Do you remember reading a journalistic piece with lots of direct quotes? Don't you assume that lots of those quotes are actually paraphrases? Did the writer always have a notebook ready and scribble notes while in conversation? If he did, wouldn't this inhibit the source? A more pertinent question, perhaps, is whether a writer could scribble notes fast enough to record everything word by word. Then there's the option of having a tape recording device. Wear a wire (as for the FBI)?
I know Jim Bouton narrated his daily diary into a tape recorder when at work for the history-making sports tome, "Ball Four."
There was a time when sports biographies were written by having the sports star/celebrity answer questions into a tape recorder. Those tapes would go to the professional writer. This was the approach that Bouton and his editor would have pooh-poohed. It had an assembly line quality to it. The traditional books were sanitized. They catered to our desire to see sports stars as role models with their basic character.
Bouton's book was a shot across the bow in more ways than one. He and his editor decided that our icons of sport should be shown as human beings with human failings. The book was anything but sanitized. "Ball Four" burst forth like a bright shining meteor. It filled a need for its time. Its year of 1970 was when society had turned a page and decided to throw off lots of inhibitions.
Bouton quoted lots of conversations in the book. Avant garde intentions aside, I have to believe he followed pretty conventional procedure for quoting conversations. We strive to capture the essence. Our paraphrases shouldn't upset the source. I think the writers of reality (not to be confused with the swill of reality TV) do this all the time. Don't let those quote marks fool you.
Which brings us to the subject of Tony Horwitz. He is a journalist/author I admire greatly. He writes about real things and real people. He does so in a storytelling way. He projects a real fascination with it all, as when he tells us the story of Civil War memory in the South. Horwitz's goal is to capture the essence and reveal truth about all of his subject matter. But, I'll assert such writers take more liberties than we think. It's a testament to their skill that we can turn page after page and feel convinced every word was spoken as such, and that every scene developed just as described. Sometimes the skill breaks down, as with Twin Cities scribe Jim Klobuchar who was humiliated when it was revealed he had gone off base paraphrasing a Minnesota Vikings official. It was bad enough to justify tossing him from the writers fraternity. Apparently he had cultivated enough good will to keep going. I think he's still going today with the Minnpost website. Any writer can keep going online. Today Jim is not the most famous Klobuchar.
To the roots of writing
Writing is nuanced. Fact is, all journalism is a product of the writer's feelings, philosophy and world view. We are vain enough to feel others should simply adopt our world view.
A dirty little secret is that all journalists, all true journalists anyway, are motivated by wanting to convince others of a particular attitude about things, or set of facts. We are quite sincere. We are not propagandistic. It's just that we evaluate things in a manner common to all, and because of the writing gift (we feel) God has given us, we dispense those insights. It's not a stealth proposition for us. We are quite zealous.
Jim Bouton wanted to rip the pretense away from big-time sports. He felt it was proper for us to see the vices and mistakes that our sports heroes are prone to. Of course, did we ever doubt they were real human beings? I don't think so. An anti-Bouton would say traditional sports book served the purpose of presenting healthy examples, especially for our youth. Hero worship meant we were going to aspire to the best, most uplifting standards. We were never going to know these sports heroes personally. We might as well believe they reside on Mount Olympus or something like that. Same with movie stars.
"Biographical fiction" would seem to go beyond paraphrasing for quotes. It would seem to be a step beyond what has been called "interpretative journalism." It's not as bad as "advocacy journalism" where a political type of zeal possesses the writer. I've had it with ideologically tainted journalism, especially after having seen Fox News become the behemoth it is. It's about as annoying as a moth.
Advocacy journalism gained currency when the young writing community thought liberal views were the only answer. We'd think "what the heck, this isn't really bias, it's the way things have to be." There was some justification for this. Liberals were the ones taking the initiative to attack the Jim Crow South. Liberals rose up to despise the Viet Nam War. The nation had gotten involved in a tragic war under false pretenses (the need to fight Communism). We'd never allow that to happen again, would we? Let's see, what are the headlines from Iraq today?
The Viet Nam War became more of a lightning rod than Iraq, because we had the draft. Chris Matthews always emphasizes this. Of course, we compelled National Guardsmen to go into Iraq. We have a "voluntary military" with many members drawn to that life because of a lack of options (i.e. from challenged socioeconomic circumstances).
Viet Nam was a reason why advocacy journalism, a practice we might reject in a knee-jerk way, gained respect or currency. We read about it in college like we should at least respect or understand it. Today? I doubt it. We saw the movie "All the President's Men" about reporters who were good guys in the classic "good guys and bad guys" dichotomy. So it was like a western in Washington D.C. It was also a horribly poor example for young writers like me looking for inspiration. Watergate, Washington D.C. and "Maximum John" Sirica (the judge) were all components in the anomalous world around the U.S. power corridor, as anomalous as artist Jackson Pollock was to the art world.
