Stranger Than Non-Fiction

Citing examples in television and literature, Nick Martens discusses how fictitious elements can supplement the truth in non-fiction.

On the TV show Top Gear, Jeremy Clarkson drove around a racetrack in a semi-trailer truck, which he “accidentally” set on fire. In David Sedaris’s short piece “Full House,” a young Sedaris fakes poker rules so other boys will strip down to their underwear and sit on his lap. In Malcolm Gladwell’s recent article “Late Bloomers,” he argues that there are two kinds of artistic geniuses: prodigies whose conceptual brilliance flares bright and brief at a young age and late bloomers who toil for decades honing their craft.

All of these stories are presented as non-fiction. But are we really expected to believe them?

I would argue no. The authors intend for these fictions to be transparent.

In my Top Gear example, the three hosts bought big trucks and raced them with delicate cargo in their trailers. The producers of the show supposedly placed an active electric heater and a pile of dry hay in the back of Clarkson’s truck. That way, if he drove too wildly, the heater would slide into the hay, igniting it. Now, Clarkson is a huge star in England, and Top Gear is among the BBC’s most popular shows. Plus, Richard Hammond, another host on the show, crashed a jet car a few years ago and almost died. It’s inconceivable that anyone involved in the production of Top Gear would put Clarkson in such obvious danger. They faked the burning semi shot.

But the rest of the show is not fake. The three hosts compete with their trucks and ridiculous, real things happen. The other two have actual cargo, and when a small car that Hammond is hauling crashes out the back of his trailer, that’s a moment of genuine humor. One fake shot does not spoil the show’s non-fictional appeal.

The same goes for Sedaris. Most of his story is plausible: the boys don’t know poker, their sexuality is developmental, and they have no self-confidence. As a reader, I believe that Sedaris could have plied their naiveté and their ignorance of homosexuality to make them play strip poker. But the image of a pre-pubescent Sedaris manipulating a writhing harem of young boys is not believable. By the end, the card game takes on an indulgent air that defies the nervous, homophobic energy present earlier in the story. No doubt this event did occur, but Sedaris exaggerates beyond credibility in its conclusion.

Gladwell may seem like a different kind of author, but he also amplifies his truth with fiction. Much of his argument is reasonable: He lists many prodigious artists who burned out quick, then several older ones who achieved greatness later in life. He compares their development and approach to art, draws a line between them, and presents them as two different breeds of genius. That all works.

But it breaks when Gladwell insists that all artistic geniuses fall into one camp or the other. Counter-examples abound; Stanley Kubrick, for instance, produced visionary work while young, yet refined his art until middle age (Eyes Wide Shut notwithstanding). Bob Dylan, Philip Roth, Steven Spielberg, and Beethoven also spring to mind. Gladwell is extremely intelligent, and surely saw these obvious shades of gray, but he still only shows the black and white. Why?

And why would Top Gear augment its already over-the-top antics with fake stunts? Why would Sedaris take a hilarious, true story to an extravagant extreme?

Because these authors are not only transcribing reality; they’re constructing narratives. A normal Top Gear competition film might feel random and meandering, much like reality, but the fictitious ending structures the non-fiction. It gives the producers a climax to build towards, a guaranteed spectacle. Sedaris turns an ordinary tale of awkward sexual exploration into a fantastical punchline. Gladwell’s mundane observation becomes chewy food for thought.

I see this kind of deliberate misdirection more and more in non-fiction. I have come to think of it not as deceitful or dishonest, but as a literary technique, as valid as a metaphor (and isn’t a metaphor just a fancy lie?). The author wants you to see the lie, but also the truth behind the lie. Top Gear is not a show about cars; it’s a comedy show with lots of driving. “Full House” is not like the pointless stories your friends tell; it shows Sedaris reveling in his homosexuality, perhaps for the first time. “Late Bloomers” is not meant to clump artists into simplified groups; Gladwell wants to reveal the hidden layers behind the concept of “genius.” In these works, message trumps reality.

Besides, they’re less boring this way.

Nick Martens is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. You can email him, if you like.