have written below should be understood as advocating turning a few hours in the drunk tank into a three-month jail time odyssey, nor of creating relationships where none existed. Frey’s great mistake, it seems to me, was wrapping around his story the banner of truth itself, only to learn that the banner was, in fact, a noose. In the end, I suspect that very few explicitly autobiographical narratives could withstand the close reading the likes of which The Smoking Gun gave “A Million Little Pieces.” This does not make the authors of those narratives liars; it makes them servants of fallible human memory and perception. I would like to believe it was the enormity, and excessive self-aggrandizement, of Frey’s distortions that have earned him his just desserts, and that, the next time a writer is nabbed for similar liberties, distinctions will be made. But I doubt it. If, as the maxim goes, we learn the truth by comparing the lies, there we stand, liars all.
Truth in Oxiana
“Some reason, you understand, I mean some sense, may creep into thinking: some glimpse of truth. I mean some effective truth, for which there is no room in politics or journalism.” —Joseph Conrad, “Nostromo”
It seems to me inarguable that the demands for unvarnished fact in nonfiction greatly differ for each genre of nonfiction. Newspaper writing is different from magazine writing, for instance, and travel writing is different from memoir. Literary criticism is different from all of them. The rigors of factual accountability shift subtly but undeniably from nonfiction genre to nonfiction genre. A newspaper article that quotes someone cannot, under any rubric of journalistic decorum, doctor that quote with anything other than ellipses (itself a highly dishonest device, if one thinks about it, able to swallow truth whole with any one of its three tiny mouths). In much magazine writing, on the other hand, a fair amount of what many might consider factual disingenuousness wends its way into just about every nonfiction piece. This is more or less a trade secret of magazine writing. I am talking about taking an interview, faithfully transcribing it, and being forced by length restrictions to compress it, with no ellipses, into a quote that the speaker would be hard pressed to recognize as his or her own words. (The trick is doing it in a way that does not, and this is crucial, distort what the speaker said, or make the speaker angry.) Or taking a nice bit of description of something in the middle of an article, retrofitting it, and moving it up front to “sell” the piece. As I say, every magazine writer I know is forced or chooses to do such things all the time. What is unacceptable in newspaper writing is common practice for magazine writing. This is because we read a newspaper differently from a magazine, and we read a magazine differently from a book. Our anticipation of the truth, and the many forms it takes, alters in regard to the conduit through which it reaches us.
The kind of magazine writing I do most often is travel writing, and my first book was an enlarged piece of travel writing that began as a magazine article. Paul Theroux once said that travel writing begins in journalism, slides into fiction, and ends in autobiography—the best travel-writing encapsulation I have ever come across. It begins in journalism because it is about a real place, real people, and real events. It slides into fiction because a straight travel narrative accurately representative of the experience of most travel would revolve around electric matters of airport canteens, money-changing, and hotel-room procedurals. Indeed, travel writing is, of any genre of nonfiction save memoir, the most similar to fiction. You have an experience that is both intensely personal and, usually, frustratingly unformed, and you have to turn it into a narrative. Very few newspaper writers worry about narrative, and while the typical magazine piece has an “arc” to it, it will not always resemble a story in the traditional, Aristotelian sense. Like fiction, travel writing is about people and impressions, small circuses of detail and event, and all must somehow congeal into a story. Much is left out, and much is magnified. Real people who at the time left only fleeting impressions—people, in other words, whose names you may not have gotten or did not properly interview or even get a very clear glimpse of—are often “created” in the way fictional characters are created. Chronologies are often rearranged, and thoughts you may not have had while actually in the experience—that is, thoughts that occur to you while writing the piece—suddenly grow into unexpected lynchpins upon which the entire narrative hangs. What you are doing when writing about travel is trying to communicate what the experience felt like, but unless you are walking around with a tape recorder permanently set on record or filming yourself with a handheld digital video camera, what your experience felt like is often difficult to remember without much artful assistance from the greatest scenarioist of all, human memory.
