E.L. Doctorow’s short-lived reporting career started (and ended) with a journalism course in high school, when one of his assignments was about to run in the school paper.
A lively, detailed interview with a Carnegie Hall doorman, the story got taken off the budget when the future novelist’s scruples got the best of him. Asked to go take a photograph of his subject, Doctorow tried to get out of it, saying he wasn’t a good photographer and couldn’t pay the subway fare, but he finally fessed up: “I hemmed and hawed and of course had to confess there was no such doorman—that I had made it up.”
The incident, of course, didn’t dissuade Doctorow from including fabrications in his future writings. The American novelist, who passed away on July 21 at the age of 84, seamlessly blended fact with fiction in his many award-winning historical fiction novels, including 1975’s “Ragtime.” That book, set in early 20th-century New York, weaves real-life figures from Harry Houdini to J.P. Morgan into its fictional plot.
“You were never sure what Mr. Doctorow was reporting and what he was making up,” noted Charles W. Bailey, then-editor of the Minneapolis Tribune, at a Nieman seminar featuring the novelist in 1977, two years after “Ragtime” was published. Doctorow had come to Harvard to speak about his novel with Fellows past and present, as well as other journalists. Among those in attendance were Anthony Lewis, the two time Pulitzer winner who was then writing a biweekly opinion column for The New York Times; Robert Manning, editor of The Atlantic; and J. Anthony Lukas, who went on to write the narrative nonfiction masterpiece “Common Ground,” which won a Pulitzer in 1986.
Throughout the seminar, the novelist–much to the chagrin of some of those he was in conversation with–asserted that journalists, historians, and novelists operated on the same continuum, all entwining some degree of fiction with truth.
“I would probably start, for the purpose of argument, by defining a journalist as a writer of fiction who doesn’t acknowledge that he’s making things up,” said Doctorow. “There is really no fiction or non-fiction; there is only narrative. One mode of perception has no greater claim on the truth than the other; that the difference has to do perhaps with distance—narrative distance—from the characters; it has to do with the kind of voice that is talking, but it certainly hasn’t to do with the common distribution between fact and imagination. I believe everything in ‘Ragtime’ is true.”
And, if he had been given the chance, Doctorow would gladly have taken that fine line between reality and fantasy and put it in the pages of America’s newspaper of public record: “I have a fantasy about The New York Times,” said the novelist. “This is what it is: that on a day when [Anthony] Lewis’ column is not scheduled to appear, The New York Times is published–distributed to all of us–and I have written it all. If I could get Punch Sulzberger to agree to issue the paper as written in its entirety by me, on just one day, I would spend many, many years preparing that particular city edition. And I would consider it–it would be my life’s work.”
A transcript of the full seminar, moderated by then-curator James C. Thomson, Jr., ran in the Summer-Autumn 1977 issue of Nieman Reports and had been reproduced here:
A Seminar with E.L. Doctorow and Joseph Papaleo
James C. Thomson, Jr.: I first met Joe Papaleo some years ago on a tennis court—we are neighbors and friends on Cape Cod. Mr. Papaleo has many distinctions: he is Chairman of the English Department at Sarah Lawrence; he has authored acouple of novels that were published, some others that weren’t perhaps—
Joseph Papaleo: Well, that’s what I’m going to talk about—
Thomson: Joe Papaleo is at work on a novel, a fiction version of the Sacco-Vanzetti case, and he had the good sense, some years ago, to hire for Sarah Lawrence College a guy named Doctorow—
Papaleo: Who’s been of no help—
Thomson: Does he ever show up for his classes?
Papaleo: Well, he showed up after I made the mistake—
Thomson: Anyway, I thought that since we had Ed Doctorow as well as Joe Papaleo, we would ask Ed Doctorow to respond to Joe’s opening comment since Joe was his Department Chairman and hirer. And the question we ‘ll begin with, as advertised on the menu, is “History as Fiction”—the creation of false documents.
Our two distinguished outsiders who are going to talk about literature or the problem of trying to write are willing to operate under what I call the “Polish formula” which is liberum veto. The reason why Poland never succeeded as a nation was that every man in the Polish Parliament had a veto on every proposition, and that’s why Poland is barely alive.
Liberum veto means that we will have a transcript of these proceedings kept in a locked safe and we will distribute them to anyone who has raised their voice and is identified, and you can say, No—out! We will then publish in the most famous magazine in the country—beloved Nieman Reports—please subscribe—we love it—and we need you. End of spiel. Are we ready? Joe Papaleo, why are you here?
Papaleo: A couple of years ago I made the mistake of getting the idea of a piece of fiction based on the Sacco-Vanzetti case. I had written what my editor called ethnic fiction for a very long time, and I had hoped to write about two Italian radicals, turning to fiction. And I made the mistake of going to where they lived and to the Harvard Law Library where I kept finding facts which had not been known about Sacco-Vanzetti, and being energized by the facts, as if the facts would make fiction. I would then write a few chapters and my fiction editors would read the chapters and say, This is all facts. I was very confused as to what I was doing, and then slowly discovered that my imagination was being, in some way, cancelled out or depressed, and the confusion was that I was assuming that the energy of the new facts was the kind of energy that fiction writers get, that is like vibrations, to create fiction.
An example is that I met Rose Sacco’s best friend, who told me that Mrs. Sacco was alive and was living in Watertown, and I could see her; and I was about to see her when I met Ed Doctorow who told me, Stop—you do too much and you’re finished. He began to speak of his research and how he had a chance to meet, I think, a close friend of Emma Goldman—and he stopped himself. I think I had already done too much. I wish I had met him on the path earlier, but I hadn’t.
