Free-Floating Hostility

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Alan Dershowitz: Champion of Modernist Truth

Possibly weirder than the Harry Potter-Troll connection is suddenly finding myself taking epistemological cues from Alan Dershowitz. Taking my block-quoting cues from Ben and Alice, I will now allow Dershowitz to speak for himself. Excerpted from his piece in Sunday's Times Book Review of Sebastian Junger's non-fiction book on The Boston Strangler, who did some construction on Junger's parents' house and maybe killed his neighbor:
In an intriguing paragraph, Junger makes a disturbing claim about the genre of nonfiction that many have made about great fiction: "Maybe the truth isn't even the most interesting thing about some stories, I thought; maybe the most interesting thing about some stories is all the things that could be true. And maybe it's in the pursuit of those things that you understand the world in its deepest, most profound sense."

I think he is wrong. Nonfiction must be about actual truth, not about how coincidences could lead to a deeper truth. Junger should understand this, especially since he has criticized James Frey's "new journalism." An important difference between fiction and nonfiction is that in novels and plays, Chekhov's dictum prevails: "If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on a wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off." There are no coincidences: a chest pain is followed by a heart attack; a phone call is always meaningful; the purchase of a life insurance policy is followed by a murder or suicide. In real life, on the other hand, most chest pains are caused by transient indigestion; phone calls tend to be from life insurance salesmen; the purchase of a policy is followed by years of good health; and rifles gather dust on walls.

Popular nonfiction, of the kind Junger produces so expertly, tries to construct a narrative that emulates fiction by playing down coincidences and emphasizing connections. In real life, perfect storms are the rare exception, while in fiction they are the rule. To write a seamless nonfiction narrative, however, a perfect storm is desirable. If it has, in fact, occurred, as it did with the northeaster of 1991, that is fine. But when a writer has a stake in playing down coincidences and emphasizing connections, his work must be read with caution...

I've been trying to formulate my thoughts on this issue for months, but always wound up saying "But fiction is easier!" which is not at all what I meant. Thank you, Mr. Dershowitz, for clarifying.

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