Let us be straight about this. There is no such thing in the brute, unfeeling world as a story. Stories do not exist until some vessel of consciousness comes along and decides where it begins and ends, what to stress, and what to neglect. Story, then, is the most subjective force in the world—but I do not mean this in the Gallic, po-mo sense that all experience is relative and there is no such thing as truth. I believe fervently in truth, particularly literary truth, and great nonfiction writers are men and women who work to find that truth and, through the force of their argument and their use of detail, convince us that truth exists. Great nonfiction writers are priests of truth, who, moreover, have to struggle to find it, because truth is often frightening or upsetting; it is almost always surprising. Journalists such as Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair believe they already know the truth, and write accordingly. They cynically manufacture detail to tell us what they already believe. A great nonfiction writer takes the lumpen stuff of human experience and transforms it into a truthful story that may not cohere exactly to what happened, because what literally happened is not always the best illustration of the truth. For instance, a newspaper writer tells us that two psychopaths murdered a family in Kansas. Is that the truth? Yes, but truth is many fathoms deep. Truman Capote, on the other hand, takes us into the lives of the murderers and the murdered, leaving readers flayed by the mysteries of human morality and existence. May I remind you that Capote’s In Cold Blood—among many other things, a great piece of travel writing—was attacked for its numerous and, now, well-documented “mistakes”? This is not to mention the fact that Capote was apparently romantically involved with one of the two murderers—Perry, for those who know the book—while writing it. But truth is more complicated—more frightening—than what happened, and to my mind it is somehow to the book’s credit that, when I learned of Capote’s more or less despicable romantic involvement with his subject, I was not surprised. For that, too, if one reads carefully, is in “In Cold Blood,” hovering just beneath the surface. Perhaps this tells us that a great writer reveals the truth even when he or she does not wish to.
Robert Byron’s The Road to Oxiana is probably my favorite work of nonfiction and certainly my favorite piece of travel literature. For me, it stands among the most potent illustrations of how one can write about what happened while refusing to be limited by what happened. The first time I read “Oxiana” I believed perhaps fifty percent of it happened the way Byron tells us—suspicions confirmed by my further reading about Byron—but I believed and believe in the capital-T Truth of all of it, a point we will soon come to.
A word on Robert Byron is perhaps in order, as “Oxiana” is lamentably underknown. Byron was born in Wiltshire, England, in 1905, a distant relative of Lord Byron, as he never tired of letting people know. He was a homosexual of the incorrigible, Oscar Wilde mold (at parties he loved dressing up as Queen Victoria, whom he believed he resembled, though few others agreed) and a Bizarro World aesthete who could always be relied upon to denounce artists such as Shakespeare and Rembrandt as hacks and charlatans. Byron came to his outrageousness through a clique of Oxford students known as the Hypocrites’ Club—Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell were also members—which cultivated what Byron’s biographer James Knox calls a “high camp” disdain for accepted critical orthodoxies. Unlike Waugh and Powell, Byron never really grew out of this—indeed, his rapturous praise for the art and architecture of the Middle East and Central Asia, which now seems a picture of reason, was at the time a calculated affront to European sensibility—and his barbed and contrarian nature ultimately cost him many friendships.
He caught the travel bug early and was a ferocious autodidact. He published his first travel book, about Greece, when he was only twenty-one. His book “The Byzantine Achievement,” written when he was twenty-four,was a jaw-dropping historico-cultural study from antiquity on through medieval times of Byzantium, for centuries a flashpoint of Christian culture. But his interests ranged all over the globe, from the Soviet Union (which he presciently loathed) to Persia and Afghanistan (covered in “The Road to Oxiana”) to India (where, again presciently, he denounced the British Empire, and its agents, for neglecting to learn “that most difficult of all lessons for the Englishman, the tolerance and understanding of the customs and mentality of foreigners”). As Paul Fussell writes in his foreword to “Oxiana,” Byron understood travel and travel writing “as a form of knowledge” in itself, “an organic harmony between all matter and all activity, whose discovery is the purpose of their lives. . . . The traveler is a slave to his senses; his grasp of a fact can only be complete when reinforced by sensory evidence, in fact, only when he sees, hears, and smells it.” Byron, quite simply, took in, listened to, and inhaled the world. He was a man who traveled to Nuremberg to witness the Nazi rallies with his own eyes, and spent the rest of his life denouncing those in Europe who sought to accommodate Hitler—a somewhat unexpected position for a writer who, with some justification, has been assailed for his habitual (though lightly worn and probably generationally inevitable) anti-Semitism. In 1941, while ostensibly departing for the Middle East as a journalist for a London newspaper, and actually in the employ of British intelligence monitoring Soviet activity, his ship was sunk by the Germans off the coast of Scotland. A few aboard survived; Byron did not. He was thirty-six.
