On Sunday, I wrote about the powerful effect that Alex Haley’s Roots had on me. In response, Michael posted this thoughtful comment:

Roots is such an important work because of its inspirational nature. So many people started researching their family histories over the past 35 years solely because of the movie. It was also one of the first popular explorations of African American history.

On the other hand, Mr. Haley’s research was not only poor, it was negligent. In quite a few parts of the story, Mr. Haley blatantly ignored overwhelming evidence that contradicted his family’s oral tradition. Oral history, by its very nature, is prone to mistakes in its transmission (like a game of “telephone”). It may retain a core of truth, but more often than not, it also contains innumerable mistaken names and dates. Mr. Haley only conducted enough research to confirm his family’s tradition.

The writing is beautiful and inspirational, and you could do far worse in following the book’s *writing* model. But please be wary of following its research model.

As a man who is clearly knowledgable about this subject, I heeded Michael’s words about Haley’s research method. And yesterday, I spent a great deal of time thinking about why it didn’t really bother me if some of the dates and names were not correct in Roots. I came to this conclusion:

I’m not bothered because I came to read this book as a work of fiction, not historical fact.

However, if I had wanted to read a historical account of slavery and found out that some of the basic facts and information were erroneous, no matter how powerful the story, I would have been frustrated and likely to discount the whole text.

That’s the key for nonfiction. When we say we are writing nonfiction, we are telling people that we are writing fact. Now, we can play with how we define fact and incorporation imagination mightily, but only if we tell the readers this is what we’re doing. If we don’t clue them in, then we are misleading them.

For example, in my book, I am imagining a great deal of the daily lives of the people who were enslaved here. I don’t really have a choice because the records are scant. Many of these people were kept illiterate, and for the most part, no one thought them worthy of a real mention in any kind of daily record keeping. So to portray them fully, I have to imagine. Now, I do that as reasonably as I can by including all the facts I know, by working within the confines of what I have studied about the day to day lives of people who were enslaved in the U.S., and by letting the reader know that these are my conjectures by using phrases like “I wonder” and “I imagine.”

But when writers don’t do that – of course James Frey is the prime example – we lie to our readers, and they shouldn’t trust us anymore. That seems fair.

In the case of Haley, I did not personally read the text like nonfiction, so I wasn’t disappointed to hear there were errors. In fact, I am fully willing to forgive Haley those errors because I didn’t have that expectation and don’t feel he led me to believe he was writing history. But I can see how others, particularly those who do this kind of research for living, as Michael does, might feel differently.

The key is to be honest about what we are doing as writers. Then, we honor our readers and ourselves.

What do you think about this question about readers’ expectations? How do we honor them? Do we need to do so?

Tomorrow, I’m going to write about the way that writers – particularly through online technologies – can be unintentionally misleading. I hope you’ll weigh in there, too.