Non-fiction authors as characters in their own works

Canada Reads 2012

At the halfway point in the four-day series of Canada Reads 2012 debates, an interesting issue about a fundamental aspect of creative non-fiction is emerging, and it’s got me thinking. I just wanted to set down a few quick thoughts and ask for some reactions, from those following the debates and from those who are fans of creative non-fiction. I’d love to get your thoughts – either here in the comments or via Twitter – on the question of whether or not a non-fiction author needs or should be a character in her/her own work.

In memoirs, literary journalism, personal essays and other narrative forms using factually accurate material as their basis, the author of such creative non-fiction works can essentially take one of two roles in the telling of their chosen stories:

  • Participant – The author was involved in the true story in some capacity, either as an individual or part of a group to whom something happened, or as a firsthand observer, perhaps with particularly intimate knowledge of the persons and/or events that are the focus of the story.
  • Reporter – The author gathers and shapes factual information about events and persons with whom the author was not involved, and builds a story through research and filtering of trusted and perhaps not trustworthy perspectives.

This categorization is admittedly basic and simple. Also, categorizing in this fashion is rarely this cut and dried across many works of creative non-fiction. Even if a story is presented in as seemingly objective a fashion as possible, the author is likely to implicitly, subliminally or in fact explicitly demonstrate a bias, an emotional attachment of some sort and so on. There are works that cross, with varying degrees of clarity and success, between the roles of participants and reporters. I’d contend that most often, you see reporter-style non-fiction authors getting increasingly involved in the stories they’re reaching and reporting on, and becoming a peripheral character or voice in the telling of the story.

Of course, there are challenges and dangers tipping in both directions on the objectivity/subjectivity scale with authors reporting on versus participating in the stories captured in their non-fiction works. If a firsthand observer or protagonist is passionately entwined in his/her story, that can make for a captivating, stirring read, but it might also be a read where the veracity and balance of interpretation of events is in doubt. If a reporter remains distanced and cool in laying out the elements and issues of his/her story, does it make for a more trustworthy, balanced account, but also something less compelling? Conversely, if a reporter is too explicitly engaged or has an agenda, does that too plant doubts?

An interesting recent example of a reporter becoming a character in the story on which she was reporting is author Susan Orlean and her book Rin Tin Tin, The Life and the Legend. One could take closer and more arms length approaches to capturing the story of the iconic animal figure, an attractive and heroic German Shepherd that went from movie and television star to a still enduring commercial franchise and cultural touchstone. The book could have been a historical or pop culture study, but as she went along in the personal researching and interviewing for the story, Orlean admits to becoming more and more personally engaged in the story. As a result, she speaks directly and describes her participation in the shaping of the story, and why specifically the story of Rin Tin Tin resonated for her, particularly at the stage in her life when she was writing the book. Some readers might find that approach intrusive or distracting, others might find that inclusion (not intrusion) makes the story easier to identify with and even more absorbing.

Much rarer and perhaps temperamentally simply not possible is the non-fiction work where a participant in the story attempts to simply report objectively on the story. Is that possible? Hold that thought.

At the start of the two debates so far, moderator Jian Ghomeshi has cautioned panelists and audience that the debates are about the books, not about the authors. But with just about every question or point of debate, that distinction gets regularly blurred. (You could also say that distinction was downright smeared on the first day by one of the panelists who leveled provocative accusations at two of the authors. Since I’m not completely convinced the provocation wasn’t a stunt, and whether it was or not, it’s a somewhat tawdry distraction, I’ll point to this coverage of the controversy and carry on with the discussion.)

Interestingly, over the first couple of days of the debates, there have been discussion points and references to how much we get to know Ken Dryden, Dave Bidini, Marina Nemat and Carmen Aguirre in their respective books. This doesn’t really come up as a point with John Vaillant, as The Tiger is a book firmly positioned in the unobtrusive reporter-style spectrum of creative non-fiction. (That’s not a dismissive categorization – it’s elegant, masterful, transcendent storytelling with solid reportage as its base.) But if we’re supposed to keep authors distinct from the “characters” in their books, how then are we to assess the “characters” of Ken Dryden, Dave Bidini, Marina Nemat and Carmen Aguirre.

Whatever you feel about issues of authenticity and trust in their stories, Marina Nemat and Carmen Aguirre are clearly the central protagonists of their books. For those that admire and defend the books, and even those who don’t, no one denies that readers have personal reactions or connections to the Marina and the Carmen in the books. The same goes, in many respects, for Dave Bidini, although he balances his own account with a reporter’s instinct for drawing in the perspectives and voices of many other people who have shared his experiences as an up and coming musician travelling the highways and byways of Canada building one’s career. No one has commented thus far in the Canada Reads debates that they aren’t seeing or hearing enough from the Marina, Carmen and Dave of their respective books.

The Game, by Ken Dryden

Why then have the panelists, almost to a person, all remarked that they haven’t been engaged by or felt they learned enough about Ken Dryden – the aspiring athlete and happy kid in his dad’s backyard, the victorious goalie on a storied Canadian hockey team, the family man struggling to make family time, the thoughtful mortal struggling with fame and future aspirations – as depicted by Ken Dryden the author? Is it just possible that Ken Dryden the author has pulled off the unique feat of taking a convincing and trustworthy reporter-style approach to a story in which he is the main participant?

Rereading The Game in preparation for Canada Reads, having read it previously closer to its original publication in the early 1980s, I was impressed again at the almost preternatural thoughtfulness with which Dryden stood back from his own life and passions and took a bigger picture view of the nature of the sport to which he’d devoted his life to that point. That he was able to do that so objectively means that perhaps he sacrificed some personal warmth and connection with some readers to put some thought to bigger issues that, as it turns out, are still deeply relevant today. In throwing the net a little wider than his own personal experience, but judiciously using that experience to lend credibility to his broader observations, I think Dryden has crafted a gold standard work of creative non-fiction that is both thought provoking and touching. Maybe that makes it the book that all Canadians should read.

Are non-fiction authors obliged to be characters in their own works? Can they be reporters and even mine their own experiences, but put it to greater creative or critical use? Just some food for thought in the bountiful banquet that is this year’s Canada Reads debates.

My reviews of Canada Reads 2012 finalists:

3 thoughts on “Non-fiction authors as characters in their own works

  1. Pingback: Canada Reads 2012: true stories, big stories, our stories | bookgaga

  2. Vicki Ziegler

    Ruth, I think this is an excellent and helpful distinction. I still think there will be cases where the author/journalist strays – intentionally or not – into the narrative, in which case being transparent and cognizant is important in assessing the story’s authenticity. I’m very curious to get your take on where Ken Dryden as the author of The Game sits in the narrative-memoir spectrum.

  3. Ruth Seeley

    I’m now making a distinction between narrative nonfiction (which is what I think <i>The Tiger</i> is), and creative nonfiction, in which the author is perforce a character in the work, whether because they have chosen to be or because the work is memoir-based. From that standpoint, I’d list both my client Misha Angrist’s <i>Here Is a Human Being</i> and Rebecca Skloot’s <i>The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks</i> as creative nonfiction, along with Charlotte Gill’s <i>Eating Dirt</i> while Stuart Clark’s <i>The Sun Kings</i> and Andrew Nikiforuk’s <i>Empire of the Beetle</i> are narrative nonfiction. And now I want to read <i>The Game</i> to see how Dryden manages either manages to straddle both forms or chooses narrative nonfiction over creative NF….


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