“The Road to Oxiana” was published in 1937. Though it was widely noted at the time, it fell from print in the intervening years, only to be resurrected in the 1970s and early 1980s by a new generation of travel writers, Bruce Chatwin and Paul Fussell most notably among them. Chatwin’s admiration of Byron is easily understood, as he might be the only travel writer whose essentially weird approach to the genre could be said to surpass Byron’s own triumphantly weird approach.
“Oxiana” refers to the land around the Oxus River, as it was known to the Romans, and which is today called the Amu Darya. Its headwaters are found in the mountains of Afghanistan. In Byron’s time it slithered along the southern border of the Soviet Union; today it flows through Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and empties, or used to empty, into the Aral Sea. Byron had for years been ensorcelled by stories of Persia’s Tower of Qabus, built in the eleventh century by a king whose body was supposedly suspended in a glass casket at the top of the tower. But few Westerners had seen the tower, which was found in a spectacularly remote region, or even been allowed to range freely through Persia (soon to be renamed Iran). In 1931, however, Reza Shah, the secular nationalist who promised to modernize Persia (and failed miserably), opened the country’s borders, sort of, to foreign travel. Byron and his traveling partner Christopher Sykes, a writer and the son of a British Foreign Office expert on the Middle East, ecstatically set off to find the Tower of Qabus. They began in Venice, moved on to Beirut, then Palestine, before finally making their way to Persia and Afghanistan, the “Oxiana” of the book’s title.
“The Road to Oxiana” is presented as a kind of tossed-off travel diary, an illusion Byron purposefully exploits even on his table of contents page, which is headed “Entries.” The fog lowers even further with Byron’s solemn italicization of his elevation ( “Mazar-i-Sharif, 1,200 ft.” ) at each of his stopping points. Lines such as this complete the illusion: “I have been reading Proust for the last three days (and begin to observe the infection of uncontrolled detail creeping into this diary).” The fact is, Sykes and Byron wrote an early account of their travels in Persia and Afghanistan, a comic novel called “Innocence and Design.” The results were thoroughly unsatisfying: “Innocence and Design,” which is possibly the worst novel title of all time, remains peacefully out of print. Byron soon elected to have another go at writing about the trip. He worked on this “diary” for three years. This diary-deception, to use an uncharitable term, is merely the first of “Oxiana”’s liberties with the facts of his and Sykes’s trip.
Before we get into that, let us establish Byron’s descriptive brilliance, which has only rarely been surpassed in the last seven decades of travel literature. Two passages should suffice. The first describes the view from a steamer off the Greek coast:
The rocky faces turned to ruddy gold, the shadows to a gauzy blue. The sun sank, Greece became a ragged silhouette, and the southernmost lighthouse of Europe began to wink. Round the corner, in the next bay, twinkled the electricity of Gytheion.
The second is of the streets of Jerusalem, specifically King David Street:
Here comes the desert Arab, furiously mustached, sailing by in his voluminous robes of gold-worked camel hair; the Arab woman, with her face tattooed and her dress embroidered, bearing a basket on her head; the priest of Islam, trim of beard and sporting a neat white turban round his fez; the Orthodox Jew, in ringlets, beaver hat, and black frock coat; the Greek priest and Greek monk, bearded and bunned beneath their tall black chimney-pots; priests and monks from Egypt, Abyssinia, and Armenia; the Latin father in brown robe and white topee; the woman of Bethlehem, whose backward-sloping head-dress beneath a white veil is said to be a legacy of the Northern Kingdom; and among them all, as background of the essential commonplace, the occasional lounge suit, the frock, the camera-strapped tourist.
Okay, I can’t help myself—one more. This is of northern Afghanistan, which I visited two years ago. After reading Byron’s description, I despaired of writing anything which so perfectly captures the enduring beauty amid the equally enduring disaster of northern Afghanistan’s landscape:
Yet by degrees the country became greener, pasture covered by adamant earth, trees multiplied, and suddenly a line of bony dilapidated walls jumped out of the ground and occupied the horizon. Passing inside them, we found ourselves amid a vast metropolis of ruins stretching away to the north while on the south of the road, the shining greens of mulberries, poplars, and stately isolated planes were balm to eyes bruised by the monstrous antiquity of the preceding landscape.
