How much is a non-fiction author allowed to make up and get away with it? How much “artistic license” should we tolerate with something ostensibly factual?
Jonah Lehrer found out last year that he was over the line when put a few things Bob Dylan didn’t actually say in his book, Imagine: How Creativity Works. And also that he had self-plagiarized, or that he had already sold or licensed out portions of the book’s content in various blog posts he wrote for The New Yorker and The Guardian. Houghton Mifflin, his publishing house, felt rightly wronged and pulled the book from retailers.
But where is the line?
Obviously non-fiction has a much higher standard than fiction on this one, and putting words in someone’s mouth is never a good idea, but I think that authors of any work—even works of fiction—should endeavor to make as little up as possible.
The gold standard here is Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff. Wolfe spent hours conducting interviews and researching events, filling his book with anecdotes and details which went far beyond historical verisimilitude. Did he always have the truth? No. But in those few instances, he wasn’t wrong because he didn’t try.
Admittedly, not many of us have access to Mercury astronauts to interview. Information—particularly fact-checked information—is hard to come by, but if anyone shouldn’t be put at risk, it’s the reader—the person who spent good money in good faith that the information would be accurate. As publishers and authors, we owe our paying customers the effort to collect and present information accurately.