So I’ve been thinking a great deal about that phenomenon which we all know, which is the imagination. How does one light it up, for fictional purposes, from historical information? This particular genre, which is getting popular and which has been popular for a long time, has been a stimulus for fiction for many, many hundreds of years and has a revival now, with Truman Capote, or with Norman Mailer. Fiction writers are trying to discover their identity in these ways. In the case of political figures, I borrow a statement from Ed Doctorow—we have in America an amnesia about a lot of our radicals. It was the discovery of the anarchists, the Italian anarchists, who were alive and were talking to me, right out here in Needham, that confused me in terms of the creation of fiction. So I begin by presenting the fact that I have a problem; and I’ve finally gone back to the oldest form of fiction—to letters.
“I would probably start, for the purpose of argument, by defining a journalist as a writer of fiction who doesn’t acknowledge that he’s making things up.”
Thomson: So this will be an epistolary presentation?
Papaleo: Partially an epistolary presentation—yes, and an attempt to base it on the character of Vanzetti and on all the study I’ve done—what we call research.
Thomson: Ed, would you like to try to elaborate on this problem you face?
E.L. Doctorow: It is true; I am guilty; I did say to Joe that it was dangerous to know too much. The teaching of fiction writing in American colleges usually includes the admonition to the student: “Write about what you know.” What is implied is that you can only know things that you’ve experienced, that you have seen and witnessed. And of course, I don’t think the writer of fiction is restricted by that. He can put himself in other skins, he can imagine what he has to know. He knows things in an intuitive manner. A fact doesn’t mean that much to him, unless it’s very beautiful in itself and resonates within him, in which case he can put it down, as he discovers it. But if it’s not right, he can change it. This kind of thinking preceded scientific enlightenment and empiricism.
That is why I told my friend Joe Papaleo that it might be a mistake to see Mrs. Sacco. Just by thinking as a novelist, he could know everything she could tell him—possibly more. I would probably start, for the purpose of argument, by defining a journalist as a writer of fiction who doesn’t acknowledge that he’s making things up.
Someone asked me the other day if I’d ever done any journalism. And I suddenly remembered that I had a course in journalism at the Bronx High School of Science. And I sort of learned how to write a lead—is that what you call it? During the semester we got an assignment to do an interview and I took that assignment to heart and I turned in an interview with the stage doorman at Carnegie Hall. He was a lovable old man who, of course, had immense knowledge of musical literature and knew all the great artists, and he wore a blue serge double-breasted jacket and floppy brown pants and worn-down shoes, and he was a refugee from Hitler’s Europe—and the teacher read my interview with the kindly old doorman whom all the artists knew and loved. She said, This is absolutely terrific. I think we ought to get a picture of him and run this in the school newspaper.
I said, Well, I didn’t know how to take pictures. And then she said, Well, we have this marvelous photography student; he’ll go down with you.
And I said, Well, I don’t know if I can go down. It’s a subway ride and I don’t have the fare. And I hemmed and hawed and of course I had to confess that there was no such doorman—that I had made him up.
I suddenly realize I don’t know why I’m telling this story. Only I suppose that my fate was decided at that point. If there wasn’t a terrific old doorman at Carnegie Hall, there should have been. For all I know, there now is. But what were we talking about?
Diana Thomson: You were talking about the problem with using fact and fiction. We’ve had terrible trouble with that in Ragtime.
“For a fiction writer, history simply is a source of imagery”
Doctorow: The truth of the matter is that to get a book going, you have to achieve a degree of irresponsibility that, once it comes upon you—and you’re very lucky if it does—any such thing as truth in the factual sense is very destructive to your enterprise. But somewhere along the line, usually toward the end of the book, you realize that people are going to start asking questions and so you have these little discussions with yourself. You begin to defend your book and you begin to justify it and discover rationales for it—maybe if you’re lucky—a whole aesthetic.
I had done that and a few people here heard it—Justin and Anne Kaplan have been through this before, but it’s the proposition that there is really no fiction or non-fiction; there is only narrative; and that there are obviously ways to distinguish between the two- fiction and non-fiction—but certainly not in terms of verifiable truth; one mode of perception has no greater claim on truth than the other; that the difference has to do perhaps with distance—narrative distance—from the characters; it has to do with the kind of voice that is talking, but it certainly hasn’t to do with the common distribution between fact and imagination. I believe everything in Ragtime is true.
Papaleo: I wanted to say, Ed is suggesting with Ragtime, a new kind of lying.
Doctorow: For a fiction writer, history simply is a source of imagery—images. He can organize these images and arrange them within the compositions that satisfy him.
On the other hand, if you think about it, historians do the same thing, only with a greater degree of distance toward their material. I wish Bernstein and Woodward had not stuck to the factual detections of investigative reporters. By doing that, it could be argued that they lent themselves for cover up. With the highest scruples of investigative reporting, they ran into the limits of the form. If they had taken off from what they knew they might have gotten a greater, more comprehensive understanding of exactly what happened.
Jack E. White, Jr.: Is it the case, though, that you were just having a good time when you were writing Ragtime? What you’re coming up with now is all the stuff that you came up with to answer the questions that you thought people were going to put to you because you write about Harry Houdini and Henry Ford and Sigmund Freud. And if that’s the case, why are you repeating yourself? Why don’t you tell us about what you were really thinking about when you wrote the book?
Doctorow: What I was really thinking about happens to be on the page. Of course I was having a good time. What kind of a puritanical society is this that a writer can’t have a good time?
White: I was having a good time reading, that’s why I’m asking you. I figured if you had all these things on your mind when you were writing a book, you probably would produce a rotten book and I don’t think you did.