I hope you will agree that this is some eerie, unexpected, but above all beautiful writing: “the electricity of Gytheion,” the “furiously mustached” Arab, that “camera-strapped tourist,” “covered by adamant earth,”“eyes bruised by the monstrous antiquity of the preceding landscape.” All of it vaults completely from the cozy privacies of a diary, leaps beyond the modest demands of journalism, and soars amid the moons and meteors of great art. Byron the man of tactile, reported observation and Byron the man of willful literary invention sit in such passages side by side, respectfully sharing the same pen.
But “Oxiana” is more than a travelogue. Numerous passages suggest Byron’s scarily far-seeing view of Middle Eastern and Central Asian politics. Take, for instance, this passage about Herat, Afghanistan—which, I must remind you, was written almost seventy years ago: “Hawk-eyed and eagle-beaked, the swarthy loose-knit men swing through the dark bazaar with a devil-may-care confidence. They carry rifles to go shopping as Londoners carry umbrellas.” (Still true, incidentally.)
Such ferocity is partly histrionic. The rifles may not go off. The physique is not so impressive in the close-fitting uniform of the soldiers. Even the glare of the eyes is often due to makeup. But it is tradition; in a country where the law runs uncertainly, the mere appearance of force is half the battle of ordinary business. It may be an inconvenient tradition, from the point of view of government. But at least it has preserved the people’s poise and their belief in themselves. They expect the European to conform to their standards, instead of themselves to his, a fact which came home to me this morning when I tried to buy some arak [vodka]; there is not a drop of alcohol to be had in the entire town. Here at last is Asia without an inferiority complex. Amanullah [the just-deposed leader of Afghanistan], the story goes, boasted to Reza Shah that he would westernize Afghanistan faster than Reza Shah could westernize Persia. This was the end of Amanullah, and may like pronouncements long be the end of his successors.
Now, we can all take some issue with Byron’s celebration of Afghanistan’s emotional independence, still very much in force today, given the woe that this independent spirit has brought upon it. But we should also note, here, amid our qualms, Byron’s special gifts. It is not that Bryon “gets” Afghanistan, or suggests that its culture is forever marooned amid its own delimitations. Countries change all the time. But it takes a special sort of writer who, as an outsider, is able to tell the truth about a country and a culture, to capture in a paragraph those few, faint things about a culture that are singular to it and endure over long periods of time. Most journalists shrink from such attempts, and understandably so. To write this way is too complicated, too risky, and fears of offense and error are often great. Such liberties are too much like fiction. Yet some nonfiction writers insist on writing this way, and do it brilliantly. Now, the question is, did Byron actually have this realization during a morning search for vodka? One doubts it. Did he go out and find a vodkaless town and return to his room to sulk? Given his boozy reputation, I suspect he did—I suspect he looked for that vodka for a very long time and moped about it for an equal eternity. Several disparate elements—Byron’s experience among rifle-toting Afghan men going to market, Byron’s search for moonshine, Byron’s growing impression of Afghanistan’s individualism—all crowd together on the page to produce an illusion that happens to be true. It is several experiences plaited into art. It is reportage and analysis, travelogue and autobiography, fiction and nonfiction. It did not happen, but it did.
I am convinced of the device-like nature of this passage because of what Christopher Sykes, Byron’s travel partner, wrote after Byron died. The trip recorded in “The Road to Oxiana” bore little resemblance to what Sykes remembered—though he was not at all cross about it; he understood the art toward which Byron was reaching. The “triumph” of “Oxiana,” as Paul Fussell rightfully argues in his introduction, is Byron’s “twenty superb comic dialogues, some of them virtually playlets, with stage directions and ‘musical scoring.’” Here is a particularly funny example, presented in a one-sided fashion: “Four hundred piastres for that room? Four hundred did you say? Good God! Away! Call the car. Three hundred and fifty? One hundred and fifty you mean. Three hundred? Are you deaf, can’t you hear? I said a hundred and fifty. We must go. There are other hotels. Come, load the luggage. I doubt if we shall stay in Baalbek at all.” Byron and Sykes wind up getting the room for one fifty. Then this:
And now a whisky and soda. What do you charge for that? Fifty piastres. Fifty piastres indeed. Who do you think we are? . . . I’ll pay fifteen piastres, not fifty. Don’t laugh. Don’t go away either. I want exactly this much whisky, no more, no less; that’s only half a portion. Thirty, you say? Is thirty half of fifty? Can you do arithmetic? Soda water indeed. Twenty now. No not twenty-five. Twenty. There is all the difference, if you could only realize it.
