Finding Truth in Fiction

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Immersion journalism requires writers to throw themselves into the thick of things, spending months and even years with their subjects. (Think Truman Capote‘s In Cold Blood, or more recently, Barbara Ehrenreich‘s Nickel and Dimed.) It’s a genre not without criticism–some fret about lost objectivity, while others dismiss it as “stunt” journalism–but its unique merits shouldn’t be overlooked at a time when deflated budgets increasingly deny writers opportunities to do deep reporting.

For one, the story that emerges is often different than the one a writer sets out to find. Lee Gutkind, founding editor of the journal Creative Nonfiction and a contemporary master of immersion journalism, tells Fresno Famous about working on his latest book, Almost Human: Making Robots Think.

“Almost all of the cutting-edge research, software writing, and engineering is being done by people, mostly men, and a few women, under 25 years of age. I was stunned by that,” Gutkind says to the Fresno Bee-owned website. “I thought I was going to go meet all these people who look like me, with gray hair. You know, Einstein-like characters….”

You might go into an immersion with a particular idea, Gutkind explains, but after a few months, you have a new one–or a variation on the original. “If you spend another year or two, your idea sophisticates and focuses even more,” he says.

It’s not to say that all writers ought to (or can) adopt an immersion model, but Gutkind’s statement does nudge at a dilemma haunting the general journalistic pursuit of objectivity in an era of quashed resources:

If a beleaguered writer, strapped for time or cash or both, “parachutes” in on a story and spends only limited time with the subject (be it person, place, or thing), then the window for maturing comprehension slams shut. Whether we’re talking about jumping directly into the fray or reporting from the sidelines, without time to make discoveries, vet assumptions, and evolve perceptions, isn’t a writer destined to deliver a story closer to what he or she expected to find in the first place? And isn’t that its own kind of subjective slant, in the end?

Compare that hypothetical to immersive, time-drenched work like Dave Eggers’ What Is the What. Eggers, one of Utne Reader‘s 50 visionaries, and Valentino Achak Deng, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, spent three years working closely together to complete what evolved into a fictionalized autobiography–written by Eggers in Deng’s voice.

“It was not until six months ago that I saw the book in the form of a whole book,” Deng says in an interview on his foundation’s website. “It was very strange how [Eggers] envisioned events through my eyes. Because we had spent so much time together by that time, it is not surprising that he could guess my thoughts.”

The men’s close relationship roils the traditional tenets of objectivity–but the resulting book, which many consider a masterpiece, couldn’t have been produced any other way. Among various reasons, “because Valentino was very young when many of the book’s events took place, there is no way he can recount his life with a degree of detail necessary for a compelling nonfiction book,” McSweeney’s FAQ explains. In its fictional hybrid state, What Is the What is more truthful than the truth.

That might not make it an objective tale, but then what is the pursuit of objectivity other than the pursuit of truth–a straining toward some kernel of certainty, untainted by overt bias or agenda? Books like What Is the What chart a course toward a compelling new way to tell the truth: one armed with facts, but also rendered with intimacy, subjectivity, and slowly-developed insight. When lack of resources pinches much of the writing overtly aiming at objectivity, it may be time reevaluate what kinds of stories are really cutting to the heart of their matters.

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