A new book about the Clinton White House opens with an August 1991 scene between Bill and Hillary Clinton in bed, discussing whether he should run for president. The dialogue is written as though the author were there himself, transcribing the couple's pillow-talk conversation. Throughout, there are neither footnotes nor other sourcing -- much like the previous books he has written.
In this way, Bob Woodward's latest best-seller, "The Agenda," illustrates what has become an increasingly serious problem for nonfiction readers over the past few decades. As the standards for writing nonfiction have changed, as the lines between fiction and nonfiction become further blurred, the reader must ask these questions: What can you believe in a nonfiction book? Which authors can you trust?
Most distressing for readers, this dilemma involves some of the best-known writers of the day. For example:
* In 1993, best-selling nonfiction author Joe McGinniss wrote "The Last Brother," a 600-page-plus book that he called a "rumination" on the life of Sen. Ted Kennedy. Although he never interviewed the Massachusetts senator, Mr. McGinniss often speculated on what Mr. Kennedy felt or thought.
* In "The Executioner's Song," novelist Norman Mailer wrote an account of the execution of convicted murderer Gary Gilmore. Although the characters and situations described in the book were real-life, the author won the 1980 Pulitzer Prize in the fiction category.
* Thomas Keneally's "Schindler's Ark," which was made into Steven Spielberg's film "Schindler's List," won England's prestigious Booker Prize in 1982. The Booker is awarded to works of fiction, but the Australian author himself said his book was nonfiction.
If such blurrings leave a reader constantly asking, "Where did he get this information?" or "How does he know this?" then it becomes difficult to get into a comfort zone with these authors. One is constantly on alert.
No wonder that Craig Nelson, a respected editor at Hyperion Press, notes: "If people read nonfiction as the truth, they do so at their own peril."
Ever since nonfiction pioneers such as the New Yorker's Joseph Mitchell and "New Journalists" Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe and Truman Capote began to experiment with the genre decades ago, nonfiction has become an increasingly slippery property. Capote once explained his thinking behind the writing of his 1966 classic "In Cold Blood" this way: "I wanted to produce a journalistic novel, something on a large scale that would have the credibility of fact, the immediacy of film, the depth and freedom of prose, and the precision of poetry."
Birth of 'nonfiction novels'
That's a large order for anyone, but these talented pioneers managed to pull it off, even if they confounded readers by offering "nonfiction novels," as Mr. Mailer and Capote did. Certainly anyone who has followed nonfiction in the past few decades would concede that these new freedoms have allowed writers to turn out superb nonfiction. But while they helped produce such innovative works as Mr. Mailer's "The Armies of the Night" and Mr. Wolfe's "The Right Stuff," they also opened the doors for a host of writers who didn't report as diligently or use words as elegantly.
Mr. McGinniss' "The Last Brother" is often cited as a book that used the new nonfiction techniques and failed. Though he protested that many respected biographers had inferred the thoughts of their subjects, he was roundly criticized for having presumed to write Mr. Kennedy's thoughts without having interviewed him.
"The expectations for a nonfiction writer are awful high," says Richard Ben Cramer, the former Sun reporter whose 1992 book "What It Takes: The Way to the White House" received both praise and criticism for attempting to tell the story of the 1988 presidential campaign through the eyes of six candidates. "It probably is healthy to look at the techniques. There are a lot of books that don't play fair."
Typically, a work of contemporary nonfiction might use several devices traditionally reserved for writers of fiction, such as re-created -- or even imagined -- conversations, and composite characters or situations. Footnoting, even in "serious" works, may be infrequently used or dispensed with altogether.
How writers handle these situations often differs. For instance, in his book, Mr. Cramer often wrote that a person said something or did something without giving footnotes or sourcing -- but he feels that he answered the question of credibility.
"I did write what people thought," he says. "But I went back to the subjects and said, 'Would you look at this? Is this a fair representation of what you thought?' If you do it, you have to identify it as a kind of re-creation of your own imagination."
At the same time, standards for the content of nonfiction books have changed.
Effects of 'tabloidization'
"It's obvious that the 'tabloidization' that we see in television and newspapers is affecting books as well," says Mr. Nelson of Hyperion. "As ratings have shown, Americans have a higher and higher degree of titillation. Even serious journalists, if they want to get a $300,000 or $400,000 advance, have to come up with the kinds of revelations that only a few years ago would have appeared only in the National Enquirer. And the standard of what is a definitive biography has changed. We didn't need to know all about James Joyce's sex life 10 years ago, and now we do."
"It's a situation that troubles all careful writers and readers," says William Zinsser, who has taught nonfiction at Yale University and other colleges and is the author of several books on writing.
"A nonfiction writer's job is to present information truly and fairly and accurately. The minute that you imagine what people say, as Joe McGinniss did, or fabricate quotes, then you have broken your contract with the craft of nonfiction writing, and with the reader."
That's what some critics have accused Mr. Woodward of doing in "The Agenda." Published a few weeks ago by Simon & Schuster, it already is the top-selling nonfiction book in the country. Mr. Woodward, an editor at the Washington Post, says "The Agenda" could be his most successful book yet, with 800,000 copies already in print.
Mr. Woodward's reportorial methods -- re-created conversations, no footnotes or sourcing -- had been criticized in some earlier works, such as "The Final Days" and "The Commanders." But with this book, the skeptics have been louder.