Here is a dialogue between Byron and a personage he calls the Muntazim-i-Telegraph, or the man who runs the telegraph office in Herat, Afghanistan. The Muntazim wants to know where Afghanistan’s deposed ruler, Amanullah Khan, is currently living. Byron answers:
“In Rome, I suppose.”
“Is he coming back?”
“You ought to know better than I do.”
“I know nothing.”
“His brother, Inyatullah, is in Teheran now.”
The Muntazim sat up. “When did he arrive?”
“He lives there.”
“What does he do?”
“Plays golf. He plays so badly that the foreign diplomats avoid him. But as soon as they knew King Nadir Khan had been assassinated, they all telephoned him inviting him to play.”
The Muntazim shook his head over this sinister information.
“What is golf?” he asked.
The book’s real show-stopper, however, is Shir Ahmad, the Afghan ambassador to Persia, a man Byron describes as “[w]rapped in a dressing-gown of iridescent velvet, stroking his egg-cosy beard, [looking] more tigerish than ever.” Here is a typical exchange between Byron and Shir Ahmad:
R.B. : If Your Excellency gives me permission, I shall go back to Afghanistan in the spring.
Shir Ahmad (p) :You will go back? (Roaring ff) OF COURSE you will go back.
R.B. : And Sykes hopes to accompany me.
Shir Ahmad (m) : Hope? He need not hope. (Roaring ff) OF COURSE he will accompany you. (pp) I will give him visa.
R.B. : I liked the Afghans because they speak loud and speak the truth. They are not full of intrigues.
Shir Ahmad (leering p) : Ha, ha, you are wrong. They have many intrigues, (m) many, (cr) many. You are not clever. (p) You have not seen them.
R.B. (crestfallen) : At all events,Your Excellency, your people were hospitable to me. If I write anything about Afghanistan, I shall show it to you first.
Shir Ahmad (ff) :WHY?
R.B. : In case it should offend you.
Shir Ahmad (m) :There is no need. (cr) No need. (f) I will not see it. I do not wish. If you write kindly, we are pleased that a friend praise us. If you write not-kindly, we are pleased that friend give advice. You shall write what you think. (p) You are honest man.
R.B. :Your Excellency is too good.
Shir Ahmad (mf) : I am good, ha, ha. All Afghans good peoples. They have good lives. (pp) No wines, (f) no other men’s wives. (mf) They believe God and religion. All Afghans good peoples, all fiddles.
R.B. : Fiddles?
Shir Ahmad (mf) : Fiddles, no? Is it French? Faithfuls, yes?
In “Oxiana” Byron affects some ability to speak Farsi. He could not. Sykes calls Byron, apparently with some understatement, a “very poor” linguist and tells us that “all the non-English conversations recorded in his book are invented.” The first two wonderful, brilliant, hilarious conversations I have just shared with you, then, did not occur. Byron made them up. As for Shir Ahmad, one of the most indelible characters in all of travel literature, we learn that he was grossly exaggerated.
But did Byron really “make them up”? To make something up in a book that purports to be true is a serious breach of readerly trust, and, on its surface, a seemingly unforgivable one. What I would argue is that Byron, in these comic dialogues, was capturing something of his trip and the people he met, something a straight, remembered transcription could not capture about those with whom he strugglingly conversed. Shir Ahmad is undoubtedly exaggerated, but most likely he was an exaggerated man, given to bursts of Afghan grandiosity. My own experience in Afghanistan brought me into contact with numerous people who could have been Shir Ahmad wormholed forward by seventy years. I read “Oxiana” shortly after my return, before I knew Byron had invented these comic dialogues, and the Shir Ahmad playlets in particular struck me as perfectly representative of certain aspects of the Afghan character. Again we are talking about the admittedly slippery notion of the untrue truth, and in this case the matter is not only slippery but leads into a chasm of potential ruin. How does one stay on the edge without falling in?
