Noted: Gutkind on nonfiction’s truth

Does the nature of narrative complicate his 1-2-3 recipe?

The subject is there only by the grace of the author’s language.

—Joyce Carol Oates

Immersion journalist and nonfiction theorist Lee Gutkind distills his practices in an essay, “Three R’s of Narrative Nonfiction,” in the New York Times’s popular Draft column that deals with writing. Responsible narrative nonfiction writers follow a similar procedure to assure accuracy while recreating events they didn’t see and others’ mental states, asserts Gutkind. Here’s the nut of his essay:

But to reconstruct stories and scenes, nonfiction writers must conduct vigorous and responsible research. In fact, narrative requires more research than traditional reportage, for writers cannot simply tell what they learn and know; rather, they must show it. When I talk with my students, I introduce a process of work I call the three R’s: First comes research, then real world exploration and finally and perhaps most important, a fact-checking review of all that has been written.

The rest of Gutkind’s piece is an elaboration of his three stages. Pretty straightforward and old hat, though useful for students and teachers, his prescription is intended for the powerful literary technique of scenic construction. Gutkind himself is a modest figure in his work, present but impersonal, like John McPhee tends to be, though scene-by-scene construction in journalism is associated with the showy New Journalism of the 1970s.

Gutkind’s essay provoked a thoughtful response from one Hayden White, a retired English professor in California:

All narrative is fictional insofar as the “story” has to be made out of “the facts.” No set of facts adds up to or amounts to a story without the writer’s intervention as the story-teller. Secondly, the relation between factual and fictional writing is not a matter of either-or, but of some kind of mutual implicativeness having to do with the nature of stories themselves. It is impossible to avoid the use of literary devices even in historical writing, which typically aspires to deal in facts alone. Instead of reinforcing the idea that fact and fiction are opposed to one another, such that you have to be doing either one or the other, might it not be better to teach aspiring writers that even the most fact-bound writing cannot avoid “literariness”?

We all know the truth in White’s first assertion: everyone who witnesses an event sees something different and recounts it differently. The storyteller creates the story by imposing meaning and deciding emphasis. Ordinary journalism is maddening in its denial of this truth and in its societally useful but unacknowledged efforts to seek group consensus rather than individual insight. As for the commentator’s second point, that literary devices are essentially indistinguishable in fiction and nonfiction, amen.

White’s trenchant observations become perhaps too compressed and/or simply fail when he continues:

The mistake here is to think that “literature” (or literary writing) is “fictional” and to overlook the fact that not all fictional writing is “literary.” Unfortunately, it is to forget that all too little factual writing either lacks all literariness or is simply bad writing.

When he says in the first sentence that “not all fictional writing is ‘literary,’ ” I presume he’s bashing poor fiction but possibly—because of his first clause—being ironic toward some nonfiction that’s actually fiction. In his second sentence, I wonder if he means “too much” nonfiction lacks literary quality rather than “all too little.” I actually emailed White and asked him to elaborate for Narrative, but he either didn’t get my query or chose to ignore it. Manna in heaven for anyone who can decode his conclusion.

Gutkind makes a big deal of factual accuracy in his essay while emphasizing the use of scenes, the building blocks of dramatized writing, which became associated with fiction. Hence White’s interesting but peevish rejoinder. I presume that in the classroom, Gutkind, like most nonfiction teachers, notes that scenes are used not only to recreate experience but to convey point of view. Literary journalism says, I can show others’ key moments and viewpoints, not just this writer’s. This may indeed be literally impossible, despite cooperative subjects—think of the issues in recreating one’s own subjective experience—but smart readers appreciate and most readers cooperate with a necessary dollop of fiction.


Filed under fiction, honesty, immersion, journalism, narrative, NOTED, Persona, Voice, POV, working method

8 responses to “Noted: Gutkind on nonfiction’s truth

  1. “smart readers appreciate and most readers cooperate with a necessary dollop of fiction.”

    I disagree. I’m a career journalist whose most recent book is a memoir, in whose introduction I make clear nothing is made up, exaggerated for effect or otherwise amped up. I quote others, and myself, from memory (and some notes taken immediately following events) also explain to readers how I approached the material. I changed only the names of the people I describe. Of course, my point of view is subjective. That’s limiting enough, and inevitable — and creatively necessary.

    But if I choose to read non-fiction I don’t want to find out that some of it’s made up. That breaks faith with the reader, no matter how “smart” they are.

    • I don’t think White’s point that I was extending is about making up stuff but, rather, about the imposed truth of story. It’s an academic point, to be sure, his and then mine: we accept certain “fictions” because it’s practical and it’s human. We don’t think of them that way, either, because of the intent to illuminate life vs. the intent to deceive for some reason.

  2. Jennifer S

    So, meh. It sounds like that final quote… which is pretty hard to decipher… could definitely be interpreted as a slam against journalism. Reporting is boring. It’s not challenging or literary. This can be true… and also untrue, obviously. Some of the best writing I’ve ever read is investigative or literary journalism and is good to its very core.

    Your lead topic… about the Three R’s… may be helpful to me. I need to visit NYTimes and read the full article. I’ve been contemplating an attempt to write a factual piece about a series of arson fires on the Wake Forest College campus that happened in the 1930s and were never solved. It would take so much research… and better scene-setting skills than I’ve got in my toolbox.

    Thanks for the great post.

    • Thanks, Jennifer. Gutkind’s simple principles are a pretty good pared-down guide to the basic steps. The key is reporting for scene so that ideally a story can be told in scene-by-scene construction, probably with the odd purely expository section or two but with a return to the timeline and more scenes. This may or may not fit your project. But the biggest fault I see with journalism, certainly daily journalism but also many magazine articles, is that the writer and her sources become unmoored in time and space—that is, not in scene—and become talking heads. This approach prizes and places information over experience, with scenes used as come-ons. After a scenic lead, say, the writer leaves specific times and places and actions and the story becomes a mushy information dump. There are reasons for this, such as lack of time and the desire to cram in all facts or facets, but I am very sensitive to it and irked by it after years of writing memoir.

      I cannot help but think that even civilian readers feel at least a subtle sense of betrayal, having been promised a story—an experience—and instead just given unmoored quotes and alleged facts.

      • Jennifer S

        Thanks for the extra advice. I think you’re right. And info dumps tend to be really boring, hard to follow, and take me out of the story.

        This string of arsons should provide a good set-up for a timeline of scenes. There were about three dozen of them over a couple of years in the 1930s. Rumor has it a student set the fires, as they stopped very suddenly (possibly upon his graduation). But the list of suspects included a professor’s very odd daughter.

        Unfortunately, I’m afraid there’s little remaining investigative material to go on. Maybe the challenge here would be to make the scenes realistic and accurate enough to carry the story over its gaps. Not even sure if there’s an audience for this. Would WFU want an old crime story for its alum magazine? I’m guessing not… thought wouldn’t hurt to try.

  3. I would try, Jennifer. It’s far enough in the past to escape the “bad PR” rap, I would think—unlike the UF Gatorwood murders you recently wrote about—and it might stir up reminiscences by some really old alums who remember hearing about it.

  4. Hayden White

    Apologies to Mr. Gutkind, but I did not receive a query from him. My email address is My point was (I thought) simple: not all literature is fiction. Much non-fictional writing is “literary” without being fictional. Much fictional writing is “non-literary” in the sense of having very little artistic distinction. Hayden White

  5. Hayden White

    Sorry, I guess that it is to Mr. Gilbert that I owe an apology. Write to me if you wish.