Doctorow: You know, you do all sorts of things to get your work done. For instance, you can see just how shaky a writer is and just how far over the edge of the cliff he is, but how much that title he keeps repeating is pulling him back; he says the title of the book he’s doing to keep himself from falling. And so you use anything you can to get yourself through the day, and to get the book done. You can use the title, you can invent an aesthetic, you can write a manifesto, you can go to a bar and talk to other writers.
These are all ways you have of getting your work done, they’re all justifiable in personal terms, if you finish the book.
Charles W. Bailey: We’re dealing with a couple of continuums here, it seems to me. The one that has been suggested by Ed Doctorow anent journalists and historians has upset some people within my hearing, but there’s also a continuum between non-journalists and novelists, and you’ve got a room full of people here tonight who have played around with different parts of that continuum.
Tony Lukas has written probably the best book about Watergate. Who’s to say what’s truth and fiction? Tony Lewis has written about Clarence Earl Gideon and the right to counsel; and it might have been a part in a novel about the military overthrow of the government; and who’s to say that that’s all fiction these days? I do think that you should be loose about where you’re at on that continuum. It is one of the good things for writers in this period that the reader can’t be sure where he is at. Don’t sweat it. One of the nice things about Ragtime is that it ran the reader back and forth across that continuum. You were never sure what Mr. Doctorow was reporting and what he was making up. That is wise, after all. That’s the end of my observation.
Dolph C. Simons, Jr.: Chuck, doesn’t Capote—in In Cold Blood—purport to quote verbatim comments from the court or from the head of the Bureau of Investigation or the warden or scenes in Leavenworth which the reader is supposed to take as a verbatim conversation? Whereas in Ragtime, the way I read it, we’re not supposed to assume that this is a specific quote of a specific person that can be checked against history.
Bailey: I think that Doctorow has an advantage that Capote didn’t have here, in that Doctorow was dealing with something that happened 60 years ago.
Simons: But Ragtime makes no attempt to pass that stuff off as verbatim—
Bailey: Does In Cold Blood? You think that because it happened yesterday, it has to be verbatim?
Simons: I thought that Capote tried to indicate that this was indeed what was said and going on, as in Bernstein and Woodward—what the facts in the situation actually were.
Bailey: I think maybe Ed is a little unfair to Bernstein and Woodward, because I think that all they were trying to do was to capitalize on some work they had done for The Washington Post and make a lot of money out of it. There was nothing wrong with that—not a goddam thing is wrong with a reporter trying to get rich as long as he tells the truth. And later comes the chance to take off and to swing with it. They were doing some non-fictional things there that were very important, I think, and putting their stories together into a book.
Anthony Lewis: Well, I feel that it’s almost intrusive to ask a novelist, unlike a journalist, what are the sources of his writings; why he wrote something—it’s really none of our business in a way—but here we are. The thing that strikes me, not only about Ragtime, but about those other books—if I’m wrong I hope you will correct me—is their very political character. I wondered if you’ll just say something about whether you feel and I’ve already apologized for asking such a question but I’m driven to it—whether you have felt in all your novels that there is some general political theme or point of view—more so than many novelists—that you are expressing.
“What kind of a puritanical society is this that a writer can’t have a good time?”
Doctorow: A novelist is thought to be a political novelist only when the politics of his novel are not the prevailing politics of his society. Then the politics stand out. We could discuss as a proposition the idea that all novels are political; all art is political, which seems to be endorsed in most countries of the world where the profession of novelist or artist is slightly more dangerous than that of high speed automobile racing. We have novelists who are put in insane asylums, who are tortured and put in cages, who are exiled. What does the rest of the world know that we don’t know, about fiction and about art? I’ve often made the observation that this is one of the few countries in the history of western civilization in which artists are not seen to be a danger to the state.
There is a Yale historian, you’ll forgive me for mentioning Yale, a man named Robbin Winks, I believe, who went back and read the dog stories of Albert Payson Terhune of a few years ago, and discovered something astonishing. Albert Terhune was a very popular author who produced a long string of books about dogs. Bob, Son of Battle was one of them. Do any of you remember Bob, Son of Battle? What Winks discovered is that all of these hero dogs were white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant dogs who defended the rather luxurious property of white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant homeowners. They heroically leaped at the throats of intruders, rapists, mad men, criminals and perverts, who were invariably black or Asiatic. Albert Payson Terhune is a highly political novelist. There’s no question about that. But I didn’t know that when I read Bob, Son of Battle.
There is an aestheticism in this country, which Saul Bellow talks about a little bit in Humboldt’s Gift, I think—a way of dealing with moral questions as if they were subject to aesthetic criteria. This is a point of view from which I dissociate myself, but it would define, for instance, the English department where Joseph Conrad is taught without reference to his highly conservative politics, or Dostoevsky without reference to his messianic conservatism, or James, or any of these highly political novelists. What the teachers talk about is the human condition, or the structure of the novel or stuff like that.
But there are writers around today who cannot be dealt with on strictly aesthetic terms, like this chap from Iran who was put in prison and tortured and is testifying wherever he can as a witness against the Shah’s secret police, Savak. Or Solzhenitsyn, whom we regard critically as a bad writer, but who nevertheless has things to say about the Gulag Archipelago that more or less transcend these normal critical, aesthetic responses.
And I think I am a political novelist although I don’t know exactly what my politics are—perhaps reformist Democratic with anarcho-socialist pretensions; but we have a peculiar way of containing our writers in this country, which is not to grant them any politics at all. So I guess what I’m saying is, thank you for recognizing me.
Monroe Engel: I was going to ask Mr. Doctorow whether he really wanted to go on making statements about the entire history of the novel or whether he wanted to talk about what he was doing himself. Because if he was going to stay on the entire history of the novel, I doubt that too much knowledge has been a disadvantage—I think that’s at least arguable.