I will now make a confession. There is a playlet in my book, Chasing the Sea, which is of course my own small homage to Robert Byron. It stars me, my translator Rustam, a Peace Corps volunteer named Rick, and a guide named Faruza, and it takes place during our tour of a fortress in the Uzbek city of Bukhara. It, too, is “made up.” That is, it is made up of the various phrases I had scribbled down during our tour, various sentences I swiped from Bukhara’s vigorously ungrammatical English-language tourist’s guide, and various memories I had of our conversations while being escorted around the fortress. I hoped to provide a sense of Faruza, a woman with whom I spent two hours, and I hoped to provide a sense of the kinds of sentiment to which an outsider is treated while visiting Bukhara’s ancient sites. Above all I hoped to be honest, and I hoped for the passage to ring true. But I was writing about it almost a year after visiting Bukhara, and my notes, while thorough, were not a time machine. I had a few choices, then: not write about it, write about it while imperfectly dining on the Swiss cheese of memory, or write about it in a way that would incorporate numerous imprecise memories and jotted notes and hijacked third sources and hope that it still felt like what I had experienced. I chose that third path, and I did so without hesitation. So my playlet is “made up.” It is also, in every important sense, true, and I stand by it with clear conscience.
I should quickly—probably very quickly—point out that there are other passages in “Chasing the Sea,” like “The Road to Oxiana,” that come from more thorough notes, that incorporate actual, painstakingly transcribed conversations, and use very little artifice in describing real events. These scenes always involve named, identifiable people and historical events. The sword-bearing guardians of journalistic and literary truth stand implacably above such matters for a reason: lying about history and messing with people’s lives and their trust in you as a writer is immoral—doubly immoral, for once something is in print, the lie is permanent. Some might argue that by inventing long comic dialogues, Byron was wreaking havoc on the truth. Or that I, in inventing dialogue for Faruza (not her real name, incidentally), am swimming in equally dangerous literary waters. What I would argue is this: representing the truth in nonfiction is not an issue of conveyor-belt simplicity, where widgets of identical consequence float mechanically by. It is a case-by-case matter in which the heart figures as much as the brain.
Think about even the most basic task in nonfiction: You are trying to describe someone you once met. In your memory he is wearing cowboy boots, blue jeans, an Oklahoma-shaped belt buckle, a redcheckered shirt, a sweaty blue bandana loosely tied around his neck, Oakley sunglasses, a huge leather cowboy hat, and an earring, a gold one, in his left ear. He also has unusually small hands, with mangled cuticles. In fact, his thumb is bleeding right now. He has something of an acne problem, especially around the mouth, and on his cheekbone, just visible beneath the lower edge of his Oakleys, lurks the distinct dermal memory of a black eye. After a moment, you realize he must have recently stepped in a mound of cow manure, for the rich, barnyardy scent of fresh dung hovers around him. You also note that he’s shaven himself, badly—a centimeter-wide line of unmown stubble streaks along his jawline. And, in your memory, he is smiling. So, then, where to begin? What to mention? What not to mention? This is the sort of scenario nonfiction writers confront all the time; it is a variation on the problem Byron undoubtedly faced in writing “The Road to Oxiana”’s comic dialogues, and the problem I occasionally faced in “Chasing the Sea”: what is representative, and what is not? If you write only of our imaginary cowboy’s smell of cow dung and badly shaven face, you have a distasteful rube. If you mention only the black eye and sunglasses, you have a brawler. Mention that smile, and you have a charming brawler. Mention it all and you are in grave danger of overloading your reader’s (and editor’s) patience. The selection of detail in nonfiction can be grossly unrepresentative even when it is factually accurate, and can be qualitatively more unfair and less honest than Robert Byron’s invented comic dialogues, which, let us be sure, were based on something. The selection of detail in nonfiction can also be uniquely illuminating. As a writer, you have to rely on your own spiritual generosity to fairly and accurately represent the defenseless human being at the other end of your words. Writing nonfiction forces a writer into the same kinds of questions fiction writers ask themselves, questions of economy and honesty and poetic accuracy, and the decisions they make can either inform or destroy the reader’s trust. What makes the question so complicated for nonfiction writers is that they cannot modify or invent in the same way fiction writers can and do with no fear of moral reprisal. Nonfiction writers have to work with what they have; they have to find freedom in a cage. This is not to argue that fiction writing is easier than nonfiction writing; I personally find fiction writing far more difficult because I do not have at my disposal the same kinds of vivid detail. Selecting the right details can be difficult, but inventing them from whole cloth is often a nightmare. I attribute this to the scary infinity of human choice.
