Truth versus Art

There’s been a slow-burning furor over dishonesty in “creative nonfiction,” most recently in this Fact vs. Artistic License in Creative Nonfiction post. Now and then someone accuses me of making stuff up in my books. For the record, here’s the truth.

I lie. I make stuff up all the time. But not technical stuff.

One technique I use in each tech book is to create a narrator. The narrator is not me. I don’t actually blackmail coworkers, as the narrator of Network Flow Analysis recommends. The narrator’s role is to bring life to the material, point out possibilities that are difficult to expose in pure technical text, and try to jolt the reader into paying attention.

I don’t create the narrators beforehand. They evolve from the material. The narrator of AO2e is worryingly like forensic blood spatter analyst Dexter Morgan. I’m trying to change that, but he’s fighting back.

Of course, some things are true. The afterword for Absolute OpenBSD 2nd ed. is the true story of a really bad night. But I don’t have enough of those stories to color a book.

This technique works. It helps the reader pay attention. Some people even find reading my books enjoyable (for example, there’s this review that made me giggle madly). There are readers who hate my books for exactly this reason. But I’m not going to change my writing style to chase a readership.

If I’m giving instructions on how to fdisk and disklabel a hard drive, the information is as correct as I can make it. Facts are inviolate.

If it’s more personal, it might be true. It might be fictional. I am a writer, and am not to be trusted.

So don’t try to call me out on this. I know. I don’t care.