Tom Bissell on truth in writing.
Let us be straight about this. There is no such thing in the brute, unfeeling world as a story. Stories do not exist until some vessel of consciousness comes along and decides where it begins and ends, what to stress, and what to neglect. Story, then, is the most subjective force in the world—but I do not mean this in the Gallic, po-mo sense that all experience is relative and there is no such thing as truth. I believe fervently in truth, particularly literary truth, and great nonfiction writers are men and women who work to find that truth . . . For instance, a newspaper writer tells us that two psychopaths murdered a family in Kansas. Is that the truth? Yes, but truth is many fathoms deep. Truman Capote, on the other hand, takes us into the lives of the murderers and the murdered, leaving readers flayed by the mysteries of human morality and existence. . . . This is not to mention the fact that Capote was apparently romantically involved with one of the two murderers—Perry, for those who know the book—while writing it. But truth is more complicated—more frightening—than what happened, and to my mind it is somehow to the book’s credit that, when I learned of Capote’s more or less despicable romantic involvement with his subject, I was not surprised. For that, too, if one reads carefully, is in “In Cold Blood,” hovering just beneath the surface. Perhaps this tells us that a great writer reveals the truth even when he or she does not wish to.
Robert Byron’s The Road to Oxiana is probably my favorite work of nonfiction and certainly my favorite piece of travel literature. For me, it stands among the most potent illustrations of how one can write about what happened while refusing to be limited by what happened.