LITERATURE JULY 9, 2013
In The New York Times 'Open Book' section, which appears in the Sunday Book Review and is full of nuggets on the literary world, there appears the following:
Skeptical readers ask us from time to time why books like Heaven Is for Real, which chronicles a 4-year-old boy’s near death experience—during which, he told his father, he visited the afterlife and sat on Jesus's lap—are included on our nonfiction best-seller lists. Our policy is "simply that we do not second-guess personal accounts," Deborah Hofmann, the senior editor for The Times’s best-seller lists, told me. You might say nonfiction is in the eye of the beholder.
'Heaven is for Real,' not to be confused with Newsweek's more grammatical cover story, 'Heaven is Real,' is the tale of the four year old boy mentioned above, as told by the authors, Todd Burpo (the boy's father) and Lynn Vincent (Sarah Palin's ghostwriter). (Burpo's author's note reads, "He and his wife, Sonja, have four children: Colton is an active 13-year-old; he has an older sister, Cassie; a younger brother, Colby; and a very special sister he met in heaven, yet to be named.") Burpo relates his son's story with that charming mixture of the uplifting and the sinister, at least according the book's Amazon description: "Told by the father, but often in Colton's own words, the disarmingly simple message is heaven is a real place, Jesus really loves children, and be ready, there is a coming last battle."
Still, this "nonfiction" question is an interesting one, and although I was at first ready to send the editors an annoyed email, I think their decision makes some sense. And for precisely the reason that they state: nonfiction is in the eye of the beholder.
Let's say I wrote a book taking credit for the Kennedy assassination. Although this is just as unlikely to be true as a 4-year-old sitting on Jesus's lap, it really isn't fiction (as traditionally understood), either. JFK, to use a cinematic example, is not a documentary, but it's also different from a filmed version of a Graham Greene political thriller. Once you start going down the path of judging the truthfullness of "nonfiction" books (such as memoirs), you are on tricky ground. You could easily argue that the more inane pop science books are not really nonfiction, either, but it isn't the New York Times Bestseller List's job to police these things. It is a job for publishers, reviewers, and journalists, however. The ethics of Burpo's decision to use a 4-year-old's story to make boatloads of money is a different matter entirely—but also something that publishers, reviewers, and journalists might consider writing about.
Isaac Chotiner is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow him @IChotiner.