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BAND December Discussion: Truth in Nonfiction

BAND December Discussion: Truth in Nonfiction post image

BAND — Bloggers’ Alliance of Nonfiction Devotees — is a group organized to promote the joy of reading nonfiction. We are “advocates for nonfiction as a non-chore,” and we want you to join us. Each month, a member of BAND hosts a discussion on their blog related to nonfiction. 

The host for December’s BAND discussion is Erin (Erin Reads) who is another new host for our discussion group. In her post, Erin writes about she is primarily a fiction reader, in part because with fiction she knows that she doesn’t have to assess validity as she reads. Erin writes:

I like learning new things, so what’s the problem with nonfiction? I believe the answer lies, at least partially, in the question of truth. When faced with a “true” book, I struggle to decide how much to believe and how to figure out whether a particular work of nonfiction can be trusted — basically, how to know how true that book is. Which brings me to the question I’d like to ask this month:

How you determine truth in nonfiction? Is the “true-ness” of a book important to you? If you’re a nonfiction veteran, do you have any pointers to offer nonfiction newbies?

In general, I think I’m a pretty trusting reader. I’m willing to give nonfiction writers the benefit of the doubt, or, in fact, the benefit of not doubting too much, as I read books. I don’t even really mind when authors, particularly narrative nonfiction writers, take some liberties with the timeline of stories or characters for the sake of narrative.

However, I do expect that author’s disclose the artistic decisions they’ve made in the course of writing the book. I hate getting to the end of a book and coming across an author’s note that admits the author changed something fundamentally in service of the story. I feel like the rug has been pulled out from underneath me and it leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Or even worse, I hate learning after the fact from a source outside the book that there is a reason to question the veracity of a story.

One author that I think is a good example of someone who is honest about narrative license is Ben Mezrich. Mezrich is a contemporary journalist who likes to do stories about supergenius misfit nerds that go to extremes to impress girls and make friends — stealing moon rocks, inventing a wildly popular social networking site, or becoming an expert card-counter in Vegas.

Mezrich is very upfront about the fact that he uses the technique of invented dialogue (I think that’s what he calls it) in writing his stories. So, in an absolute sense, a lot of what Mezrich writes can’t be empirically proven — the people who were part of the conversation either can’t remember it exactly or wouldn’t be interviewed for the book. Because Mezrich is honest about how he writes his stories and the liberties he takes, I’m willing to go with him through the story (while also not taking anything he writes as the absolute truth).

There are also a few ways I go about doing research about a book and whether I can trust the truth of the story, especially if something doesn’t ring true to me:

  • Wikipedia — If a book has an entry on Wikipedia, it will often have a mention of any controversies that have arisen about the veracity of the author’s claims. It will also often link out to other sources for more information.
  • Professional reviews — Often, professional reviewers for nonfiction will have some sort of expertise in the subject of the book or will be a science writer themselves. I love to look at those reviews to see what someone more familiar with the topic has to say about the book.
  • Author website/interviews — An author’s website will sometimes talk about the process of researching a book or offer credentials, which can help me tell if I trust a source or not. Author interviews often talk about their research/writing process, which can also offer insight into how a book was put together.
  • Sources — Even most narrative nonfiction will have a bibliography or works cited section. I usually take a skim through there to see if I recognize any titles and to get a sense of what sorts of sources an author is looking for.
  • Definitiveness — Any time an author or book markets itself as the “definitive” source on a topic, I immediately start to feel suspicious. This seems to happen most often in political books, which I’m inherently suspicious of anyway.

Amy (Amy Reads) put up her post on this topic today, and in it she mentions the importance reading widely on a subject you are interested in, which is probably the best advice there is. The more you can learn about a topic and the wider variety of views you can learn about it from, the better able you’ll be to made these sorts of judgments yourself.

How do you assess truth in nonfiction? Is it something you’re concerned about? If you want to join our discussion, write up a post on the topic and link back to it at Erin’s discussion post; we’d love for you to join!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Jeane December 19, 2011, 10:39 am

    I’ve often used Wiki to check out the controversies regarding a book’s sources. It makes me feel duped when I find out from other bloggers or reviews that a book was falsified, though.

    • Kim December 22, 2011, 3:11 pm

      Yes, I feel the same way. I HATE finding out later that there was a reason to question the book. On the other hand, some “controversies” really aren’t big (they just get blown up), so I always try to do some digging before making judgments.

  • Care December 19, 2011, 12:28 pm

    I don’t get too wrapped up in this, to be honest. Or I just don’t read that kind of nonfiction where it really impacts my perception of it really being TRUE. I don’t tend to read nonfic books that are pushing an agenda, I guess.

    For example, The Secret Life of Lobsters actually compares all sides – and there a many, I didn’t even know! – and yet, even if I remembered what is TRUE or might not be, it doesn’t change my appreciation of the book.

    • Kim December 22, 2011, 3:13 pm

      I don’t read very many agenda-driven nonfiction books either, although I suppose one could argue that all nonfiction has an “agenda” or thesis the author is trying to prove/explore, some are just more overt than others.

      I agree with you about The Secret Life of Lobsters — that’s such a good book!

  • Amy December 19, 2011, 6:23 pm

    Great advice. For some reason while I’ve thought of using the internet I’ve really never thought to specifically check wikipedia. I must do that more in the future. Like you I tend to trust a lot and assume authors are right for the most part.

    • Kim December 22, 2011, 3:13 pm

      Wikipedia tends to be hit-or-miss. Sometimes the entry is really good, but almost as often there isn’t an entry to speak of. Authors will usually have one, which is also sometimes helpful.

  • Rebecca Reid January 11, 2012, 7:11 am

    I have been considering this lately as I’ve just begun a nonfiction book about the history of Islam (Destiny Disrupted). I KNOW the author has a bias and opinion that is coming out in the text but I’m not sure which parts are opinion or not since it’s a rather new subject to me. So it’s a bit worrisome. I know Amy is right: I should read widely on the subject. But I’m thinking 500 pages of Islamic history will probably be enough for me, which leads me back to hmmmm….how can I discern the “truth” from the opinions?

    I suspect I’ll just keep what I read in mind with a grain of salt. There are many reviews out there loving the book, and others mentioning it’s shortcomings. We just do what we can and I think reading the book anyway will be informative even if the truth is twisted by opinion in places…

    • Kim January 14, 2012, 7:16 pm

      I think that’s a balanced way to look at it. I think reading reviews of a book can be a good way of assessing, especially if you’re not sure on a subject or don’t plan to read a lot more. Especially reviews by other scholars or experts, who can hopefully talk about some of those things.