If he’s going to talk about what I think is the much more interesting question of how he has found his own imagination can be energized, that’s something different. I’m much more interested in having him talk about the second question than the first, and that’s what I think Tony’s question is about. If he wants to keep the historical context open to say that he really is talking about what has happened in the history of fiction, he can make that choice and I would like to know it.
Engel: Well, let me ask it more directly. Are you talking about Balzac or Dickens or—?
Thomson: Nobody talked about Defoe. I don’t understand.
John E. Painter, Jr.: I have a question. Why did you decide to marry off an anarchist and a capitalist with a sort of unhappy and disaffected middle-aged housewife from New Rochelle?
Doctorow: Why not? It just worked out that way.
I appreciate the question about the kinds of things that energize my imagination. That’s really a very astute question. I don’t know. I think if I knew too well, it would be bad for me.
Painter: There was an incident in your book when the anarchist passed through New York and was going through New Rochelle and the little girl saw a little boy on the street, where you could have taken a different turn in your development and end up having the little girl marry the little boy, instead of the mother and the father.
Doctorow: Mailer would say on this imaginary shelf on either side of the novel as it is written, is the novel just to the left of it which could have been written, and the novel just to the right of it which could have been written.
Rodney Decker: I’d like to ask both gentlemen: it seems to me the work of both of you deals with judgments—judgments that we reach about people, about times, and about ages. Now, I’m suspicious of judgments where the person who judges doesn’t somehow get down on his hands and knees, doesn’t stoop into human detritus, and look at the facts that maybe are there, but ought not to have been there. And yet you reach rather specific judgments on these things—or it seems to me that you do—and could you comment on that please? Both of you.
Papaleo: I’m not quite sure what he’s saying.
Decker: Are you talking about Sacco and Vanzetti? I should guess that the question is, did they do it? I should guess that that has to deal with facts that are facts.
Papaleo: The fictional part of Sacco-Vanzetti, which I haven’t got yet, reminds me of what Ed was saying about Bernstein and Woodward. It’s not the facts of what happened, it’s the horribly bad taste of Richard Nixon, or the vulgarity of John Dean. Those aspects of character which resemble—forgive a word like hubris—that’s what the fiction writer’s looking for and in that, you get the truth, rather than the facts which, when they pile up too much, don’t even make the truth, or obscure it, as Ed was suggesting in the case of Woodward and Bernstein.
Decker: It’s exactly that suggestion that distresses me a bit. That somehow we’re going to write about Sacco and Vanzetti and we hope we’re going to write movingly. So that after the people have read it, they will say, It was this way or it was that way, and we should feel strongly about it. And yet we don’t want to know the facts, somehow. If I were to talk to a judge or a jury who have had that attitude, or to a historian, I would be distressed. Why shouldn’t I be distressed talking to a novelist?
Papaleo: Forgive me. I spent six months in the Harvard Law Library. I read all the letters, all the unpublished letters, all the six volumes of the case. I know so many facts. You don’t mean that. That’s not the—
Decker: Why, then, didn’t you go talk to the lady?
Papaleo: Why didn’t I talk to Mrs. Sacco?
Decker: —Because she would have had more facts—
Richard C. Wald: My question was along the same lines, but triggered by something that Mr. Doctorow said. I think I am one of those people on the continuum that Chuck Baily talked about who see the craft of the novelist as dealing with common matter with different tools. And my question would be, at what point is a fact intransigent; at what point is it that there has to be a real archipelago or there has to be a prison camp? At what point is it that there has to have been a J.P. Morgan, and he wasn’t black? Where is the point at which the fact needs to be revealed, as different from the point at which you can play with the pieces?
Doctorow: That’s the key question. There are some facts as, for instance, the facts of what the Nazis did in Europe in the 1930s and 40s that have this intransigent quality that you speak of, in the face of which too facile a statement about the indistinguishability of fact from fiction is really appalling. But if the Nazis had won the war the facts of the death of six million Jews would now be construed quite differently. I think what I’m saying to Joe is—that it’s possible that there’s a certain kind of non-factual witness which doesn’t destroy the facts or lie about them or change them, but in some peculiar way illuminates them. That’s what we’re talking about. It is the kind of muscle that novelists and poets develop, which in a—well, I think of what Henry James said about it. He said, If you have a young woman who has led a very sheltered life and she happens to walk past the army barracks and hear a fragment of conversation among the soldiers coming through the window, she can then, if she is a novelist, go home and write a novel about army life.And that’s what I’m talking about. There are different sources of knowledge—one of a fact can be enough for a novelist to intuit an entire life.
Simons: Does that bother you?
Bailey: Yes, I’d like to ask you a technical question. What was the last thing or person that you took out of Ragtime before it was published? What was the last piece of whittling that you did—of editing you did—to remove an element from the story before it was in final version?
Doctorow: I remember very clearly a major bit of editing. It was a chapter in Ragtime in which Houdini put on his act for the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. After he flew the plane and landed, he was then invited to do a command performance in a hunting lodge in the Black Forest. Houdini did this performance and then warned the Archduke that his life was in danger, whereupon he was immediately wrestled to the floor by the Archduke’s people, thrown into jail, and accused of being an anarchist. I really enjoyed writing that chapter.
Bailey: Why did you take it out?
Doctorow: I took it out because I couldn’t—once that chapter was done—I couldn’t then write past it. It was a good chapter, it pleased me, but it stopped me cold.
Bailey: Was that because you couldn’t then get him out of jail?
