Tom Bissell on the line between fact and fiction in travel writing

Earlier this week, Word Hum posted “Truth in Oxiana“, an excellent essay by Tom Bissell about the line between fact and fiction (and the implications of “truth”) in travel writing. Bissell’s essay, which was originally a speech given to Bennington College’s low-residency MFA students in early 2004, speaks so well on its own that I won’t belabor things with analysis here.

I will, however, present an outtake as a teaser:

Let us be straight about this. There is no such thing in the brute, unfeeling world as a story. Stories do not exist until some vessel of consciousness comes along and decides where it begins and ends, what to stress, and what to neglect. Story, then, is the most subjective force in the world—but I do not mean this in the Gallic, po-mo sense that all experience is relative and there is no such thing as truth. I believe fervently in truth, particularly literary truth, and great nonfiction writers are men and women who work to find that truth and, through the force of their argument and their use of detail, convince us that truth exists. Great nonfiction writers are priests of truth, who, moreover, have to struggle to find it, because truth is often frightening or upsetting; it is almost always surprising. Journalists such as Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair believe they already know the truth, and write accordingly. They cynically manufacture detail to tell us what they already believe. A great nonfiction writer takes the lumpen stuff of human experience and transforms it into a truthful story that may not cohere exactly to what happened, because what literally happened is not always the best illustration of the truth. For instance, a newspaper writer tells us that two psychopaths murdered a family in Kansas. Is that the truth? Yes, but truth is many fathoms deep. Truman Capote, on the other hand, takes us into the lives of the murderers and the murdered, leaving readers flayed by the mysteries of human morality and existence.

Bissell’s full essay online here. Elsewhere on World Hum, writer Michael Shapiro weighs in on the issue as well, citing the travel writers he interviewed for his book A Sense of Place.

Posted by | Comments (1)  | February 17, 2006
Category: Travel News

One Response to “Tom Bissell on the line between fact and fiction in travel writing”

  1. Rolf Says:

    On a related tangent, the Claremont Review of Books recently published a review of Stephanie Gutmann’s The Other War: Israelis, Palestinians and the Struggle for Media Supremacy, which touches on the fact that traditional international news media construct less-than-factual narratives and images of their own:

    …Gutmann reminds us that all news is constructed: “Behind every picture there is a long story and a regiment of people who brought that particular picture, of all possible pictures, to you.” And construction is rarely better than its architects: “producers sitting in carpeted, climate-controlled studios in New York and London are making war their subject…. [A]nd journalists, dumped on the ground with little prior knowledge, are forced to condense and ‘package’ terribly complex and crucial events.” The general leftism in the news media gives reporters and producers many ways of introducing their bias into the simplified narrative: “David and Goliath, Poor versus Rich, the Third World versus Western Colonialism, Man versus Machine, even you-in-third-grade versus those-guys-who-always-beat-you-up after school.” With Israel and the Palestinians, the overall result is “Large Mechanized Brutes versus Small Vulnerable Brown People.”