Curiously, for a book so dependent on fictional devices, “The Road to Oxiana” refuses to gather much narrative steam. You wind up reading for its sentence-by-sentence delights, not for its story. One critic recently wrote that “even in a book as good as “The Road to Oxiana,” there is a little too much judgment. . . . A certain lack of commitment to narrative is evident. . . . The whole book is . . . a series of sharp vignettes not quite building up into a narrative, and it feels inconsequential toward the end.” Despite my love for the book, I actually agree with quite a bit of that, especially the inconsequential feeling of “Oxiana” toward its finale. The Tower of Qabus is a bust—and the book goes on for another hundred pages. When he finally returns to England, Byron notes that everything “looked drab and ugly from the rain, owing to the drought. At Paddington I began to feel dazed, dazed at the prospect of coming to a stop, at the impending collision between eleven months’ momentum and the immobility of a beloved home. The collision happened; it was nineteen and a half days since we left Kabul. Our dogs ran up. And then my mother—to whom, now it is finished, I deliver the whole record; what I have seen she taught me to see, and will tell me if I have honoured it.” End of book. While I rather like the end, it is profoundly anticlimactic and, of course, it is a shameless lie. That diary was not delivered to his mother for another three years. He had not even started writing the book in earnest by the time he returned home. But I do not doubt Byron wrote it for her; the sentiment, then, is true. It is a private lie between two people, which a third, the collective reader, overhears. Did Byron’s mother mind, I wonder? Do you?
In August of last year, I read an article in the online magazine Salon. The article was titled Confessions of a Memoirist. The author was Terry Greene Sterling, and the subject was Vivian Gornick, who had given a reading at Goucher College, where Sterling is an MFA student. In the question-and-answer period following Gornick’s reading, Sterling reports, Gornick
answered questions from the audience—and shocked her listeners by describing the liberties she’d taken with the truth. Her revelations transformed the session into a debate seminar about truth vs. creative license in the post-Jayson Blair era. . . . Gornick was quickly grilled by her audience. It was surely a culture clash: a sophisticated New York memoirist facing off against a crowd that included highly regarded journalists. But it left some students scratching their heads afterward, trying to understand when fabricated information is acceptable in nonfiction—and when does it make you Jayson Blair?
What was so shocking was that Ms. Gornick admitted that some of the conversations in her fine memoir about her mother, Fierce Attachments, were composed. I have to wonder, however, what is really bothering Ms. Sterling. Do these members of the Goucher College audience imagine that memoirists walk around wired for conversation capture like snitching mobsters? Do they believe that everything in nonfiction has to be exactly documented to be emotionally true? Do they not understand the huge difference between literary memoir and a newspaper article entitled “Property Sale Raises Questions Amid Ethics Inquiry”? And when does what make you Jayson Blair? Struggling to remember ten-year-old conversations? Jayson Blair was by most accounts a nasty piece of work and a miserable reporter. He was a plagiarist and a liar. What Blair and his fellow prevaricator Stephen Glass did is, furthermore, as old as the Parthenon—literally. One of the very first writers of nonfiction, Thucydides, made up everything too.
All this outrage. But all this outrage is revealing. What it reveals is the canyon of expectation between not only those who write fiction and nonfiction but between those who write nonfiction and those who write nonfiction. Gornick wrote an admirable defense of her work, also in Salon, in which she said, “memoirs belong to the category of literature, not of journalism. It is a misunderstanding to read a memoir as though the writer owes the reader the same record of literal accuracy that is owed in newspaper reporting or in literary journalism. What the memoirist owes the reader is the ability to persuade that the narrator is trying, as honestly as possible, to get to the bottom of the experience at hand.” I would widen the lens even further to include much, but not all, of “literary journalism,” for literary journalism—the kind, at least, with aspirations toward art—relies not only on memoir but the protean fibers of experience as it is seen, heard, and felt. Experience can never be felt or described in the same way by two people. It is these human gaps that literature fills.
