March 8, 2006: Perspective
By Peter Sutherland ’05
Peter Sutherland ’05 is a freelance writer. He lives in Missouri.
One afternoon last February, I trudged across the McCosh courtyard to a meeting with my senior thesis adviser in Dickinson Hall, home to the University’s history department. I had delayed this appointment for as long as possible, but it was now time to face my fate: I was desperately behind on my thesis and had little in the way of new material.
After a few minutes of awkward conversation, my adviser and I formulated what seemed to be a workable plan. The only way to complete the thesis on time, we reasoned, was to, well, make more of it up. Of course, this was not an entirely new revelation; I had been making things up in my thesis all along. Before anyone becomes apoplectic, I should add that the history department, in conjunction with the Program in Creative Writing, had given me permission to write a “creative history thesis.” In other words, parts of the thesis could be fictionalized, provided that some sections remained true to actual historical events. It was to be called a novel.
From the outset, there was a certain amount of confusion about the exact parameters of the project. Namely, just how much historical material was required? Could the history be embellished, or need it appear precisely as it happened? Was it to serve as background material, as in much historical fiction, or was the additional burden of original historiography required? Since no student within the history department had undertaken a creative thesis in the past few years, there was no immediate precedent. At different points, the department head deferred to my individual thesis adviser, who, in turn, deferred to the department’s senior class adviser, who ceded the final word back to the department head.
The ultimate end of a creative thesis, my adviser eventually concluded, was to entertain. After all, if the project didn’t succeed as a novel, it hardly made sense to embellish or fabricate any material. We thus agreed that the thesis should be concerned primarily with the story; it would still include sections of plain historical material when appropriate, but not at the expense of the broader narrative.
I soon realized, however, that things were not as straightforward as they had momentarily appeared. Specifically, most real-life events can be made more exciting. And herein resided the chief dilemma of my thesis: Compared to the events that had been exaggerated or, for that matter, cut from whole cloth, the strictly factual elements seemed rather dry. There’s probably a reason that unadulterated accounts of mid-19th-century logging camps don’t climb their way up the best-seller lists. Perhaps my staid, family-man loggers could happen upon some long-hidden, mind-blowing Renaissance code ... in the woods of northern Wisconsin. Maybe a serial killer could begin stalking one of their fetching wives. Was it too late to craft a steamy romance between unlikely lovers? My April deadline was closing in, and panic was gaining. A week before my thesis was due I went back to my adviser, draft in hand, to ask what should be done.
In the end we decided that, despite hindering the thesis’s ability to function like a novel, many of the purely factual sections simply couldn’t be cut. I was a history major, after all, and owed the department at least a hodge-podge of historical material. Consequently, the thesis was not particularly memorable either as a novel or as a work of original historiography. In fact, I am sorry to say that parts of it are tear-jerkingly bad.
I did realize, though, that once you start mixing fact and fiction, it becomes increasingly difficult for the former to completely retain its original purity. Even with the leeway to call something a work of fiction and make large chunks of it up — as was the case with my creative thesis — it was still a challenge to be faithful to hard facts at other points in the work. An even trickier task, I reasoned, would be to start with the premise of something being entirely nonfiction, and yet somehow still make it jump and sing like an exciting novel — which brings me to the case of James Frey and his book, A Million Little Pieces.
For the cultural determinists among us, the recent scandal surrounding Frey’s book — marketed as memoir and now known to be fiction — presented a veritable field day. How to explain the recent rise in popularity of the memoir genre? Was the memoir an organic, if unintended, outgrowth of heightened postmodern self-consciousness? Were the New Journalists to be blamed for the current fuzziness between fact and fiction? To be lauded? And while these inquiries are certainly interesting, it makes little sense to pose them in relation to Frey, as it eventually became clear that he was neither writing a memoir nor attempting to smudge the line between fact and fiction to convey a greater truth.
Frey has said that when he first attempted to pitch the manuscript that became A Million Little Pieces, he called it a work of fiction. The problem is that the book doesn’t work as fiction; indeed, several editors passed on the manuscript as a fictional account. In many respects, then, Frey faced the opposite dilemma of what I encountered with my thesis. That is, as a work of fiction his book was a failure; not, like my thesis, because it was boring, but instead because it was too outlandish, so over-the-top as not to be believed.
And yet, unlike the best-selling memoirs of, say, Frank McCourt or Dave Eggers, in which the deft touch of the storyteller — as much as the “unbelievable” nature of the story itself — makes the book memorable, for Frey’s far-fetched book to captivate readers it would need to be thought of as entirely true. And this is surely why no prefatory note explaining minor (or, for that matter, major) changes originally was included. Whereas Eggers could afford to encourage his readers to “think of his book as fiction,” Frey could not, for the resonance of his tall tale would immediately be lost. Thus, while it is tempting to regard the Frey debacle as emblematic of the zeitgeist-harnessing powers of memoir, it is perhaps better conceived as a commentary on the challenges of creating good fiction.
With each new book published, it gets harder for writers to hit the “sweet spot” of originality coupled with plausibility that defines much popular contemporary fiction. If I ever doubted this, it has been driven home painfully over the past several months as I have labored to somehow extract a meaningful novel from the wreckage that was my thesis. I had assumed (incorrectly) that once I had the freedom to shape the project at my sole discretion, to discard dry historical material, everything would go swimmingly. If anything, greater freedom of form has only complicated things further. But I’m still writing. I guess if things don’t work out, I could always have a serial killer save the day.