Michael Skube, the Pulitzer Prize-winning book critic of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, wrote in a scathing review that Mr. Woodward "imputes to people thoughts and feelings they may or may not have had, words they may or may not have uttered. He gives us, for example, a testy telephone conversation between Clinton and Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska that ends with both men slamming the phone down in fury. No sources. He just says: Trust me."
David Lauter, the White House reporter for the Los Angeles Times, noted in his review: "Given Woodward's experience and reputation, there is no reason to think he has not faithfully reported what his sources told him. But given the frailty of human memory and the tendency of people to recall only what they want, even in their memos and diaries, there is no reason to think that the sources got it all exactly right."
He says he got it right
Mr. Woodward counters that he did, indeed, get it right.
"The people who are there [in "The Agenda"], who have read the book, have not only said it is accurate, but eerily accurate," he says. "There is no argument with it."
He adds: "I thought the White House would attack this book, frankly. It's too close to the bone. It shows a president who has not yet learned to manage his office. But if I had gotten things wrong, [White House Press Secretary] Dee Dee Myers and [Clinton adviser] George Stephanopoulos and Hillary Clinton and the president would be out with their criticisms in a flash. But there hasn't been a peep."
Defending 'deep background'
Mr. Woodward defends his practice of conducting interviews on "deep background," in which sources are not named, by saying, "If you can get the highest-quality information, if that's the only way you can get it, then you do it." As for his use of re-created rTC conversations, he writes in the introduction to "The Agenda": "When someone is said to have 'thought' or 'felt' something, that description comes from the person himself or from someone to whom he said it directly."
William Greider, a Washington columnist for Rolling Stone, defends the reporting of Mr. Woodward, whom he considers a friend. "It is fundamentally unfair to put Woodward's books in the same basket with people like Mailer," he says. "The methods are completely different. Mailer was literally novelizing real events at a level he would never have known. You can quarrel with Bob's attributions and the question of can he really reconstruct dialogues, but he's not trying to fictionalize, unlike some other writers."
"I don't think it's an accident that his books wind up on the best-seller list," Mr. Greider continues. "People confer an element of trust on him that nobody else gets. You couldn't maintain that trust unless your reporting maintained it."
What's a reader to do?
But what does a reader who traditionally wants to be shown the evidence before being convinced make of Mr. Woodward's work? The author himself says "The Agenda" "falls somewhere between newspaper journalism and history." For historian Roger Morris, who must show documentation for his findings, books such as "The Agenda" are particularly troubling.
"Decency and intellectual honesty dictate that you get as much on the record as possible," says Mr. Morris, who is working on the second volume of a projected four-part biography of Richard Nixon.
"I've heard Woodward talk about how he goes to all the principals involved and then arriving at a consensus or converging of what they said. That then gets manufactured into a quote or a scene or impression. I think that's more theater than history. It runs all sorts of risks from a historian's point of view. It introduces the writer as a very, very prominent actor in the rendering of the story."
Thus, he says, when he gets to the Watergate era in his Nixon biography, he's inclined not to use "All the President's Men" and "The Final Days," which Mr. Woodward co-wrote with Carl Bernstein. "There is an accepted protocol of scholarship, and they don't meet that," Mr. Morris says. "It's sort of Reader's Digest history."
Told of Mr. Morris' comments, Mr. Woodward answered evenly, "When Roger Morris gets to the point when he writes about Watergate, he's going to find not only that we got it right, but we got it absolutely right."
So how do readers reach that point in which they can trust what a nonfiction writer is saying -- glittery prose and narrative sleight-of-hand notwithstanding?
"The problem is the reporting," Mr. Cramer says. "All the fancy writing in the world won't get you past what you don't know."
Respect truth and the reader
"My main problem is the fudging of the truth, like the TV docudramas," Mr. Zinsser says. "Be respectful of the truth and respectful of the reader. It's not all that hard to do a little work and find out what really happened."
As an example, he cites Mr. Wolfe's "The Right Stuff," his book on the American space program.
"We know in a Tom Wolfe piece that he has done a fantastic amount of research," Mr. Zinsser says. "We see his creative intelligence, but I also think he has played fair. He has respected information and presented it truly and fairly and accurately."
But that's where it gets tricky. Mr. Woodward, whose work Mr. Zinsser does not like ("I think it takes a certain amount of temerity to foist unto the reader what the president of the United States and his wife said in bed"), says very similar things. "The whole test is the quality of information," Mr. Woodward says.
A separate pact
Ultimately, then, the reader of contemporary nonfiction must make a separate pact with each writer, examining the author's methods before deciding whether to proceed with trust. After all, as Mr. Morris acknowledges, "We all inflict our biases in our works. There's no such thing as objective writing -- we all bring our baggage with us when we write."
For Mr. Cramer, the litmus test is how well an author demonstrates knowledge of the subject at hand.
"The requirements for nonfiction are in some ways mechanical: A quote has to be a quote, for instance," he says. "But in other ways, the requirements are more like for great fiction -- you have to be master of the universe you are writing about. And that's evident in the unsatisfying nonfiction -- that person has not made himself the god of the universe. I'm not talking about using a lot of personal pronouns. It means writing with a confidence that
only connotes immediate authority."