In other news, yet another novelist is being sued for being a little too realistic.
This post is not about the merits of either book, or of either case. It’s not even (though it was tempting) about the meta-narrative of Privileged White People Saving Poor Othered Folks. (Note: again, not talking about these particular books or their authors, but about media treatment of same.)
It is about the confusion over where the line is between fiction and non-fiction. On the surface, this seems pretty basic: Non-fiction is true, and fiction is made up (or, as a friend put it, “Why would I want to read a book that advertises itself as a pack of lies?”).
But obviously, the people, places and events in a novel have to come from somewhere. Yes, of course, they all spring from the “author’s imagination.” But if we unpack that, we generally find the author’s experiences, including people, places, and events, recast to fulfill a vision.
Sometimes these experiences are rooted in “real life.” Sometimes they are drawn from dreams—which, again, tend to consist of rearranged memory fragments. And sometimes they are, consciously or unconsciously, pulled from other works of art, which, as we know, can get the author into big trouble.
It would be impossible, or next to impossible, to create a novel—even a work of radical sci-fi or fantasy—entirely “from the imagination.” We have to base our ideas about how characters—whether they are giant cockroaches or inhabitants of Mxrixyia—behave on something, and that something tends to be what we already know. What else, in the end, do we have?
And we also embellish and compress our “true” stories. Sometimes it’s because we want to get published, as a recent CSM article points out. But I think it’s more fundamental than that.
We’ve all sat through Uncle Louie’s play-by-play of his vacation at Lake George, complete with a description of the outboard motor on the boat he rented; or our boss’s account of the staff meeting we missed, including the three-hour debate about replacing the photocopying machine.
Nobody wants to be that person, yet that is how a totally honest memoir would read. There is a lot of boring, dead space in even the most fascinating life. As another friend says, readers don’t want the labor pains; they just want to see the baby.
(And they probably don’t want to see the unembellished baby, either. Newborns are usually unattractive to anyone but their parents: they’re scrawny, whiny, and covered in goo. That’s why older babies are usually substituted for newborns in TV shows and commercials.)
Back in the oral-tradition days, stories were often based on true events and people, but the tales of the Trojan War, Robin Hood, King Arthur and the like were retold in numerous versions, and the ones that survive are more valued for their poetry and drama than for their possible accuracy.
Again, this isn’t to say we shouldn’t strive to be both truthful and entertaining, or that it’s not necessary to protect real people while writing fiction. Just that it’s not as easy or as natural as it might seem.
Susan O'Doherty, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist with a New York City-based practice. A fiction writer herself, she specializes in issues affecting writers and other creative artists. She is the author of Getting Unstuck without Coming Unglued: A Woman's Guide to Unblocking Creativity (Seal, 2007). Her Career Coach column appears every Monday on Inside Higher Ed's Mama, Ph.D. blog, and she is a regular guest panelist on Litopia After Dark. Send your questions to her at Dr.Sue at mindspring dot com.