Acknowledging that is not the same thing as allowing the lines between fiction and nonfiction to blur. Yet blur they do, all the time. We must come to terms with the following: a distressingly large amount of classic nonfiction is now widely acknowledged to be marbled with rich layers of invention. The young essayist John D’Agata recently wrote on this issue in the magazine The Believer (an essay which incidentally goes out of its way to defend Vivian Gornick):
Daniel Defoe was five years old when the plague about which he writes in his memoir Journal of the Plague Year occurred. Thomas de Quincey was still very high when his memoir about getting sober was published. George Orwell’s schoolmates claimed they had no idea what he was talking about in his memoir about his schooldays. And Mary McCarthy, who wrote over two dozen highly acclaimed memoirs, extensively addressed the fallibility of memory throughout her long career.
To D’Agata’s examples Melville could be added: “Typee” was originally published as nonfiction, and Melville claimed he had lived among the Fijians for four months; it was actually four weeks. Nabokov’s memories in “Speak, Memory” are far too polished and exact to be anything other than invention. Norman Mailer’s “The Executioner’s Song” has one or two scenes and interludes Mailer admits were invented, and it incorporates, without attribution, the letters of Jack Abbot, the murderer whose disastrous release from prison Mailer would later be central in securing. It is perhaps significant that almost all of these examples give us fiction writers who also wrote nonfiction. There is either some kind of literary statute of limitations here or a tacit admission that fiction writers get special conjugal liberties when mating their talent to nonfiction. The fact is, the lines are blurred, and have been blurred for hundreds of years. It is only the motives of those who blur the line, and the speed with which they are discovered, that have changed. This is, of course, to be welcomed. What is less welcome is the “Crucible”-like atmosphere in which nonfiction writers of good faith are fingered as liars and inventers, and superficial verities are preferred even in cases when “What happened?” cannot be fully answered by what happened.
I used to worry a lot over the labels of “fiction” and “nonfiction.” I worried that if my first book was nonfiction, I would be forever a nonfiction writer who dabbled in fiction, when I began as a fiction writer and still think of myself as a fiction writer who makes his living writing nonfiction. Gradually I stopped worrying about “fiction” and “nonfiction” and instead just worried about writing. I stopped agonizing over genre and began agonizing over the only question that really matters: how do I write something true, that I believe in, that might move other people? When I write nonfiction I am bound by my facts, research, space, and talent. When I write fiction I am bound only by my imagination and talent. Fiction and nonfiction offer equally frustrating constraints, and those writers who do both learn to accommodate them differently. The writer of literary nonfiction earns a reader’s trust with his or her vision, generosity, and relentless self-questioning; the writer of “Property Sale Raises Questions Amid Ethics Inquiry” operates with the understanding that his trust is pre-earned by the gothic lettering of the newspaper for which he writes. Both kinds of trust are important, certainly, but only one opens us to the enlarging possibilities of art.
I despair, sometimes, to visit writers’ gatherings such as Bennington or Bread Loaf and see prose writers parceled off into fiction and nonfiction like passengers going to coach and business class. I very nearly punched in the mouth one young writer who told me, at Bread Loaf last summer, that he automatically assumed most practitioners of nonfiction were bad writers. (That said, a lot of well-regarded nonfiction writers move across the page with sprained ankles, and one quietly grieves whenever they try to get “literary.” Fancier New York Times writers do this sort of thing all the time; describing the surf in Mexico or a peasant in Zimbabwe, they come literarily apart. It is never pretty. Or maybe the problem is that it is always pretty.) And I recently wanted to strangle a fiction-writing friend of mine, tapped to write an essay for an anthology, who kept calling me to ask how to write nonfiction. “Tell a story!” I kept telling her. “But it’s nonfiction!” she replied. My wish is that more fiction writers would write nonfiction and vice versa, though I do have respect for those fiction writers who believe fiction is a calling that cannot afford distraction. I respect, but I disagree. A great piece of writing is a human experience, and it does not matter to me whether it is based on fact or pure fancy. Words, not genres, move hearts. Fiction and nonfiction: what feels like an unscaleable parapet between the two is instead the clearest plexiglas. The greenery is familiar, viewable from either side, and the best of it feels the same beneath us.