David McCullough and I are amicis curiae -- you might translate that as "odd couple" -- to a brief that will be argued before the Supreme Court tomorrow. Why odd? Because the brief defends the occasional right of journalists to alter quotations. Specifically, it defends a reporter who quoted her subject as saying things like "I was like an intellectual gigolo," when 40 hours of raw tape prove that he didn't -- in so many words. Scholarly biographers are not ordinarily supposed to be parties to such tinkering with the truth.
God knows, I lock my study door and drop all the blinds before deleting so much as a dot from a four-dot ellipsis in somebody's quoted remarks. Biographers and historians are generally more conscientious about accurate quotation than journalists are. Not only that, we have to document our sources, whereas reporters will go to jail rather than reveal theirs.
However, the case at issue tomorrow, Jeffrey M. Masson v. The New Yorker, Alfred A. Knopf Inc. and Janet Malcolm, threatens a First Amendment-related freedom that David and I, and surely all honest nonfiction writers, believe to be sacred: freedom of interpretation. Spoken words, transcribed raw from tape recorders or shorthand notes, are often only an approximation of the truth. There is usually a meaning beyond their meaning -- even, as George Eliot remarked, "a roar that lies on the other side of silence."
In tomorrow's case, both district court and appeals court judges have found Janet Malcolm innocent of deliberate intent to defame and embarrass Masson by misquoting him in a 1983 New Yorker article. This article, subsequently reprinted by Knopf, dealt with Masson's dismissal as Project Director of the Sigmund Freud Archives, allegedly because he "went public" with some research information that damaged the reputation of Freud. Although Masson had eagerly submitted himself to over 40 hours of tape-recorded interviews with Malcolm plus many other hours of conversation, he did not like the portrait of himself that emerged in print and has been suing for satisfaction ever since.
I will make no comment on the evidence as laid out in the Federal Reporter, except to say that I don't blame her for writing a negative piece, and I don't blame him for suing. Masson never called himself "an intellectual gigolo," at least on tape, but he admits to saying many other things that (the appeals court feels) identify him with intellectual gigiloism -- whatever that may be. Malcolm is therefore held justified in making a similar inference.
That being said, a scholar can only deplore her decision to put unspoken words in quotation marks. This case (like so many that torment the Supreme Court) puts a constitutional issue at stake between two unattractive litigants -- as did Falwell v. Hustler a few terms back. To what extent may a writer honestly distort in order to make the truth more clear?
Honest distortion is not a paradox. Art, the most penetrating kind of communication, penetrates because it is an exquisite kind of distortion, an attempt to clarify things dimly perceived by subtly refracting them. Ancient Greek architects deliberately laid the Parthenon out of synch, making its lines subtle curves, because it looks straighter that way. That's why we are moved by it, and dream of it, long after memory of a thousand glass boxes fades.
Is Janet Malcolm an artist? I do not think so. Nor do David McCullough and I claim to be artists in the purest creative sense. We accept Descartes' definition of the biographer, as "an artist on oath." Our private covenant, unenforceable by law -- but easily cramped by law -- is to interpret the truth as we hear it and to be answerable in our interpretation to the only judges the Constitution allows to punish us: our readers.
If the Supreme Court overturns the lower court decisions in Masson v. Malcolm and finds for the petitioner, interviewers of every kind in future are going to have to lug around tape recorders in order to defensively document every syllable that readers have hitherto taken on trust. In my view, this will inhibit free speech -- not only the black and white "speech" which is prose, (will we be too scared of libel suits to quote something a guy told us while jogging?) but also the free self-expression of interviewees, many of whom change personality as soon as they see a machine. Something about the proximity of a microphone makes politicians more pompous and gossips less confidential.
Some writers have found that they get more out of their sources by taking no notes whatsoever. When Truman Capote researched "In Cold Blood" in Kansas, he conducted all his interviews as "visits" but took along an assistant to make sure she heard what he heard. Afterward, they would separately write up their recollection before joining them together to complementary -- and by all accounts amazingly accurate -- effect.
James Boswell, still revered as the greatest of biographers, used hardly any notes when reproducing Samuel Johnson's conversations, preferring to rely on his memory while it was still hot and bright, a die freshly struck. If he had indulged in frantic stenography at the time of utterance, he would have been unable to match wits with the great doctor, thus stimulating him to further heights of viva voce. Generations of readers have rejoiced in Boswell's artistry in bringing Johnson back to life. Whether he was absolutely true to his oath in doing so, no modern pedant can say. But neither can pedants deny the convincing majesty of Johnson portrayed, and the wisdom of Johnson quoted, by a man who was neither majestic nor wise. The only convincing explanation is that Boswell was telling the truth.
What, ultimately, is Truth -- the shock of recognition we crave in reading about our fellow human beings? With whom does the "artist on oath" make his covenant? If with his subject, then he is a collusionist and probably a liar. If with the marketplace, then let buyers of his book beware. If with himself alone, then he only has to move us to convince us, because there is nothing so direct as honesty. The ultimate test of any piece of nonfiction writing must be its success in saying something -- or quoting something -- that a majority of readers "can't help but believe." That, as the greatest of our jurists has cautioned, is about the nearest we'll ever get to the essence of things. The writer won the Pulitzer Prize for "The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt" in 1980. He is currently writing an authorized biography of Ronald Reagan.