Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Can Something Be Too Perfect?

While on vacation in the Adirondacks this summer I read Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken. For those who might not know the book, it's about a World War II crew of a B-24 (not affectionately called a "Flying Coffin") that plunges into the Pacific, killing most of the men. The few who lived through the crash, including Olympic runner Louis Zamperini, survive in a tiny, disintergrating rubber raft for over a month, are captured by the Japanese and imprisioned on a small island, and then sent to Japan and made to do hard labor, accented by senseless torture. It's the sort of story where just when you think nothing worse could possibly happen to these guys something even worse does indeed happen.

It's an amazing book and one I would highly recommend to anyone interested in gripping, well-written nonfiction. But here's the thing: it's almost too perfect. Hillenbrand has clearly done a ton of research as even a casual glimpse of her Notes and Acknowledgments makes clear, with Zamperini providing a wealth of information in over seventy-five interviews. Even so, I sometimes found the level of detail startling and wondered if it all came from Zamperini or whether some was author speculation. Take this brief paragraph (that I picked by opening the book and, without looking, pointing at a part of the page) that describes the moments after Zamperini is thrown into a small, wooden cell on the island of Kwajalein:

"At first, Louie could barely see. His eyes darted about uncontrollably. His mind raced, flitting incoherently from thought to thought. After weeks of endless openness, he was disoriented by the compression of the space around him. Every nerve and muscle seemed in a panic."

I have no problem with the basic facts; the notes for p. 174 say that Zamperini provided them. But do any of us think he described his eyes darting about or the panic in his nerves and muscles? I'm willing to say "well, maybe," but in my heart I'm thinking this is made up stuff. And I wouldn't be bothered by one or two places where this happens. Or ten. But it seemed that every scene (whether Zamperini is the focus or not) is fleshed out with similar rich, dramatic detail and emotional insight. It's almost as if they're too complete and rounded out

It's possible that I was recalling the numerous blog-o-sphere discussions recently where non-fiction writers have been urged to speculate more about their subjects (to build drama and emotion and to help go beyond "history as story" in order to discuss opinions and ideas). Or maybe I was remembering an article that (wiesly in my opinion) warned about fictional details sneaking into children's non-fiction. So I may be a little too sensitive to these things and as a result totally unfair to Hillenbrand. Maybe she did write a perfect book! Even so, it did make me wonder where the line should be drawn when it comes to speculation and who, besides the author, should be monitering it. I've had editors (Dinah Stevenson to name one) who know history and can sniff out every false note in a text. But I think that a lot of editors might not be quite so versed in history and might not be able to spot fact from decent, based-on-solid research speculation versus made up stuff. Reviewers? Again, a mixed bag of expertise that might allow a nonfiction book loaded with questionable speculation to pass unchallenged.

It's a complex and potentially troubling situation (especially considering who our main audience is) and one that may never be resolved in a clear and satisfying way. I'd love to hear what others think about this and what we should do.

7 comments:

Vicki Cobb said...

Jim, you raise an interesting question, especially following Susan's post yesterday about a book where the unvarnished simple truth is presented without hyperbole so that we, the readers, "get it" even more powerfully.

Deborah Heiligman said...

Jim, this is fascinating. The book has gotten a lot of reviews, a lot of buzz, is a bestseller. Have any of them mentioned this problem? I haven't read it yet, but it sounds to me as if you are right--too perfect, indeed. Did you have a chance to see if other people are also bothered by this? People in the "grown-up" world?
D

Rosalyn Schanzer said...

I agree with your speculations and observations, Jim, and I see copy like that in bot adult and children's nonfiction all the time, even in best sellers. To me, the details in that kind of writing stick out like a sore thumb. Sometimes I even see such things in memoirs and autobiographies and I always wonder how anyone could possibly remember every little thing in such minute detail. I do think their goal is to spice things up, but it still feels like cheating to me.

Steve Sheinkin said...

Jim, I've been researching a fairly obscure story involving Secret Service agents in the 1870s, and sources are thin. Then I found a nonfiction book written by Secret Service agents in the mid-1900s, using office records, old handwritten files, etc. Sounds perfect, and it almost is, but then these quotes sneak in where an agent will say "Hmpf!" while "shaking his head incredulously." To me, it makes the book much less interesting, cause now I know they're making stuff up...

Jennifer Armstrong said...

I'd like to argue on the other side. If the subject of the book says, in a non-writerly way "I was freaked out by how different it was inside after all those weeks at sea," isn't it the job of the author to translate that into more interesting prose? If being freaked out generally includes darting eyes and so on, isn't it fair to portray the experience that way? The experience itself might not have been something Zemperini remembered without prompting, such as "what was it like after all those weeks at sea to be indoors again?" I had similar issues writing a book with a Holocaust rescuer - of course she didn't recall every flutter of her heart or tremble of her hands, but if those things were characteristic of her experience, it seemed reasonable to use them.

Myra Zarnowski said...

I think it's important for authors who are speculating to say so. Tonya Bolden's book MARITCHA is a model for this. She tells the reader when there is no available evidence--the gaps in the narrative--and then she tells us what "it might have been like." That way the author's input is clear.

Jim Murphy said...

Jennifer -- I think it's a complex and potentially slippery slope we're talking about. I'm not aganst all spectulation, but worry that some folk might take it too far, might in fact be venturing closer to historical fiction when they try to recreate a scene or express emotion. I also think it's a different world when writing for kids or writing for adults and we need to be especially diligent. But I'm willing to be corrected on all of this; I'm trying to learn new things about how to write for young readers every day. Deborah -- no one has questioned her approach as far as I know, though I still feel uneasy reading the book. Again, I could be wrong.