Dave Eggers Markets His Reported Story as Fiction

Unlike Janet Cooke or James Frey, literary superstar Dave Eggers is taking no risks of venturing into scandal territory with his newest book, ‘What is the What.’ Although his account of Sudanese refugees is researched with journalistic dedication (the story is based on lengthy interviews with refugee Valentino Achak Deng), Eggers has told the story from the perspective of a composite character and changed the order of certain events. Consequently, the book is sold in the fiction isle.

According to Caroline Moorehead of Slate, Eggers’ novel is nevertheless contributing to the journalistic dialogue.

“[Deng’s] personal experiences, as he says in a preface, are in essence no different from those depicted: Every event in the book could, and indeed did, take place, but not all to him, nor in the order presented. As such, the narrative reads very much like reporting, which accounts perhaps for its power—but also poses a number of interesting questions. Would the punch have been greater or smaller had Eggers stuck to nonfiction? What would have been lost in terms of detail or emotion had he kept to the literal truth?”

The knowledge that a narrative is an entirely truthful account greatly contributes to its power. Especially when reporting wrongdoings, journalistic pieces can evoke a public outcry and literally initiate change. The power of exposed truth is, in fact, often what drives idealists to a career in reporting. Meanwhile, as many young reporters know, the lens of creativity is much stricter and more narrow in for reporters than novelists. While great journalistic works are certainly considered works of art, the writer has been likely to prioritize fact over creativity.

Eggers’ privileged status as both a respected journalist and acclaimed wordsmith allow him a sense of creative freedom: As readers, we both trust and enjoy him. Perhaps more importantly, the already published media accounts of Sudan’s child soldiers cause us to approach the novel with a certain degree of awareness: We assume many of the horrors Eggers describes to be true. All we really need to know is that a real person provided Eggers his information.

Moorehead writes:

“The liveliness and drive of the story are what count, and the accuracy of what he describes has been widely corroborated by others. Achak's personal testimony, whether in reality or in fiction—the tale of his walk; his constant hunger; his sense of helplessness when a boy is pulled out of line in front of him by a lion and eaten in the tall grass; his horror as he watches starving boys, many of them totally naked, tearing the flesh of a dead elephant into strips to carry away and eat; the blood trickling down their faces—is what brings the story alive.”

It should also be noted that completely factual accounts aren’t the only ones to provoke discussion and change; countless artists, from Wilfred Owen to Stanley Kubrick, have used their particular artistic frameworks to challenge the public’s worldview. Most recently the film ‘Blood Diamond’ about Africa’s violent diamond trade has resulted in wide media coverage and public discussion.

In Eggers' powerful marriage of art and reporting, Moorehead says, the difference between the two ceases to matter.

“Eggers' vivid and haunting story stays long in the mind as an account of what civil war does to children; and whether it is fact or fiction, in this particular case at least, is of no importance at all.”

In a post-Jason Blair and James Frey world, the credibility of journalism is suffering. Ironically, putting the label of “fiction” on a book may only help us trust it more.

Slate article

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