By Daniel Hubbard | June 8, 2014
I didn’t start out to write a two part post but this post has become part 2 of last weeks about the nonfiction contract.
What inspired this post, and last week’s as well, are a couple of recent run-ins with some nineteenth century “nonfiction.” Clearly standards were different over one hundred years ago and the distance created by a century helps us see the nonfiction contract breaking as well. How much credence would you give a work on a surname that begins with page after page about how the people of that name all descend from a specific tribe mentioned in the writings of Julius Caesar? How believable is the story of a son about whom nothing is known except that he left many descendants, who is the only child of a mysterious first wife whose death is assumed because it was unrecorded and, by the way, no record of the marriage is known either? If you intended for the reader to believe that, you wouldn’t word it the way I just did but even dressed up nicely and stretched out for several paragraphs, the hogwash alarms sound. The contract is clearly broken. The reader moves on. Anyone can write hogwash but clearly it does not age as well as careful writing based on equally careful research.
Those examples are real but one need not take the full plunge into pure hogwash to break the nonfiction contract. So, what happens if you break the nonfiction contract? It is actually an easy question to answer. If the casual reader catches you, then they will stop believing you. That is the kiss of death for a piece of writing meant to convey information to them. The story might be worth reading but part of that worth is that it is reality. They started to read with the understanding that those little bits of information that they might pickup along the way are factual and that the story is giving them insight into actual occurrences, not the author’s imagination. If they are given reason to doubt, then why should they read?
If a family historian reads your nonfiction narrative, they should already be doubting you. That, though, is a constructive doubt. It ought to be the doubt of a real researcher who wants to go find the evidence for your statements for themselves. If you break the nonfiction contract, the doubt becomes the kind of doubt that means that what you have written may be judged as not being worth the trouble to check. For your writing, that is once again the kiss of death.