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In an era when public confidence in the media has eroded perhaps beyond repair, Daniel W. Lehman’s Matters of Fact couldn’t be more timely. Those appalled by journalism’s latest ethics scandals, New Republic writer Stephen Glass’s and Boston Globe columnists Patricia Smith’s and Mike Barnicle’s fabrications of scenes and sources in nonfiction accounts foisted on readers as “true,” will take heart in Lehman’s insistence that both writers and readers have a stake in these transactions. Lehman spent 18 years covering politics and law for the Charlottesville, Virginia Daily Progress before becoming director of the Journalism Program and chair of the Department of Communication [End Page 1071] Arts at Ashland University in Ohio. He draws on his own reporting experiences (and refers to the O. J. Simpson case) to argue that “the production and consumption of [. . .] nonfictional narratives [. . .] is a site of both artistic and social engagement.”
Lehman’s thesis—that “truth matters” in nonfiction—is hardly earthshaking. However, as he persuasively argues in his long opening chapter “Nonfictional Narrative and the Problem of Truth,” the trend in literary theory in recent decades has been to collapse the distinctions between fiction and nonfiction and to foreground the difficulties of locating “truth.” Matters of Fact, therefore, provides a valuable counterbalance to John Hellmann’s Fables of Fact: The New Journalism as New Fiction (1981) and Phyllis Frus’s assertion, in The Politics and Poetics of Journalistic Narrative (1994), that “arguing over which parts a writer ‘got right’ is a hopeless exercise [. . .] for we cannot retrieve the past except from texts, including our memory as a text.”
To all this, Lehman replies with infinite common sense that “matters of accuracy, though slippery and seldom proven, are anything but irrelevant [. . . :] not all manipulated facts are equally false; not all testimony about the past is equally futile; not all honest attempts to tell the truth are identically failed; some knowledge is more incomplete than other knowledge; some perceptions are more slanted than others.” Lehman’s own special contribution is to stress that truth especially matters because it impacts human bodies—often literally. When characters die in fiction, characters die. In nonfiction, people die, and, as in the case of Princess Diana, her legacy is defined by (often-contradictory) narratives, and her sons, Princes William and Harry, are touched, even shaped, by such narratives as well.
Drawing on rhetorical theory, media theory, and the insights of cultural studies, Lehman offers a four-part method for exploring truth in nonfiction narratives. His approach is to focus first on the writer and then on the reader as they interact with both the subject and the created text. Sophisticated producers and consumers of nonfictional narratives, Lehman argues, will examine the “Writing Inside Out” (chapter 2), that is, the way nonfiction writers implicate themselves within the text, including how their narrative presence reveals their ideological project. They will examine the “Writing Outside In” (chapter 3) to discover how the writer’s life and the circumstances of publication shape the author’s presence in the text. Following the counsel of chapter 4, [End Page 1072] sophisticates will engage in “Reading Inside Out,” that is, close reading of the text’s construction to see how the text positions its readers and encourages them to identify with or against the “position of power” the text’s narrative strategy creates. Finally, when “Reading Outside In” (chapter 5) we are urged to pit outside knowledge against the text’s internal references.
As the subtitle of his volume suggests, Lehman calls this multidimensional approach “reading over the edge.” I wish he had found a more helpful metaphor. By “the edge” he seems to mean interpreting at the “boundary between writer and reader, history and discourse.” However, the approach he describes involves not so much peering or trekking over the edge of a subject or text as being a skillful film auteur consciously changing viewing lenses and locations. Perhaps “Nonfiction Narratives as Multireferential Texts” would be a more accurate (although admittedly less intriguing) subtitle.