The thin true line between history and fiction

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American history always takes a pounding during presidential campaigns, bent, twisted or simply fabricated by candidates, but fortunately (or not) so few citizens know their country's past that hardly anybody cares.

Maybe that's what writers of historical fiction count on when they write their versions of yesteryear. Certainly neither Thomas Mallon nor Stephen King felt confined by the facts as defined by historians when they produced their novels on Watergate and the Kennedy assassination. Nor should they be -- I think. More of that thought later.

I reviewed both books ("Watergate" and "11/22/63") in the past four months and was mildly entertained and amused by both of them. As expected, Mr. King's undisciplined torrent of words created a massive hunk of a book full of digressions to the point that the assassination scene felt tacked on, a big buildup that fell flat.

Mr. Mallon is a more careful, controlled novelist who confined his imagination to a chronology based on the reported facts and mostly to real people from President Nixon to minor functionary Fred LaRue, the protagonist. There were a few made-up characters whose imagined relationships with actual people, especially a "lover" for Patricia Nixon, were either a daring reach by the writer or a stretch that challenged our impression of the former first lady.

Since neither book was "about" JFK or Watergate, literary license allowed the novelists free rein to create conversations and thoughts intended to push the plot along, whether they occurred or not. Both drew on the mountains of information -- true or fabricated -- available to Mr. Mallon and in Mr. King's case, his paid researcher, for their tales.

The author of "Watergate," of course, could dip into the hours of actual conversations secretly recorded in the Nixon Oval Office and the testimony in congressional and trial transcripts along with the memoirs and biographies of his characters. Mr. Mallon cherry-picked from those documents, clearly, to create sympathetic, often poignant portraits of Nixon and Alice Roosevelt, the best-known of his cast, and snide impressions of Elliot Richardson, traditionally seen as a Watergate hero for resigning rather than fire Archibald Cox, and John Dean, the martyred White House counsel who warned of "a cancer" on the presidency.

Mr. King was mostly interested in his fictional characters, particularly the hero with a biography similar to his own, but showed some sympathy for Marina Oswald, the long-suffering wife of the accused assassin who's still alive, by the way, as are their children.

Call it either manipulation or art, the writing of fiction inspired by history provides novelists with the latitude to create the same mythical scenes they have in writing original stories. For years, that permission troubled me a bit ever since the time as a young reporter I wrote five obituaries for the newspaper all with the wrong day for the services and faced the wrath of funeral directors the next day. For some reason, I was not fired. Yet, there are writers who would argue that it makes little difference if the funeral was Tuesday or Thursday, only that their idea of the larger meaning can trump the truth in the name of "art."

Take John D'Agata, associate professor of nonfiction writing at the University of Iowa and author of "About a Mountain," ostensibly a report on the nuclear waste disposal site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. In "The Lifespan of a Fact" (reviewed here), Mr. D'Agata spars with Jim Fingal, a fact-checker at The Believer magazine over his account of a 2002 teen suicide in Las Vegas. The book can be viewed as an indictment of the "creative nonfiction" position that the writer's intentions supersede facts or an endorsement of an author's permission to use facts like a sculptor uses clay to create an original work.

Mr. D'Agata argues that by "taking liberties" (actually changing or inventing facts), he is "making a better work of art -- and thus a better and truer experience for the reader -- than I could have if I'd stuck to the facts."

In "About a Mountain," Mr. D'Agata wrote that a congressional vote on Yucca Mountain occurred the same day as the 2002 suicide at the center of "Lifespan." The events were, in fact, three days apart. My incorrect obituaries were mistakes; Mr. D'Agata's mistake was intentional.

But fiction is different, we say. Yet let's consider the reaction of one historical novelist, Curtis Sittenfeld, to the recent Mallon novel. In her 2008 novel based on Laura Bush ("American Wife"), Ms. Sittenfeld created characters, but was criticized for misrepresenting the former first lady.

" 'The reason it's such a violation,' a journalist told me about my own book, 'is that every single thing in it is plausible,' " she wrote in her New York Times review of the Mallon novel last Sunday. "Judged by the same standard, Thomas Mallon is ... equally guilty." Meaning that "Watergate" the novel is as much a distortion of the truth as Mr. D'Agata's implausible defense of his fictionalization of facts.

Bob Hoover:


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