Doctorow: Partially. Mostly it was that I had violated the voice of the book, or the narrative distance, that I had come in a little too close, that I had put myself in the position of having to plot, and that’s not what this book was about. It did not have a plot. And so I took out that chapter; and saved some of the tricks for Houdini’s appearance later in New Rochelle.
J. Anthony Lukas: Who is the hero of Ragtime? I ask because in another celebrated Playboy interview, Robert Altman says it is Tateh. Who do you think it was?
Doctorow: I don’t know. I’ve never thought about it. Tateh becomes an American success story, but at the expense of his socialist principles. I don’ t know if that’s heroism. He becomes a movie maker, which is what Bob Altman is. Maybe that’s why Bob likes him.
Paul Solman: What you said about political journalism and all that business still disturbs me. The guy who comes around and testifies about the Shah of Iran’s Savak, is it all right with you personally that when he bears witness about this situation, he makes it up—what the torture methods are and so forth?
Doctorow: I think what’s critical here is the extent to which his art will propose to you that you are being tortured. Because if he just tells you what happened, of if he espouses political ideology, or shows you his scars, that would be a certain kind of truth. But if he writes so as to persuade you that you had gone through this with him, then what he has done is true.
Solman: A lot depends on context, I grant. But if Baraheni says to me if he meets me in conversation, or at an event where he is describing what happened and what they do in Iran, isn’t he making some kind of implicit pact with me that he is telling me as best he can what events actually transpired? Do you not see that as an important distinction?
Doctorow: I think we hear things all the time, from all sources, yet we live in states, most of us, of moral insensitivity. So the question of the writer, whether he is a journalist or writer of fiction or poet whatever, is: How am I going to get through to you what I know to be true? And no matter what he’s experienced or what he’s been through, he has no way of reaching you, paradoxically, unless he really knows how to write; and it’s true that that talent, that gift, can be used and this guy can be going around saying terribly mean, nasty things about the Shah of Iran.
Solman: Well, I’m not really worried about the Shah. I’m worried about what happens, how he immobilizes people, if people then find out that what he said was not literally the case.
Doctorow: The point is if he’s telling us something we didn’t know before, we can act on it, we can verify it; but we won’t unless we’ve really been moved by what he said.
Brenda Engel: I guess I’d say that perhaps a continuum is not from fact and fiction so much as from public to private knowledge, that fiction has always been based on people’s lives, on things that are true, from Dickens to Balzac to Saul Bellow. Some of these characters happen not to have been publicly known, as Emma Goldman, for instance. But it doesn’t mean that they weren’t real. I find the two were rather confused in Ragtime, because my husband is a cousin of Harry Houdini. You know, a little fiction, a little fact, the private world and the public world are mixing. In the case of In Cold Blood, Truman Capote made private characters, who had perhaps some notoriety or some publicity, into well-known people. But I have a feeling that because we’re in a meeting of journalists, these dichotomies are in the world that most of us know, in the world of public figures.
“We have a peculiar way of containing our writers in this country, which is not to grant them any politics at all.”
Marc Granetz: I have been very upset about the idea of trying to energize a writer by use of facts. R.V. Cassill, among others, has said that clearly the search of modern fiction is for subject matter. The historical novel, since perhaps In Cold Blood, is in a modern revival—providing that “matter.” Defoe did, but he didn’t do very much with it. This modern revival of historical facts (not knowing too much and then taking off on the facts) provides motivation for a writer or fodder for his fiction when he can’t really work on pure imagination. You said you want to tell the truth as you know it. But do you need as a basis Sacco-Vanzetti, or something else actual to begin to tell the truth as you know it; actually, then, in fact as the modern public knows it? I see it as a little bit of failure of imagination. Maybe I’m completely wrong.
Doctorow: No, you may be right. That has occurred to me too; it’s a pretty good point. I don’t know, I resist any such thing as an aesthetic manifesto, for once you’ve done something, you claim, well, this is the way to do it, the only way to do it. Really, I think a novelist writes what he’s capable of writing at any given moment; and this is the book I seem to have been able to do, so I did it. And it really is that physical a thing. You just press on and where it’s possible to move forward, you do, and that’s what turns into the book. If it’s any good you will have broken somebody’s rules. Of course War and Peace has Napoleon in it, which may be a failure of Tolstoy’s imagination.
I’m coming to the conclusion that one of the reasons today’s fiction writers are not read terribly widely is because we constrain ourselves. Writers of fiction come out of a very specific class in this society—the middle class. And we do not know what’s happening anywhere in this country. We do not know what it feels like to mine coal or to be on welfare and most of us are recording our middle class marriages and failures and divorces as if somehow that’s the whole world and that’s what’s happening. It may be a failure of imagination to begin to use history, or the materials of history, but at least I didn’t write a book about growing up shy in the middle west.
Thomson: Or sharks—
Painter: Are you going to do a Son of Ragtime?
Papaleo: We’re forgetting something—and forgive this textbookish sound—the truth, and the truth of Ragtime is the book—the book of fiction. It’s not really Harry Houdini or really anything. It’s the metaphor it makes. In fiction it’s the whole big metaphor it makes, which operates as a separate world from which we get another word about this present moment: the truth. And that is something which doesn’t depend upon facts.
Bailey: No, that’s absolutely right, though. You write something and somebody says to you afterwards, Wow, how did you figure that out? How did you know that was an important subject? And you’re absolutely helpless because you can’t say to them, Well, we thought it was a good story.
Comment: Right. But there were these intuitive sources that you referred to …
Bailey: But you can’t say that. That’s not a respectable thing to say to a newspaper editor.
Painter: We have a short comment. There’s a wonderful quote from Picasso that we artists lie in order to be able to tell the truth. And it seems to me that’s what he’s saying.
Thomson: Jimmy Carter says if you never lie, you’ll never tell the truth.
