At Slate, media critic Jack Shafer cuts through the effusive eulogizing of Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski (here at The Millions and elsewhere) to point out that it was “widely conceded that Kapuscinski routinely made up things in his books.” As a trained journalist, I recognize and respect Shafer’s insistence on this point (though the essay’s incendiary headline might have been a step too far.) And as such, I’m happy to concede to Shafer’s wish that we not use the same yardstick to compare Kapuscinski and contemporary foreign correspondents like Anthony Shadid who put their lives on the line to deliver reports on Iraq and other war-torn places.
However, one shouldn’t take Shafer’s discomfort as a condemnation of Kapuscinski’s work. I think it’s telling that Shafer mentions Truman Capote and Joseph Mitchell, two masters of so-called narrative non-fiction, as others who “straddle the wall between fiction and nonfiction.” And yet I’m glad to have read these writers’ work. Even James Frey’s now infamous memoir, A Million Little Pieces, was considered by many to be a great read, and had it not been for the Oprah factor and Frey’s irritating arrogance, the reaction to the fabrications it contained would likely not have been as severe. To define these books as journalism (or memoir, or “truth”) exclusively does a disservice to journalism – offering a context within which this work fits, or even a disclaimer, is more appropriate – but to suggest that there isn’t a place for writing and books like these does a disservice to readers. (Thanks to Brian for sending the Slate piece my way.)