P.J. O'Rourke laughed once about how college art students all started "splashing paint around" because of Pollock. O'Rourke talked about how Hunter Thompson could similarly inspire young writers. He said a young reporter beginning his first job might show up at a sewage commission meeting wearing a Hawaiian shirt and sunglasses. Thigh-slappingly funny. And yet, many young writers were in fact inspired by quite atypical writers and/or situations. Maybe there really is greater wisdom out in America's heartland!
Remember that Hunter Thompson did his best work and made his permanent mark while his lifestyle was conventional and responsible.
Professor Lackey gives background
"Biographical fiction" which is the focus for UMM Professor Michael Lackey, is a cousin of the schools of writing I've been alluding to here. Surely the genre is a blood brother of "historical fiction." The best book I have ever read is "The Killer Angels" set in the U.S. Civil War. As I read, I know full well the author is filling in lots of blanks. There's a clear understanding of this. That's vital, having the reader understand the speculative nature of the writing.
A Civil War general wonders that if he dies and goes to the afterlife to see his comrades, family and friends, what age will they be? It's so believable that someone courting death would have such a thought. Author of the book, the late Michael Shaara, says in his preface that "I have not deliberately changed any fact." Of course, given the obsessive nature of Civil War research and study, critics were going to find lapses in the historical reliability of the book. And they did. But Shaara was sincere.
I feel sorry for Civil War artists who have to try to get everything right, down to the last belt buckle. An exasperated critic of this once said: "We must understand the difference between art and illustration. Illustration shows things the way they are, or were, while art is judged by the emotional impact on the viewer." (Hey, I'm paraphrasing!)
The newspaper model
Newspaper writers developed this thing called "objective journalism" which has a shorter history than you'd expect. It's also not a slam-dunk principle with merit. Oh, but "objectivity" is the ideal, right? Not so fast. Objective writing was really developed as a way to keep advertisers from getting nervous. It coincided with the consolidation of newspapers into these big enterprises benefiting from monopoly distribution systems.
"Objectivity" is an artificial middle ground which writers carefully identify after pinpointing the two sides of a particular issue. There is nothing magical or noble about that middle ground. It's a defensive position, one designed to pacify or to ensure quiet.
The new media have pulled journalists out of their shackles. Ironically we have gone back to an older model of journalism, one in which writers are quite uninhibited and write from a point of view.
Professor Lackey notes that biographical fiction has expanded greatly. We then wonder why. Perhaps the development parallels the unleashing of opinion journalism. The New York Times doesn't have the primacy it once did. Nor the Washington Post. The Washington Post took down Richard Nixon, thanks to the power owned by those two reporters who worked for a company buoyed by monopoly advertising.
The undaunted Watergate investigation wasn't due so much to principle or to the Post's desire to boost profit - news has little to do with profit - rather the zeal was attributable, I feel, to the Post's desire to protect Washington D.C. as a "company town" (with government). Government needed to groom a reasonably good reputation. I know, that's hard.
Academic, refined perspective
Professor Lackey of UMM shared from his quite academic perspective at our library.*
I think this "Professor" could actually get the gang off Gilligan's Island!
As it sank in what an academic Lackey is, I got a little intimidated and fearful about asking any questions. I'm scared to death of coming across as a hayseed. But he's quite the mind. His children asked questions! He'll tell you all about biographical fiction. He's a pillar with his research. He's associate professor of English at our local esteemed institution, and English discipline coordinator. He got his Ph.D. from the University of Kentucky.
Me? All I do is compose online essays, trying to follow the example of Tony Horwitz, who might find it necessary to write that a person with whom he's speaking uses safety pins instead of buttons on his jacket!
I get out pen and notepad most mornings at about 5:30 a.m. with a steaming mug of instant coffee in front of me, and "Morning Joe" on TV as soft background. I might have been a better writer when our dog Sandy was alive.
I remember when the University of Minnesota-Morris decided to offer a course on the poetry of Robert Browning. My father said "I wonder if Robert Browning could get accepted to UMM." A little cynical humor can spice one's day, to be sure - better than that steaming coffee, but not as good as a loyal canine.
* I wrote the first draft for this post before the travail that has befallen our precious Morris Public Library. Melissa Yauk must be beside herself. I doubt the library can rebound as if nothing happened. Is this cause for feeling skepticism about government? The library is a government-sponsored institution. Would a private sector asset like this be made so vulnerable to a simple heavy rainfall? A Republican might say we should "privatize" the library. Republicans say we should "privatize" everything. Maybe the library needs to sell memberships or something. Of course, that contradicts everything I feel the library stands for. We must cling to public institutions that serve all. "It takes a village," or something like that.