Monday, June 30, 2014

Some remarks on Truth, Fiction and Journalism

About 25 or 30 years ago, I remember a period of reading weekly columns by journalists I admired (or respected) and being very disappointed in the content of this one or that one.  Suddenly a couple of very good columns appeared and my faith in them was restored.  I concluded that the problem was the need, the corporate imperative, to provide one column (in some cases, two columns) per week.  Captured by the relentless advance of time,  many columns were little more than filler.  The content suffered from the power of the clock. 

Researching the situation I learned that many famous columnists had a staff of researchers and checkers.  These people were used by the columnist to check  facts, and sometimes provide quotations from other sources to strengthen or deepen the the premise of that week's work.

This practice sometime led to minor instances of plagiarism or failures of attribution that were more comical than serious.  I remember one column by George Will in 1998.  The column opened as follows:

"Wednesday morning, when the black bat, night, has fled, professional Republicans and Democrats - almost the only people who will care - will pronounce themselves pleased as punch by the election results." 
Immediately I recognized the night metaphor lifted from the poem "Come into the garden, Maud" by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
 "Come into the garden, Maud/ the black bat, night, has flown /  come into the garden, Maud / I am here at the gate alone."
The typist even put the commas on either side of 'night.'  I had to smile.  Poor George.

About two years ago, a blogger stirred up some anxiety when he charged that John Steinbeck had not traveled to all the places mentioned in the book "Travels With Charlie."  At least, not with Charlie, and maybe not in the same sequence as represented in the book.  He had 'charges' and he had 'allegations' and he had 'proof.'  The book was fiction, he said, and should be sold in the fiction section of book stores.  This was 60 years after the book's publication!  Well, who cared?  Not me.
I recalled William Faulkner's comment that "The best fiction is far more true than any journalism."

Historians are another category of scholar who have to be aware of attribution and acknowledgement of  the work of others.  Historians require assistance in the preparation of transforming their manuscript into a book.  They have staffs that check for errors and attribution.  Still things can go wrong.
In 2002, the historians Doris Kearns Goodwin  (The Fitzgerald and the Kennedys) and Stephen Ambrose (Band of Brothers) were charged with plagiarism.  A review of that painful time can be read here

Pablo Picasso is reported to have said that "Good artists copy.  Great artists steal."  That quote is not a pass for laziness or dishonesty.  I believe he is referring not to paint, or words, but to ideas.  All thinkers, all artists, all writers read and absorb and use and expand and pass on the ideas from generation to generation.

I'm not sure I have written all I want to say here but I will post it before I forget how to do it.


  1. Linc,

    I try to post about once a week, but with working two jobs I frequently miss the mark. A year ago, this bothered me. I would actually reprimand myself for being lazy, even though I knew time and energy were often the reason for my negligence. Finally, last year, I realized that, while quantity is nice, (I still harbor a thought in the back of my head that someday someone with influence will "discover" me), it is quality that matters most and it is quality that might one day make my dream of writing for a living happen. Still, there are times when I feel like I have forced a post. And, while writing for a living may be my goal, the thought of having to write to meet a deadline, being told what to write, and what to not write about, and probably, having to write with regards to my employer's opinions as opposed to my true feelings, all scare me. Thanks for your post. It makes me realize that I am not alone in all these thoughts, and reminds me that it is in the writing itself that lies the pleasure; being paid is merely the icing on the cake. And it reminds me that the world is full of inspiration, whether that inspiration derives from day to day life or the works of great artists who have come before me.

    1. Thanks, Joe, for the thoughts expressed in your comment. I appreciate the nice feeling it left me with. Let's keep on keepin' on.