Investigating the Ethics of Cieative Non-Fiction
Novembei 18, 2u1S
In !"# %&'#()*+ ,' * -*./, authoi }ohn B'Agata anu fact checkei }im Fingal uuke out
the ethical anu cieative uimensions of alteiing uetails in a woik of liteiaiy cieative
nonfiction. The piocess was saiu to have lasteu seven yeais, in which time Fingal
quantitatively assesseu the ieality poitiayeu in the essay against objective ieal woilu facts.
Fingal highlights numeious passages in B'Agata's essay in which the authoi manipulates
the facts of the stoiy in oiuei to enhance the liteiaiy uimension of the piose. In some cases,
the authoi makes up uetails in oiuei to pioviue a piettiei pictuie. Fingal notes these
passages in oiuei to iaise the question of veiacity anu tiustwoithiness between the
ieauei's sense of ieality anu the authoi's intention of cieating a fully foimeu liteiaiy
inteipietation of a ieal event. !"# %&'#()*+ ,' * -*./ iaises questions such as:
• What aie the ethical uimensions involveu in "taking libeities" with stateu facts in a
• Boes cieative nonfiction as a genie piesent an ethical uilemma to the authoi in his
oi hei iepiesentation of ieality, event, oi iuentity.
• What is the uiffeience between "taking libeities" anu plagiaiism.
In 2uuS, }ohn B'Agata submitteu an essay to the magazine !"# 0#1#34 which
chionicleu the suiciue of a Las vegas auolescent nameu Levi Piesley. }im Fingal was
assigneu to fact check the aiticle. The aiticle, entitleu "What Bappeneu Theie," was
eventually publisheu in 2u1u, but in the inteivening yeais B'Agata anu Fingal uebateu
fuiiously ovei the legal, ethical, anu cieative issues suiiounuing the tieatment of facts in
the woik. These communications weie publisheu in 2u12, alongsiue the essay, in !"#
%&'#()*+ ,' * -*./.
In the couise of communications, it becomes cleai that B'Agata's intention was to
paint a pictuie of what it was like on the night of Piesley's suiciue in Las vegas. Boes it
mattei if the pictuie is pietty. Fingal woulu say no. B'Agata was tiying to impiess an image
anu a feeling foi the stoiy in the ieauei, not convey a tiue tale about Piesley. The authoi's
liteiaiy style (cieative nonfiction) stanus in foi the iealism of an otheiwise tiuthful
Changing the uetails also changes the ieauei's peiception of the woilu, of tiuth. In
the stoiy that puipoits to be non-fiction, the wiitei took libeities with the uetails. Alteiing
the facts changes the meaning of the stoiy.
0n numeious occasions, B'Agata iaises the question of who is being haimeu by the
alteiation of uetails. Be claims that ieaueis uon't ieceive the piopei amount of inteipietive
cieuit fiom an inuustiy that places impoitance in accuiacy anu veiifiability. B'Agata's
peispective can be suppoiteu by histoiical iepiesentations of ieaueis, such as Robeit
Bainton's stuuy of 1&5#11&(/#( in 18
It was the ieauei's job to sift the tiuth fiom the iumois. The authoi saiu so with his
usual effionteiy in a pieface: 'I must wain the public that some of the news items
that I piesent as tiue aie foi the most piobably anu that among them some aie to be
founu whose falseness is obvious. I uon't take it upon myself to soit them out: it is
up to people in high society, who know about tiuth anu lies (fiom theii fiequent use
of both) to juuge anu make a choice' (17).
While B'Agata iaises histoiical peispective in his aigument on multiple occasions, he uoes
not consiuei that the contempoiaiy ieauing public will be laigely blinu to the histoiical
situation of the liteiaiy non-fiction, much less the uiscouise of authoiship. It becomes
Fingal's iole to meuiate between B'Agata anu his intenueu ieaueiship in situating the
authoi's iepiesentation of ieality in a fiame that will not violate the ieauei's sense
In theii communications, B'Agata often iefeiences the histoiical moue of wiiting in
which he iuentifies: the essay. Bis claims aie suppoiteu by uncoveiing the histoiy of news
in a uiscouise that tieats facts anu fictions with equal cieuibility. Lennaiu Bavis, foi
example, uiscusses the news¡novels uiscouise in -*./6*1 -&./&,+(7 !"# 83&9&+( ,' /"# :+91&("
;,2#1. Bavis tiaces the histoiy of the uistinction between news anu liteiatuie back to 16
centuiy Lonuon. In the 16
centuiy, ieaueis uiu not make the same uistinction between
news anu fiction that we uo touay, noi weie ieaueis peiceiveu to have the same kinu of
agency anu inteipietive faculty as Bainton uesciibes in his stuuy of liteiatuie in 18
centuiy Paiis. Bavis uesciibes that the uistinction between fiction anu nonfiction simply
uiu not exist: "Nany of the ieaueis knew that theii +#<#( was not /3#<# anu uiu not think
that fact was veiy significant. To say simply that ieaueis weie gullible fails to explain the
obsession with /3#<#+#(( oi +#<#+#(( anu fails to answei the question of why these
qualities became uesiiable ones foi ballaueeis to boast about" (S4). The uistinction
between fiction anu nonfiction uiu not come about until centuiies latei when genies
became moie soliuifieu. Still, as is appaient fiom the histoiy of cieative nonfiction, the
genie has moie to uo with its uefinition of its auuience than its uefinition of liteiatuie.
