Thinking about these distinctions brought me to the past of the nonfiction/fiction form, though not quite as far back as Daniel Defoe. I revisited Norman Mailer’s magisterial Armies of the Night and, even better, his The Executioner’s Song, a “true life novel” that is a thousand pages long and “takes for its incident and characters real events in the lives of real people,” as Joan Didion put it. The book is based on heavy reporting on the crimes and 1977 execution of Gary Gilmore in Utah. We all know that Orwell or Capote or Mailer would create composites, compress time, put themselves in the action as a character—like the character “Mailer” in Armies of the Night—and yet imagined their work to be a certain kind of journalism.
But in the last few years, writers seem to be backing away some from categorizing things as “true,” even as they are also rethinking what nonfiction is and can be. Contemporary conditions may have something to do with this, including a reaction to exaggerated and falsified memoirs, like James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces. The wariness of the nonfiction label surely has something to do with Frey being unmasked by Oprah, and maybe all the subsequent memoirists whose veracity was questioned down to the smallest details have made writers more circumspect about the “nonfiction” appellation. (And then there was also Frey’s later abject and culturally demented half-redemption as a novelist.)
The rise in works of true fiction may also have something to do with the sense that the category “nonfiction” no longer has the frisson it once did or the assurance that a book or film will sell. “The newshole for narrative nonfiction is shrinking,” says Andrew Pitzer, editor of Nieman Foundation’s Narrative Digest. “You have to have a lot of dazzle to get it published at all. Letting the work go over a little to fiction lets it be more salable.”
Now that almost anyone can write or film or blog or photograph their own life and reflect their own experience, journalists may feel the need to up the ante with fictional techniques, stirring up storylines and sharpening their works’ emotional truth with a light dose of creative license. (What good is reality, they might ask, now that “reality television” has made the word itself into a kind of fiction?)
One result, to me, is that the reportorial richness of nonfiction is turning up in places where it hasn’t tended to thrive before—like The Wire and other television and film works, including The Hurt Locker, written in part by journalists who jumped the platform. They use composites and half-fabricated back stories; they give their subjects other names or refer to them by only their first names.
The Hurt Locker’s Boal wrote the script for another strong Iraq war film, too—In the Valley of Elah—based even more directly on another of his articles. For Hurt Locker, he told me in a phone conversation, “The milieu and the specifics of the job of being a bomb tech came out of my firsthand observation. There is no way I could have written that screenplay without having been to Baghdad and had a nuts-and-bolts view of how bomb techs do their job. This was not public information. There was no other source material to draw on in terms of research, and there really were guys in 2004 who behaved like the men in the movie.”
In fact, Boal shot amateur video in Iraq when he was writing his article for Playboy, and it got him thinking that the story would make a compelling film. When the time came to write the screenplay, Boal’s conception of character was shaped by detailed reporting.