Melvin Goo: Mr. Doctorow, to what extent, if any, would you care for a reporter writing for a daily metropolitan newspaper to move away from the seemingly pedestrian calling of just writing about the facts that he finds?
Doctorow: Oh, I would really love that. As a matter of fact, I have a fantasy about The New York Times and this is what it is: that on a day when Tony Lewis’ column is not scheduled to appear, The New York Times is published—distributed to all of us—and I have written it all. If I could get Punch Sulzberger to agree to issue the paper as written in its entirety by me, on just one day, I would spend many, many years preparing that particular city edition. And I would consider it—it would be my life’s work.
Bailey: But the question is, would you be willing to do it in the constraints of time and place, or whether you would get enough for me to do it with you in your way, so that it would have that immediacy and that truth of being the take-off on what happened.
Doctorow: It would be designed to blow us Times readers right off the street.
Thomson: Are you going to start at eight o’clock in the morning of the day when that happens? If you do it, then what happens? Then you can’t write it. You’ve got to be there. I want to know some day what writing fiction did for you, I mean seriously.
Doctorow: It puts my kids through college …
Engel: I want Mr. Doctorow to go on if he will with something he started talking about—that is, you said that all novels now are written by middle class writers, and that’s true, but hasn’t that always been true? And if it hasn’t always been true, then I am wrong. But if it has always been true, what makes that different now?
Doctorow: It probably always has been true. But I find it hard to call Edgar Allen Poe a member of the middle class, or Herman Melville.
Robert Manning: Is that a personal difficulty, or a matter of fact?
Doctorow: It has probably always been true. But I live now, and that’s the way I feel about things now: that we’re all sort of doing this stuff that’s fairly useless and there are a lot of people around the country who we don’t know about and who are not educated and not college graduates, and who don’t belong to the Book of the Month Club and own two cars, and so on.
I look at a guy like James T. Farrell, who really is terribly neglected by the Academy, by the critics for many, many years, a writer who lacks grace in the academic sense of the word, but he nevertheless reported about the lower and lower middle classes in Chicago in the 1920s, or Dreiser, who talked about working girls and their rise and fall; or Richard Wright, who talked about the terrifying isolation of black people and their frustration, and the lower classes.
I don’t really know who’s around today who’s doing that kind of recording. We all seem to be novelists for the Republican Party. That’s why I’m feeling very happy that we have a new administration—I mean, just from a working writer’s point of view, the national psychology is going to change over the next few years. I don’t know what is going to happen, but it could lead to a very different kind of novel.
Engel: I think that’s right. Can you go on with that? But then what is the middle class novel supposed to do? I mean, we’re not likely to get novels from anything other than middle class novelists. And that’s why I want you to talk about the particular situation now. How is that material to come in? Where do you see it coming from?
Wald: It doesn’t matter where the writers come from. If writers are novelists, and this pure young girl can walk by the barracks and intuit Army life, and write a novel about it, it doesn’t matter where she comes from. It doesn’t matter whether the novelist comes from the middle class; the middle class like everything else is right in the middle. But it matters what is the style or subject matter, what is the intention of intellect? And it seems to me that there are styles, there are Chicago schools, and there are Paris realists. What you are talking about is how does politics set the style? How does a generation direct its mind? If you don’t see the proletarian literature now produced by the middle class, isn’t it because people aren’t paying attention to the proletarians, not because there are no writers who are proletarians?
Doctorow: Yes, I agree with that. That’s why I think that if Washington begins to attend to some of our terrible built-in problems, there will be a change probably in the kind of art that is being done, not just fiction, but the other arts as well.
Question: Are you sure about that?
Doctorow: I think we are all highly subject to things like climates of opinion or national psychological states.
Hennie van Deventer: I have a very stupid question to ask, but since we have been carrying on at such a high intellectual level, I feel—
Thomson: Watch out! Watch out!
van Deventer: I don’t even know if this is true of America, but surely it is very true about the country where I come from—I mean South Africa—that so many extremely good journalists turn out to be very rotten novelists, and so very many extremely good novelists turn out to be extremely rotten journalists. I would like to hear your comment on that observation.
Bailey: That’s a long-range question.
Doctorow: I’ll answer anything.
Thomson: Would you like to begin with Allen Drury?
Comment: Journalism destroys the imagination.
Doctorow: I’m not sure I agree.
Jose Antonio Martinez-Soler: Fiction is a kind of censorship. Well, I come from Spain—
Papaleo: Where the reverse is always true. Journalism distorts the sense.
Doctorow: I think that there used to be a tradition in this country if the novelist coming out of the journalist. It doesn’t really exist any more. Maybe there is some connection today with what we were talking about, the middle class novelist, who knows about the middle class life, and the fact that so many novelists today teach in universities and do not come out of newspaper work. It occurred to me before, during the dinner, that novelists are no longer the culture heroes they once were—except to journalists.
Tony Castro: The other day I was talking with some one who was saying that for a long time in the history of American literature there has been this great expectation of when are we going to get the great American novel, and he said it is all based on the premise that the novel has to be the form of any great literature in our day. That may not be the pace that James Agee set, as Agee’s letters to Father Flye were better than even his novel, and maybe even his book on the sharecroppers. Are you not also suggesting that it may be the case that the loss of the cool, cool status, that the novelist might have had, may have been a false kind of thing—that the American novelist has been living in the past with European novelists, Russian novelists?
“Nothing can be written that hasn’t happened—if it hasn’t happened, it will.”
