April 06, 2018

‘Faction’ is not creative nonfiction

I have a friend, let’s call her Cindy, who is constantly encouraging me to read Dan Brown’s new book, Origin. “It’s creative nonfiction,” she insists.

“No,” I tell her, “it’s not.”

Brown’s book is the fifth installment of a series of mysteries about an academic, Robert Langdon, a Harvard professor of religious symbology and religious iconology, who wants to end the age of religion and usher in the age of science. Cindy knows that I have been involved for more than two years in a project helping writers conceive and write true stories about the intersection and the harmonies between science and religion. “You will learn so much!” Cindy assures me.

Maybe I will, I tell her, but I won’t actually know what I am learning.

I appreciate Cindy’s enthusiasm and I admire Dan Brown’s story writing skills, and I have, in fact, read an interview of Brown in Publishers Weekly in which he said he employed fact-checkers to make certain he did not get anything wrong. But his work is not creative nonfiction. While the information (the history, geography, and science) Brown provides his readers may all be factually accurate, the characters and the story he tells are not. They are mostly, if not all, made up.

Robert Langdon is not a real person, though somewhat confusingly there is a Langdon, first name John, who in real life is a professor and evidently the character who inspired Brown. But he’s not at Harvard; he’s at Drexel University in Philadelphia, where he’s a professor of typography.

And according to Macy Halford of the New Yorker, as of 2009, there were neither professors nor departments of symbology at Harvard or Drexel or anywhere else in the world that she could find. Langdon may be based on a real-life character, but the character reading the books is in no way the character that exists.

It’s like those movies we see that are based on a true story, like Hidden Figures, Sully, Selma, Fruitvale Station, even All the President’s Men—stories which are elaborated for dramatic effectand therefore as much fiction—or maybe moreso – as fact. Or, as some people might say, “faction.” The reader doesn’t know what to believe and what to chalk up to a writer’s or director’s imagination. These kinds of movies entertain and sometimes inform, but they also mislead.

Of course, some readers actually don’t care a lot about what’s true and what isn’t; they just want a good, compelling, interesting story to read and to discuss. And that’s fine, as far as it goes.

But I do wish, especially in this nightmarish atmosphere of alternative fact and fake news in which we are enveloped these days, that people were actually more concerned with differentiating between fact and fiction and not just accepting stories and ideas because they sound right, because the President or Wolf Blitzer said it, or because it is something fascinating to share at a cocktail party.

And it especially annoys and disturbs me when people confuse a good story, laden with interesting information, with creative nonfiction, as did Cindy and, I know, many others.

Of course, I have been involved in the creative nonfiction world for my entire career and it is important to me to defend and solidify the integrity of the genre. The best creative nonfiction does indeed read a lot like fiction. In fact, that’s the idea behind creative nonfiction: to communicate ideas and information in a cinematic way using the techniques employed by literary writers—dialogue, description, detail, action, scenes—to introduce the characters behind the facts with action and excitement in a compelling way. 

But unlike fiction, the story is true, the characters real, the facts accurate. Creative nonfiction digs deep into ideas, provides fascinating information and comes out the other side with a story that is refreshing, insightful and inspiring, a story that from beginning to end is as accurate as possible and totally true.

A genuine creative nonfiction piece, for example, might be about John Langdon – how Dan Brown become acquainted and subsequently fascinated with him – and how John was transformed into Robert, how typography became symbology, and how Brown became obsessed with the death of religion and the birth of science. Real life stuff about a real person. That may not be as compelling as the murder and mayhem provided in Origins, but that’s really what creative nonfiction is all about.