Other critics agreed. In 1965, Frank Bastian checked what Defoe said in the Journal against Pepys’s Diary, which Defoe couldn’t have seen because it wasn’t decoded until a century later. “Characters and incidents once confidently asserted to be the products of Defoe’s fertile imagination,” wrote Bastian, “repeatedly prove to have been factual.” Introducing the Penguin edition of the Plague Year in 1966, Anthony Burgess wrote: “Defoe was our first great novelist because he was our first great journalist.”

Six thousand people a month died in London’s plague, most of them poor. The locations of many burial pits passed from memory. One was later used, according to Defoe, as a “yard for keeping hogs”; another was rediscovered when the foundation of a grand house was being dug: “The women’s sculls were quite distinguished by their long hair.” Is the author being a reporter here, or a novelist? We don’t know. We want to know.

Daniel Defoe seems to have needed a pocket full of passports to get where he was going. But the moral of his story, at least for the nonfictionist, still is: Never Invent. People love hoaxes in theory—from a distance—but they also hate being tricked. If you make up sad things and insist that they’re true, nobody afterward will fully trust what you write. 

If you'd like to help CJR and win a chance at one of 10 free print subscriptions, take a brief survey for us here.

 

More in Second Read

Dead Reckoning

Read More »

Nicholson Baker is most recently the author of Human Smoke, was published last year. A novel, The Anthologist, will be published in September.