Doctorow: Yes, except that if you examine the history of novelists, you discover that the novel has never quite been the primary act of culture that it is supposed to be. And that novelists have always lied about themselves and what they were doing in an attempt to get a kind of authority for their work. From the very beginning, as I often say, Daniel Defoe pretended to be the editor of Robinson Crusoe. He claimed it was really a memoir—that he had only sort of fixed up the punctuation, which is approximately what Richard Nixon said about the Watergate case. He took the same position. A really interesting thing about Nixon, I think, is that he was trying to make a composition and he almost did it, through all those months, and our fascination was that of people watching an artist at work. Fortunately, his novel failed terribly.
Justin Kaplan: Well, I have a combination—a question and a comment here. Ed Doctorow and I have been over some of this ground before. Of course, the question has to do with a piece of very shaky information I have, and that is, How would it bother your reading of Albert Payson Terhune as a political novelist if it were true that Terhune grossly mistreated his dogs? Which, I believe, was true.
Doctorow: I recognize the intentional fallacy.
Kaplan: All right, call it what you will. You and Joe, in talking about Sacco and Vanzetti, may have come to grips with the real thing. I think that, reduced to a very simple statement, it means a helluvalot to me whether Auschwitz actually happened or was simply imagined by someone. I think that once you begin forgetting that distinction, you’re in terrible trouble, or I am, anyway.
Doctorow: That’s of course, exactly the point. But would you grant me the right to write about Auschwitz, even though I had never been there?
Kaplan: I think you’re sidestepping your question.
I think it has to do not with your credibility or credentials as an eyewitness but with the literal, historical existence of the circumstances, which are not dependent upon whether you were there or not.
Doctorow: Nothing can be written that hasn’t happened—if it hasn’t happened, it will. Emerson, I think, said anything that can be thought can be written. If I imagine Auschwitz, then someone else can. Hitler imagined Auschwitz and look what happened. The imagination, the human mind, intrudes on life and composes experience all the time. It kills and makes history.
Bailey: Can I ask what may be a clarifying question? Are you suggesting that by fictionalizing something like Auschwitz, you diminish the perception of its reality?
Kaplan: Not really, but what I was suggesting is once you fictionalize actual circumstances, you begin to turn to the realm of pure invention. Then I think you undermine a terribly important reality. I’m not quarreling of course with anyone’s right to write fiction.
Bailey: I think you are answering my question, Yes, though.
Kaplan: I wasn’t aware of it.
Bailey: I’m not arguing with the fictionalizing, if by fictionalizing J.P. Morgan or Auschwitz, or Harry Houdini, or whatever, you undermine the perception of the reality of the real thing.
Kaplan: You don’t though. You don’t necessarily.
Simons: Undermine the reality, or the truth?
“The imagination, the human mind, intrudes on life and composes experience all the time. It kills and makes history.”
Lewis: I have a different question. Mr. Doctorow, I thought I heard you say a moment ago—or maybe I might have just got it wrong—that fiction would become more radical, or socially challenging, with a more socially-challenging administration taking office. You said something like that, didn’t you? We’re going to have to have a change in administration and maybe fiction will follow. That strikes me as a rather amazing notion, since I thought it was the other way around—that during reactionary periods in politics it was the writers of fiction who challenged the assumptions, whether it was Dickens, or Orwell or whoever.
Doctorow: Why do you think we have a new administration?
Thomson: We have one real live American historian present, Frank Freidel, who has not been heard from. Does he want to say something?
Frank Freidel: I’m counting journalists as historians tonight.
Thomson: No, you’re not historians. You’re journalists.
Diana Thomson: I have a possible difference. The way Ragtime deals with reality is different from the way Joe is trying to deal with reality with Sacco and Vanzetti. Because Sacco and Vanzetti is a whole, continuous, real narrative, and his problem is how to use which parts of it properly so it still stays real but is sufficiently interesting. Whereas Ragtime doesn’t pretend to be a whole, coherent fictional reality. It’s really made up of a character here, and a character here, and a character here, and they’re sort of put together which may be the most exciting thing about it—to read about characters who have been exciting your imagination for years, suddenly in there together, working together. And really, Ragtime is a lot more imaginative, I think, than you are giving it credit for. You’re assuming it’s a piece of journalism that’s been fictionalized and I think that it is something a lot more creative and a lot more different than that.
Freidel: I would say one thing. I think you gave Joe very bad advice, because you’ve got facts, facts, facts, and if you get to Sacco’s widow, you will get feeling, which could stimulate his imagination.
I have never written a piece of fiction in my life, or at least I’ve never published a piece of fiction, but I do have a feeling that there would be great stimulus in terms of the emotions—feelings—because what I find as an historian, and after all I’m trying to recreate also, is that often through talking to people one gets totally a different perception.
Take Herbert Hoover, for example, notorious for his very dry as dust speeches. One didn’t get that feeling when one talked to Hoover, the feeling there was one of dealing with somebody who had been a simple country boy in Iowa, because he had an Iowa idiom. That never came through in anything he wrote, and yet it came through in his conversations.
So when you talk to people who are involved in the times, it can be a marvelous stimulus to the imagination, more so than some times just simply reading through books and newspaper files.
Doctorow: You mustn’t take Joe Papaleo’s professions too seriously. What he’s going to do now, and he’s quite serious about this, is the kind of torture we go through. I used to be an editor and whenever I said to a novelist, How’s it going? and he said, It’s terrific! Just great!, I knew we were in for bad times. But the novelist who really complains a lot and says he doesn’t know what he’s doing and worries and bites his nails and does socially impermissible things, then I think we have a chance for a really good book.
Of course, there’s an immense literature about Sacco and Vanzetti but nobody, still nobody knows; and what the novelist often discovers in dealing with famous cases is that some kind of transcendent question occurs, having nothing to do with guilt or innocence.
