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3QR: FREE TO PASS by Joanne Cavanaugh Simpson

LIBERO IL PASSO: FREE TO STEP OR PASS

Consider, for a moment, the concept of the Three Quarter True Story: No censorship for writers. No betrayal for readers. No locked doors with mixed messages.

When teaching fiction and nonfiction to university students, I’ve found that the question invariably comes up: What is True? We discuss whether any remembered moment can be absolutely accurate, or whether the writer’s own filters color what he or she observes. Such questions are debated as well among my writing colleagues at conferences and writers’ workshops. Does it even matter what is true? Well, the first answer to that is: Yes. To nonfiction writers it does. A great deal of in-depth research, time-consuming immersion, careful interviewing, and paranoid fact-checking goes into such seminal nonfiction works as Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb or David Simon’s Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets. Such writers, as far as I know, resisted the temptation to fill in the gaps of the unknown with  fabricated facts or exaggerated character descriptions. Nonfiction has long implied a commitment, or contract, with the reader: This really happened.

Some writers, and publishers, however don’t resist. Therefore, we have scandals such as James Frey’s ‘memoir’ A Million Little Pieces. As publicized on the infamous episode of Oprah’s talk show in 2006, various details in the book, including the rebel Frey’s supposed jail stint, were simply made up. Frey, according to a 2008 Vanity Fair article, said he first pitched his book to publishers as an autobiographical novel in the mode of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. But “TRUE STORIES” are sexy, and, as the book became a bestseller, Frey became a braggart caught up in the web of his own lies. Many would say it was not worth the risk when his readers, like Oprah, felt betrayed, and his name vilified.

Then we get to the masters of nonfiction, whose books are termed creative nonfiction or narrative journalism. Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood; George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London; Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia; Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes; John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil; or Beryl Markham’s West with the Night, etc. Capote himself considered his book a “nonfiction novel.” Yet, with all of these works and others, questions were later raised about their accuracy and adherence to truth—whether some scenes, characters, and dialogue were fictionalized, or, in the case of Markham’s memoir, her sexual escapades as an aviatrix in Africa simply glossed over because her third husband likely wrote the book with, or for, her.

Yet something about all this “gotcha lit crit” started to bother me: Who are we to say these books should not have been written or the author’s very real accomplishments, adventures, experiences, or depictions devalued entirely. The bigger question: Isn’t it censorship to say someone shouldn’t write whatever they want, the way they want, just because we don’t have a category for it? Film, after all, has the “based-on-a-true-story” genre, and the viewer knows what he or she is getting into. One of my students once asked, “Why can’t we have .74 stories?” Thus, the kernel was planted for The Three Quarter Review: Poetry and Prose > 75 percent True.

Some might argue, however, that such altered works should simply be considered fiction. Truth is fiction’s strange bedfellow, after all. And yes, there is a storied history of real events inspiring great works of literature. Henry James, for example, was known as the consummate eavesdropper of parlor and party chatter. The plot of his novel, Washington Square, came directly from real life. The first lines in his original notebook entry, according to recent editions of the novel, read:

February 21st. Mrs. Kemble told me last evening the history of her brother H.’s engagement to Miss T.H.K. [He] was a young ensign in a marching regiment, very handsome (‘beautiful’) said Mrs. K., but very luxurious and selfish, and without a penny to his name. Miss T. was a dull, plain, common-place girl, only daughter of the Master of King’s Coll,. Cambridge, who had a handsome private fortune . . .”

Thus the novel’s essential plot was fashioned—the complicated triangle between the shy, simple heroine, Catherine; the coxcomb Morris Townsend; and the distrustful father, Dr. Sloper. As James later noted in his essay titled “The Art of Fiction:” “It goes without saying that you will not write a good novel unless you possess a sense of reality, but it will be difficult to give you a recipe for calling that sense into being. Humanity is immense, and reality has a myriad forms . . .”

Some of the writers for this inaugural issue of The Three Quarter Review remark on this overlap of imagination and reality (see 3QR Author Notes): As novelist Stephen Dixon writes: Some fiction I take almost whole from my life, some fiction I take almost whole from my imagination. My imagination is part of my life, of course, but the unlived part of it.

Fiction brings such tranformation of experience, and translation of imagined realities, to the literary table. Still, “things that really happened” offers an undeniable primal, narrative draw for readers. Alice Munro, in her 1982 essay “What is Real?” addressed the fiction writer’s dilemma:

Whenever people get an opportunity to ask me questions about my writing, I can be sure that some of the questions will be these:

‘Do you write about real people?’

‘Did those things really happen?’  . . .

Writers answer such questions patiently or crossly according to temperament and the mood they’re in. They say, ‘No, you must understand, my characters are composites; those things didn’t happen the way I wrote about them . . .

Later in the essay, Munro concludes: “Yes, I use bits of what is real, in the sense of being really there and really happening, in the world, as most people see it, and I transform it into something that is really there, and really happening in my story.”

In the end, it’s this sort of literary juncture—where nonfiction writers feel awkward and fiction writers misunderstood, where debate and argument reign—that great work can be accomplished.  After all, a mostly true story, transformed, has a certain kind of sex appeal to modern writers as well. As 3QR author B.J. Hollars puts it: When I write, I am often pigeonholed into genre; I am writing either an essay or a story.  But what makes The Three Quarter Review unique is that it actively encourages the blurring of genre. Yes, we are recounting truths, but we are also acknowledging the multiple versions of that truth. In some ways, we hope to create a Fifth Genre: The Three Quarter True Story. Because, regardless of category, art is sparked when writers capture visceral truths—tactile details and verity of emotion—that make up this Magic Realist Existence we call life.

The Three Quarter Review was launched as the cornerstone of The Three Quarter Story literary project, a five-year online journal and literary event culminating in The Daniel Defoe Writing Contest and a print book 3QTrue: The Three Quarter Story. The journal showcases stories, poems, and essays that allow writers to stretch out a bit. While welcoming work that is fully accurate in all factual and emotional content, 3QR is also a venue for stories told as truly as possible, with the understanding that we can rarely know anything 100 percent.

— Joanne Cavanaugh Simpson, March 2012 / Updated November 2016

3QR Staff

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One comment on “3QR: FREE TO PASS by Joanne Cavanaugh Simpson

  1. can’t wait to offer a story wtg joanne

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