“Sharon Stone is late for lunch”:
That cloying, made-up lead is how an Esquire writer I once met summed up the phony sense of drama, the elevation of the mundane into seemingsignificance, that is so much a part of narrative feature writing, particularly when it involves celebrities. Of course, in my writing for Rolling Stone and other glossy publications, I’ve turned that trick a time or two. It’s an alluringly easy route to take—partly out of genuine enthusiasm, partly out of a desire to engage the reader, and partly out of an effort to drum up you-are-there immediacy.
Such writing is a little silly, to be sure, but is it ethically compromised? Obviously not, assuming that the writer was, in fact, having lunch with Sharon Stone and that she was, in fact, late. But don’t believe everything you read. I’ve had plenty of conversations with writers who wouldn’t hesitate to say, “Well, I was meeting her at a restaurant late in the afternoon for coffee, but I thought it would sound cooler if I described us as having lunch together.” Or, “She wasn’t really late, but I thought it would better capture her air of diva hauteur if I set the scene as if she were.”
So, now, we’re getting into the real ethical problems of narrative writing. However typical or even inconsequential such fudging may be—and in the end, who cares if Sharon Stone was having lunch or was punctual?—it’s wrong. It’s remarkable that this needs to be pointed out, but the most fundamental element of the journalist’s pact with the reader is that what you’re reporting in your story actually happened—whether you are covering a presidential campaign or a day in the life of a movie star. If you make stuff up, even little stuff, how is anyone to believe anything you say?
The willingness to meddle with reality is the inevitable result of the assault on objectivity that has characterized the past 40 years of journalism, particularly in magazines, and particularly among writers of a literary bent. In my own experience, a well-known “new journalist” once interviewed me for a piece that ran in a prestigious publication and, in the course of our conversation, casually mentioned that certain aspects of the story would be handled by composites. Envious of the breezy aptness so often displayed in the work of this writer and that school, I smiled and thought, “Ah, so that’s how they do it.” As the career of Janet Malcolm has so capably shown,reporting is a dream when you simply allow yourself to make up both the quotes and the context.
Those excesses, however, don’t mean that the assault on objectivity wasn’t long overdue. Any narrative story of length involves so much interpretation and editorial shaping that “objectivity” becomes not merely a slippery ideal, but an inappropriate one. I prefer terms like “honesty” and “fairness.” To me, it’s perfectly acceptable to write from a particular viewpoint or ideological stance, as long as you make clear in the piece that you’re doing so, and you represent counter-positions fairly. Readers then are reminded that what they’re encountering is your reading of events and personalities—which is always true, in my opinion, even in so-called “objective” reporting. In my view, all writing is a kind of criticism.
Anyone who’s ever worked with transcripts running into tens of thousands of words knows that it often just makes more sense to condense the repeated instances in which a subject comes up into one clear statement—or one confused statement if that was ultimately the subject’s state of mind. As an editorial judgment call, that seems no different to me than determining which part of a quote you’re going to use verbatim and which you’re going to paraphrase—and how exactly you’re going to paraphrase it. Obviously, in matters that involve legal issues or government policy, it’s essential to present the subject’s language as rigorously accurately as possible—regardless of how repetitive, unfocused or irrelevant it may be. In other contexts, the writer’s own discretion can play more of a role.
Conversations have an emotional character that raw transcripts never capture. Invariably, people who are shown transcripts of their own speech are stunned at how inarticulate they seem, even if, as a listener, you would judge those people verbally adept. Reading someone’s words—or even your own words—can be excruciating. It is a vastly different experience from hearing someone speak, and bridging that yawning gap is a critical part not merely of narrative journalism, but of intelligent editing. For better or worse, there is an art to constructing a long, narrative piece, and a certain amount of artifice is unavoidable in getting to the heart of the matter.
Most journalistic conventions are based on news reporting, where content—narrowly defined as the Five W’s—is the ultimate measure of a piece’s worth. But the “content” of the sort of pieces I typically do is a more complicated matter. When I tell people about a story I’m working on, whether it’s traveling with U2 or spending a night in the studio with the WuTang Clan, the question I’m invariably asked is, “What was it like?” Conveying that far more nebulous reality is the very crux of my work, and it rarely involves breaking news or any of the strictures involved in reporting of that kind. When you’re writing about popular artists, “how” is almost always far more important than who, what, when, where and why. How do they go about doing the work they do? How did they get to where they are? How do they move in the rarefied worlds they occupy? How do they handle the strange, unsettling transitions their lives often go through? This is what my readers want to know, and rendering those processes requires as much interpretive skill as conventional reporting ability.
But interpretation is not the same as invention, and once the wall of objectivity crumbled that distinction grew more difficult to maintain. Writers, eager to escape the grind of daily newspaper writing or routine magazine profiles, yearn for the freedom to stretch, long for the professional cachet that comes from being known as a literary journalist. Book contracts, movie deals, and television appearances beckon. So when the golden opportunity arises, it’s tempting to give that key scene the manufactured oomph that lifts it from the dreary realm of mere reporting into the shimmering world of artistic expression. And if that means reordering events or supplying a few telling details spun from air, what’s the harm?
The industry’s nasty little secret, unfortunately, is that editors often look the other way, or even encourage such embellishment. The pervasive feeling is that no one is playing by the rules any longer. You may want to take the high road, but your competitors (and their numbers are legion) are surely entertaining no such scruples. Editors are sweating in the heat of vanishing readerships and the pressure of the cultural predominance of television and the Internet. They’ve got their eyes on the glittering prizes that ambitious narrative pieces rake in year after year. So if those quotes seem uncannilyperfect or that vignette almost otherworldly in its evocative power, it’s far more convenient to believe that such gems are merely quotidian miracles of the sort strong reporting can sometimes perform. Why ask questions that might make your budding star reporters—or you yourself—uncomfortable? Those same editors are, of course, shocked—shocked!—when scandal breaks out.
The vast majority of journalists are honest, of that there can be no doubt. But few of the dishonest ones who were caught in recent years have suffered any meaningful consequences. As long as that remains the case, careerists and cheaters will run the risk of falsifying aspects of their stories for the significant gain and glory to be had. And, regardless of her actual dining schedule, the gorgeous Sharon Stone, her heels clacking as she enters the room and all eyes stare, will endlessly be late for lunch.
Anthony DeCurtis has written for Rolling Stone, where he is a contributing editor, for 20 years. He is the author of “Rocking My Life Away: Writing About Music and Other Matters,” and he holds a Ph.D. in American literature from Indiana University.