I first came across David Quammen’s writings back in the late 1980s, when he was one of the more memorable authors on the reading list for the UCSC Science Communication Program. His new book, Spillover, is everything a journalistic non-fiction should be. The subject is zoontic diseases, including SARS, Ebola, and the Hendra and Nipah viruses. It’s dramatic without being scare-mongering, meticulous without getting bogged down.
The 100-page chapter on HIV is like a book-within-book. For me it laid out the most comprehensive yet concise treatment I’d read of the race to identify the viruses behind the initially mysterious epidemic and the effort to track down where HIV-1 and HIV-2 came from, how they might have jumped to humans, and when. Quammen also decisively debunks the speculation that AIDS came from contaminated polio vaccines – the basis of Edward Hooper’s book The River.
I met Quammen last week in Philadelphia, where he came to give a talk at the Academy of Natural Sciences and offered to chat with me beforehand for one of my columns. Our conversation quickly turned to science writing and his disapproval of the use of fake quotes, composite characters, and speculative scene descriptions that mix fiction into non-fiction.
Quammen started out as a fiction writer and studied William Faulkner. “I don’t have fiction envy,” he said. What bothers him is not just the blatantly fictitious Bob Dylan quote that got Jonah Lehrer in so much trouble. He’s upset about book authors who claim to be writing non-fiction but somehow get direct quotes and scene descriptions where they couldn’t possibly have been present.
A quote is a piece of data, he told me, and making up quotes is a form of making up data. In science that’s fraud. I agreed. I’ve often thought there are parallels between scientific and journalistic ethics.
Perhaps the writers who create these quotes and scenes have pieced together details from their research, and perhaps they think it’s more streamlined to omit the sources and simply write as if they were there, filling in details for color and dramatic effect. But if you as the reporter weren’t there, and you write a scene as if you were, then you’re writing fiction, not journalism. And it’s probably not very good fiction.