TEXT review

Truth without cruelty


review by Helen Gildfind


Macintosh HD:Users:lindaweste:Desktop:resized_9781742379357_224_297_FitSquare.jpg
Matthew Ricketson
Telling True Stories
Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, NSW 2014
ISBN 9781742379357
Pb 288pp AUD39.99


Telling True Stories opens with Matthew Ricketson recounting his frustrations as a cadet reporting on Ash Wednesday. This event revealed to him how the ‘inverted pyramid form of the hard news article’ prioritised information over emotion, the concrete over the abstract, the active over the reflective, and reduced human tragedy to ‘bland, bite-sized morsels’ (3-4). Ricketson suggests that narrative non-fiction has more scope than any other genre to explore the ‘complexity’ and ‘full humanity’ (1) of such events and to thereby make people reflect and act in new ways. This genre is thus ‘of profound importance in a democratic society’ (2). Over twelve chapters Ricketson unravels narrative non-fiction’s ‘complex and knotty’ (235) ethical and practical problems, articulates his own tripartite framework for approaching the genre, and ultimately distils his findings into a ‘roadmap’ (238) for writers.

Ricketson argues that the genre’s lack of definition has seen ‘literary journalism’ and ‘creative non-fiction’ left with no ‘natural home’ or ‘champion’ in the academy (17). This diminishes the genre’s funding opportunities and cultural status. He notes how the very ‘profusion of terms’ (14) describing non-fictional texts reveals the form’s identity crisis: journalists prickle at ‘literariness’; literary critics bristle at journalism; no-one wants their work defined in the negative (non-fiction); narrative method is conflated with literary merit; literariness is conflated with fictionality and, of course, the nature of truth is forever contested (15). Ricketson settles on the term ‘true stories’ (18) for which he identifies six defining elements (20). He concludes that the value of true stories lies in both their style and substance: they offer fresh information, more information, and contextualised information that is meaningfully shaped into engaging narrative (39).

Ricketson’s third and fourth chapters enact detailed analyses of Bob Woodward’s and Carl Bernstein’s The Final Days, and Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. These are the first of many close readings Ricketson uses to expose how such writers as Helen Garner, John Hersey, Estelle Blackburn, David Marr, John Bryson, Hunter S Thompson, Joan Didion and Tom Wolfe address (or ignore) the ethical and practical problems attached to narrative non-fiction. In his fifth chapter Ricketson introduces his ‘tripartite’ framework for understanding the non-fiction writing process (research, writing, reception). Ricketson argues against Janet Malcolm’s famous claim that nothing can be done about the ‘canker’ at the heart of journalism, namely its ‘morally indefensible’ dynamic of seducing and betraying sources (Malcolm qtd in Ricketson, 91 & 99). He suggests that anthropologists’ use of ‘informed consent’ and their genuine concern for their subjects’ well-being (93) can do much to counter unethical practices in non-fiction writing.

In further chapters Ricketson deepens his discussion by using theoretical and non-fictional texts to explore many compelling questions. Does narrative’s emplotment (118) – a literary operation – automatically make a work fictional? How can a reader decide if work contains ‘good or bad fact’ (122)? How is ‘factual status’ and ‘factual adequacy’ (122) communicated between reader and writer? What are the implications for readers when writers use a ‘realist’ voice that speaks omnisciently and ‘claims to represent reality’, or a ‘modernist’ voice that speaks subjectively and emphasises ‘the inherent difficulty’ of representing reality (130)? Do different voices simply force out alternative perspectives in different ways (133)? Does  voice choice necessarily reflect a writer’s world view or research methods? Ricketson warns readers that a ‘superbly written’ book might ‘intensify’ – rather than rise above – the need to ask such questions (127-128).

Ricketson goes on to discuss the devices of detail, scene, dialogue and interior monologues. He suggests that these tools are most usefully understood as ‘story telling’ rather than ‘fictional’ devices (127). He uses Garner’s work to show how details can (in John Carey’s words, from The Faber Book of Reportage, 1987) ‘imprint themselves scaldingly on the mind’s eye’ and always have ethical implications (Carey qtd in Ricketson, 154). What do readers need to know? What is private? Is description being used ‘as a substitute for argument’ (160)? Is cauterising emotion from a description less manipulative than trying to evoke an event’s ‘emotional texture’ (156-7)? Ricketson notes that although Lillian Ross’s brilliant powers of observation saw her described as a ‘fly on the wall’ and ‘the girl with the built-in tape recorder,’ these assignations contradict her own assertion that ‘a reporter is always chemically involved in a story’ (165-7). Nevertheless Ross, unlike Garner, still effaces herself from her writing. Ricketson wonders if writers should represent themselves in scenes they’ve witnessed and if they should ever reconstruct scenes they haven’t. Finally, as ‘accuracy is the cornerstone of narrative non-fiction’ (179) Ricketson believes that the interior monologue is a dangerously unverifiable device that can hide such ethical problems as a writer’s overidentification with a subject (182). Despite this concern, Ricketson rebuts criticisms that Tom Wolfe’s monologues all sound the same, arguing that readers understand his monologues as impersonation. This seems an important point, and one that respects readers’ intelligence and critical literacy. However, Ricketson never considers the interior monologue as an analytical device aimed at achieving empathy, rather than as a realist device aimed at achieving representation. He thus concludes that such monologues best belong to the realm of fiction (189).

The book ends by exploring how writers can establish a relationship of ‘informed trust’ (215) with readers whilst reaching the ‘broadest possible audience’ (190). Ricketson warns that writers’ narrative powers can induce a ‘dream’ or ‘trance’ like state in readers which might see them dangerously ‘enthralled’ by a story they’ll thus read as real (192-4). Ricketson cites reader outrage in response to perceived fabrications in the work of James Frey and Helen Garner, showing how, when readers cannot tell what is ‘true’ in a story, the ‘earth begins to skid underfoot’, they lose their ‘moorings’ and feel ‘misled’ (219-221). This distrust ruptures the implicit ‘contract’ between reader and writer, and the book’s power implodes (219-221). These examples also show how, unlike news media journalism, a book’s author (and not its publisher) will be personally discredited if the text is seen to mislead. Ricketson suggests that non-fiction writers can win ‘informed trust’ with their readers through transparency, achieved by their choice of narrative voice and their use of ‘explanatory devices’ in the book’s paratexts (233). Through such means writers can empower readers to ‘assess their book’s truth-telling claims’ (233).

Telling True Stories is a thoroughly researched and argued exploration of the ethical and practical problems that characterise narrative non-fiction. Whilst this thoroughness sometimes makes the text read too much like a thesis (with overwhelming or pedantic details, and convoluted or repetitive insights and arguments), Ricketson’s intelligent enthusiasm is contagious. He ultimately convinces readers that narrative non-fiction is as rich in substance as it is in style and that it will continue to evolve as an important genre which maximises truth and minimises harm (241).



Helen Gildfind lives and writes in Melbourne.


Return to Contents Page
Return to Home Page

Vol 18 No 2 October 2014
General editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy, Enza Gandolfo & Linda Weste
Reviews editor: Linda Weste