The Fiction of Nonfiction

When I’m thinking about truth and nonfiction, I usually think about The Perfect Storm. In a good way, I mean. Then I wonder how much of the problem, in general, couldn’t be solved, or at least salved, with smarter graphic design.

Sebastian Junger begins the foreword to his book by describing what he did not do while writing it (starting here about halfway through the first paragraph):

I toyed with the idea of fictionalizing minor parts of the story—conversations, personal thoughts, day-to-day routines—to make it more readable, but that risked diminishing the value of whatever facts I was able to determine. In the end I wound up sticking strictly to the facts, but in as wide-ranging a way as possible.

Some might balk at the idea of a wide-ranging strictness, but I feel like I know what he means, and I trust the writer from his having made this confession. But the design of the layout makes me trust the writing still more:

As a result, there are varying kinds of information in the book. Anything in direct quotes was recorded by me in a formal interview, either in person or on the telephone, and was altered as little as possible for grammar and clarity. All dialogue is based on the recollection of people who are still alive, and appears in dialogue form without quotation marks. No dialogue was made up. Radio conversations are also based on people’s recollections, and appear in italics in the text. Quotes from published material are in italics, and have occasionally been condensed to better fit the text. Technical discussions of meteorology, wave motion, ship stability, etc., are based on my own library research and are generally not referenced, but I feel compelled to recommend William Van Dorn’s The Oceanography of Seamanship as a comprehensive and immensely readable text on ships and the sea.

So simple! I don’t read nearly as much nonfiction as I ought to, so perhaps this kind of thing is common and I’m just not aware of it. Either way, it seems like an elegant use of design in an attempt to wrangle the demons of nonfiction: the varying degrees of reliability of sources, the difficulty of reconstructing events from incomplete evidence and fallible memories, and the obligation to strive for objectivity, even if the goal is unachievable (as Lawrence Weschler was quoted as saying, in one of the bazillion articles on this subject in the past few weeks, here: “There is no objective reality, but that is no excuse for knowingly obfuscating and confabulating.”)

On the other hand, I just noticed a letter on the Columbia Journalism Review site from a number of years back, here, complaining that the title of the book Junger recommends is actually Oceanography and Seamanship. But who knows if this letter writer is actually a former editor of Yachting, as he claims? Perhaps he is actually a lady performance artist on the lam, wanted in nine states for the little-known yet very serious crime of amateur vasectomy reversal, moonlighting pseudonymously as a stripper taxidermist in Reno! Who knows? Who can you trust?