The ethical uilemma of alteiing uetails in a nonfiction essay also beais ielation to
the Letham's "The Ecstasy of Influence" anu Shielus' =#*1&/> ?6+9#3. Letham anu Shielus
specifically iaise the questions of authoiship anu attiibution in theii woik. Contempoiaiy
law anu acauemic cultuie iepiouuce the conception that plagiaiism is on the wiong siue of
the ethical uiviue; it assumes a wiitei has faileu to attiibute the souice of a piouuct of
intellectual piopeity (stealing). Such a conception ielies on notion of the iomantic authoi
anu the woik as the expiession of unique inuiviuual genius. Inteiestingly, Sheilus'
manusciipt veision of =#*1&/> ?6+9#3 uiu not incluue a key¡inuex until the publishei
steppeu in, aiguing that the attiibution was iequiieu to piotect against legal uisputes.
Shielus accepteu the inteivention, anu the woik was publisheu with an inuex - though the
inuex appeais with an authoi's statement suggesting that ieaueis "cut along the uotteu
lines" in oiuei to iemove the section fiom the binuing. Shielus anu B'Agata aie bloou
The ethical uilemma in !"# %&'#()*+ ,' * -*./ involves a similai issue conceining
attiibution, but not a piopiietaiy one. No one owns the facts; B'Agata's libeities weie not
infiinging on anyone else's intellectual piopeity. Be only faileu to piouuce the attiibutions
(which belongeu to his imagination).
}ohn: I'm builuing an image, }im.
}im: An image baseu on what. Youi imagination. (8S).
As a fact checkei, it was Fingal's job to suppoit a claim that the facts iepiesenteu in
the essay weie veiifiable anu accuiate. Changing the name of a souice to piotect theii
iuentity is one thing; changing the statistics of a scientific stuuy is quite anothei. Fingal's
appioach to fact checking appeais at times in !"# %&'#()*+ ,' * -*./ as oveily liteial. Be
comes acioss as a uisciple at the altai of science, obsesseu with aiguing as to whethei the
uesciiption of a statistic is off by a fiaction of a peicent. To be completely factually, Fingal
suggests changing the following phiasing:
"Foi eveiy five new iesiuents who move to Las vegas, thiee natives move out."
"Foi eveiy five new iesiuents who move to Las vegas, thiee anu one-thiiu iesiuents
move out" (SS).
When quoting a statement, Fingal suggests to B'Agata to incluue biackets to inuicate
the change of case. B'Agata iefuses the change, aiguing that such an inclusion woulu iuin
the flow of text anu the aesthetic of the page (S7). It's easy to siue with Fingal on this one;
such an alteiation is piactically equivalent to misquotation in the eyes of contempoiaiy
citation stanuaius. When citing statistics on suiciue anu population, Fingal is also in the
iight (S2). It is unethical to change basic statistical fact in oiuei to uiive home a point about
the aesthetics of liteiatuie.
Wheie B'Agata's message of taking libeities with the facts becomes most convincing,
his aiguments uo not have to uo with numbeis oi scholaily stanuaius of attiibution. It
seems that one of his unueilying intentions in alteiing uetails was to cieate an atmospheie
to make it seem that the woilu playeu a iole in biinging Piesley to commit suiciue. Fiom a
biiu's eye peispective, I agiee with B'Agata's intention to iepiesent a ieal place anu
chaiactei thiough a liteiaiy lens. Bowevei, at times his tactics step ovei the line of ethical
stanuaius into an aiea wheie fact tiumps poetiy.
Fingal anu B'Agata have conflicting inteipietations of tiuth, both of which aie
equally valiu anu ieasoneu in theii email coiiesponuence. Theii peispectives aie so
uiffeient that they come to iepiesent two sepaiate anu conflicting woiluviews. B'Agata
iepiesents the liteiaiy, intuitive ieauei who values emotional impact ovei the uegiee to
which the stoiy ieflects the ieal woilu. Fingal, on the othei hanu, iepiesents the ieauei
who values the tiuth above all - the objective, veiifiable, iaw uata that stanus foi itself.
These two peispectives neithei oveilap noi compiomise. It's eithei oi.
B'Agata, }ohn anu }im Fignal. !"# %&'#()*+ ,' * -*./@ New Yoik: W. W. Noiton & Company,
Bainton, Robeit. A#2&1 &+ /"# ?,1> B*/#34 ,3 /"# C3/ ,' D1*+E#3 '3,F %,6&( GHI /, ;*),1#,+.
Philauephia: 0niveisity of Pennsylvania Piess, 2uu9.
Bavis, Lennaiu. -*./6*1 -&./&,+(7 !"# 83&9&+( ,' /"# :+91&(" ;,2#1@ NY: Columbia 0niveisity
Baitsock, }ohn. C ?&(/,3> ,' %&/#3*3> J,63+*1&(F7 !"# :F#39#+.# ,' * K,E#3+ ;*33*/&2# -,3F.
Amheist: 0niveisity of Nassachusetts Piess, 2uuu.
Letham, "The Ecstacy of Influence: A Plagiaiism." ?*3)#3( Feb. 2uuu: S9-71.
Shielus, Baviu. =#*1&/> ?6+9#37 C K*+&'#(/,. NY: vintage, 2u11.