Lukas: First I want to say I spent the weekend with Joe McGinnis who says to tell you that he is editing the Playboy interview you taped last summer and he is struggling to bring fictional truth out of prosaic reality. Second-
Doctorow: I never said I lusted in my heart …
“I’ve always thought that the most objective, accurate kind of reality in newspapers is on the sports pages.”
Lukas: The second question I have, though, is in a sense more a statement, I suppose, than a question, but I would be interested in your reaction to the statement. The fact, I think, is that there are a lot of people in this room who have been struggling with the question of fact and reality in the kind of journalism that they do. Since Capote, since the “new journalism” there are a lot of journalists today who realize that the separation is not as simple-minded, I think, as we might have believed some decade or two decades ago. And I do believe, therefore, that somewhere between having our newspapers written on wire service tradition and having Ed Doctorow write our newspapers, there is a mean that a lot of us are struggling to find. I’d rather read Ed Doctorow’s New York Times, but I want to read that between hard covers, and I’ll pay—it’ll probably cost $17.50 at that point.
But I always felt when I worked for the Times that what my editors were telling me was that objectivity meant that I should write within their definition of, within their unquestioned assumptions about, reality. And my problem with working at the Times ultimately—after ten years—became that I wanted the freedom to write within my assumptions about reality, not their assumptions; and that became a problem and so I left.
But I think that’s a problem that a lot of the Niemans who are in this room, and who have come to hear you tonight, are struggling with at their newspapers. And I think really what you said tonight has a lot of implications, serious implications, to them and the journalism that they are trying to do. Whether they do it ultimately for their newspapers, or they start sending their manuscripts to Bob Manning, or whether ultimately they start trying to do it between hard covers, but I think that it has real implications for journalism today, too. I would be curious as to see whether Doctorow had any reaction.
Doctorow: I’ve always thought that the most objective, accurate kind of reality in newspapers is on the sports pages. The ball game is a very discrete event, and the account is usually backed up with statistics. If you read an account of a baseball game or a football game, it’s really incredibly true. But, nevertheless, you never read in a newspaper account of a baseball game what it feels like to run under a fly ball in center field on a warm summer afternoon.
Comment: You don’t read The Boston Globe.
Granetz: I just wanted to say that I don’t see anything but bad implications in what Mr. Lukas has said because—
Thomson: So much for you, Tony—
Granetz: I am extremely offended by the idea that authors should have gone beyond what they did and come up with some kind of transcendent reality.
Woodward and Bernstein discussed sources—we have three sources: we have four sources, we have seven sources: can you question the authority of our book? And I think they would have been offended if you would have thought that they should have written something other than they did. I can’t see anything but improvement in literature’s integrity as fiction tries to separate itself from journalism, stopping the production of the type of novel that needs the impetus of history and misinforms a lot of the reading public. I think it is not on very steady ground as far as literature’s theory goes, whatever that’s worth. There is a movement to join the two; I think both of them would be better off separate. I see a lot of journalists try to write fiction and I see a lot of fiction writers trying to write journalism and both results are surprisingly miserable.
“The truth of the matter is that to get a book going, you have to achieve a degree of irresponsibility that, once it comes upon you … any such thing as truth in the factual sense is very destructive to your enterprise.”
Lukas: May I reply? It was the wine getting to me undoubtedly which meant that I was evidently not expressing myself well. I don’t at all mean that journalists ought to be writing fiction, but I think that there is a serious question about what reality is. There were, in the 60s, let me tell you, real differences between people on American papers about what reality was. We did not go to Chicago trying to write fiction, or Vietnam trying to write fiction. But you know that Charlie Mohr got in a great deal of trouble with Time magazine and he had to quit Time magazine because his editors accused him of writing fiction. I think you’re being glib when you suggest that the issue is merely reporters trying to do Ed Doctorow’s business. It’s reporters struggling with what reality is.
Bailey: Let me interrupt and follow that. If you read what Ward just wrote in a book called To What End about Vietnam, which is fact, you will think it is fiction. I don’t know where you are on that continuum when you read that. Nobody who reads it is going to know and people who were there aren’t going to know. But it is fact.
Zvi Dor-Ner: I think it’s a very comfortable notion that was introduced: the continuum between fact and fiction, and I think we are working with it for such a long time because it is so comfortable. But I suspect that it is totally irrelevant. The continuum is between good and bad, and the things move along this kind of continuum; and the better it is, I think we have different standards for it, or we don’t know how to put standards to it. So if somebody writes a lousy fact and it’s judged as fiction, it doesn’t matter. If the opposite happens, it doesn’t matter.
Cassandra Tate: Do you see anything—this is to Doctorow—that makes you feel uncomfortable about what nearly everyone seems to agree is a growing tendency to merge history, fiction, and journalism? Does that make you uneasy at all?
Doctorow: I just wonder why people are so alarmed at this? Politicians, journalists, and historians have always made up history. I should think the right of composition would extend to novelists as well.
Thomson: All right, may I make the following important statement. First of all, the Nieman tradition has been violated by seven minutes—it’s seven minutes past ten. Second of all, we are deeply grateful for everyone who was here and who even spoke. Third of all, there is a story that I always tell—my wife tells me that I tell it wrong—but it’s appropriate to this evening, and it is about Alice B. Toklas going to Gertrude Stein after some incredible seance she had set up. Alice had been able to call forth as several people have tonight, at great length and with enormous group interest—
Diana Thomson: Not Alice, Gertrude—
Thomson: There, she was right, I was wrong. Gertrude had held forth and Alice said to Gertrude after the event, “Gertrude, you’ve said things tonight that it will take you years to understand.” And in that vein, I would like to thank Joe Papaleo and Ed Doctorow and everyone else.