The Truth in True Crime: A Lit Mag Investigation
Pittsburgh’s Creative Nonfiction is on a mission: “to serve as the singular strongest voice of the genre, defining the ethics and parameters of the field.” Though cynics may question CNF’s aspirations, even cry ‘hubris,’ one cannot question the review’s sincerity. I left Issue #45 impressed and enriched. In Creative Nonfiction, stories speak to essays, interviews to roundtable discussion, until a turn of the final page delivers a deeper understanding of the line between reality and creativity. In the case of this particular issue: the fascinating complexities, artistic and moral, of true crime writing. Of this beast’s brutal nature and the dubious ethics of plowing up that crow-pecked field of blood and bones, #45 has much to say.
“No sooner had Gutenberg invented movable type,” Harold Schechter writes in his genre overview, “than [European] printers began churning out graphically violent murder ballads… peddled to the hard-working masses eager to brighten their dreary days with a little vicarious sadism.” By the 20th century, America had taken to true crime with a similar bloodlust, allotting it, if not a distinguished position in its literature, then a profitable one: Hammett, Runyon, Thompson, and, the one who single-handedly re-invented the genre, Capote, whose In Cold Blood, according to Schechter, “set an unfortunate precedent by indulging in the kind of novelistic embellishment (not to say rank fabrication) that has become endemic to the form.”
Here is true crime’s crux: how much artistic liberty may it be permitted before fact becomes falsehood? While admitting to some of his own past true crime fictions, Schechter declares he no longer takes such liberties in his work; in order to count as worthwhile history, he states, true crime “must adhere to strictly documented fact.” Schechter also believes that true crime ultimately benefits society, since it provides us with the necessary, lawful kicks needed to quench, in the words of William James, “our aboriginal capacity for murderous excitement.” A writer who has added his own unique voice to the roll-call of American true crime, The Devil in the White City-author Erik Larson concurs with Schechter in his lengthy interview with Donna Seaman. Larson’s work habits, musings on history, and self-considered shortcomings are explored penetratingly by Seaman over several pages of thoughtful Q&A.
Largely conventional in structure, the narratives of #45 are not marketed to a specific niche, and there is no age group hogging the mic. There is a focus, however, on the American, or, at least in the case of “Origami & the Art of Identity Folding” by AC Fraser, set in Vancouver, the North American. Only Joyce Marcel’s tale of amoral business practices, blissful sex, and the force of memory, “Grave Robber: A Love Story,” guides us beyond the border—to a Peruvian tribal village tucked away off the tourist trail. David McGlynn’s “Leviathan,” a story of an innocent Texas family’s professional execution, tenderly illustrates the fragility of adolescence, how easily a random-seeming universe can shatter youthful illusion. Ester Bloom’s near-perfect “The Discovery of My Father’s Gun,” a beautifully told tale of family mystery and epiphany as sparsely fashioned as any haiku, depends in part upon the all-too-American fascination with firearms. “The Addict” by Lacy M. Johnson, a story of stalking, kidnapping, suffering, and surviving, though international in scope and theme, also squares its main action in this country, throwing a curve at the reader considering the ubiquity of senseless U.S. violence: “From an evolutionary standpoint,” she writes, “aggression is a necessary part of getting important resources such as mates, territory and food [activated by] the same set of neurotransmitters responsible for our feelings of excitement and anticipation before Thanksgiving dinner…”
Two essays make a break with traditional form. One is Steven Church’s “Speaking of Ears and Savagery,” which takes the classic 1997 Holyfield vs. Tyson ‘bitten ear’ battle in Vegas as its starting point before unraveling a string of linked ruminations on the enigmatically severed ear of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet;the quirky personality of the human ear in general; the unhappy end of Travis, a 200-pound, 15-year old celebrity chimpanzee who maimed a woman before being gunned down by police; and our own human instinct to bite self-soothingly; and eventually fashions from this ball an oddly delicate statement on vulnerability.
Church’s unexpected narrative juxtapositions seem tame, though, next to the second form-breaker: Christopher Mohar’s “Six Ways of Looking at a Car Crash,” a meta-narrative spiraling through several ‘realities’ in order to make sense, or no-sense, of a spooky brush with death. Like Laurent Binet in his recent novel, HHhH, Mohar self-consciously comments on his story and its writing within the story, offering the reader notes made prior to as well as during the writing in the form of footnotes, in addition to including an ending in the form of a screenplay. Grounded by no one, true narration or form, no proper sense can therefore be made of why it was that Mohar managed to avoid the plummeting pickup that could have flattened him. As he writes, “Six ways of looking at a car crash, and none of them sufficient.”
With the exception of one non-professional (Fraser), this is a review written by professionals, and it’s one written for professionals in one sense only. There is a rich repository of ‘services and activities’ designed to help navigate the creative nonfiction writer through the ever-churning chop of advice and publishing. The highlight in this department is Stephanie Susnjara’s profile of Anita Fore, director of legal services for the Authors Guild. This piece, simply put, was a revelation. The necessity of the Authors Guild, their savvy expertise, was clearly, persuasively related, and Fore herself comes off as nothing less than a literary knight in shining armor. Authors embroiled in legal woes or those merely trying to understand contracts, take careful note, lest a true crime narrative spring up in your own lonely writer’s field.
So, is this thing called ‘true crime,’ whether steeped in the real or the imaginary, genuine literature, social commentary, or just one more breathy titillation? David Griffith’s excellent roundtable “The Realest Evocations Possible: The Ethics of Writing About Violence” with William Bradley, Steven Church and Bob Cowser, Jr., addresses this question, stressing that violent subject matter should be engaged head-on and, at the same time, bolstered by a clear code of ethics. Bradley writes that “the way to approach violence is to acknowledge that it’s confusing and surprising and upsetting, not glorious or heroic.” Church (author of the previous “Ears”) insists that nonfiction writing does not exist in a moral vacuum: writers typically fall somewhere between the “utilitarian consequentialist, who rejects absolutism and believes the greatest good is created by the greatest art” and the “Kantian deontologist, who believes you may never use another person as a means to your own artistic ends.” Cowser lends their discussion its title, boiling it all down to “real evocations” and the commitment to “look directly at [violence] and proceed slowly with great care.”
Proceeding slowly with great care is precisely what one should do while reading this issue of Creative Nonfiction. There are too many meaningful thieveries, abductions, and murders one might miss.