Sunday, March 09, 2008

Reality Check

A pretty good movie called The Night Listener is on cable right now. It stars Robin Williams as a fictionalized version of Armistead Maupin upon whose novel the film is based. In it Williams is plunged into the quest to solve an emotionally wrenching mystery behind a literary hoax.

It's based on a true story involving a book called A Rock and a Hard Place, a purported memoir, that actually saw publication though in the film the book never does.

The revelation last week that another memoir, Love and Consequences, is really a novel should not come as any great surprise, I suppose. It's a new literary tradition and is on the heels of a similar revelation of a few days ago that Misha Defonseca did not really escape Nazis to be raised by wolves as she claimed in the 11-year old memoir Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years.

It would seem the reality craze that has polluted commercial television has spread to publishing and the reading public. One article I read about Love and Consequences noted publishers will look at a memoir quicker than a work of fiction, I suppose because readers are seeking to find the thrill and emotion that they suspect only a true story will bring. The kind of love and emotion they see on say The Bachelor I suppose. I loved it in the defunct, scripted series Studio 60 that Aaron Sorkin had one of his characters call a reality development chief "vice president for illiterate programming."

Ironically, these literary scandals would seem to confirm that fiction can deliver powerful emotional experiences. Editors and initial readers clearly have found rich reading experiences in the hoax narratives mentioned above and those such as A Million Little Pieces. Believing them to be non-fiction, millions have been engaged and enthralled.

Perhaps publishers and readers (some readers) have just forgotten what the novel can do and how it can strike at the heart.

I'm not defending hoaxers but fiction. I believe James Frey did try to sell his book as a novel first. Wasn't it the same story when he started claiming it was true?

I believe truth matters and if a book is claimed to be true it should be. I've had friends who said it didn't matter that A Million Little Pieces was not true, it was still a good read.

If it was a good read the wrenched the heart, why not publish it as fiction? OK, it's about a few dollars more, I know.

What if we could just convince readers to remember that often a novel can deliver more in the way of truth, that it can be richer and engaging with it's portrayal of multiple characters and inner lives and sometimes metaphor can speak more than words.

King Lear was kind of based on a true story, but it's kind of the writer's embellishment and not the movie-of-the-week aspects we hang on to, and I watched The Night Listener with interest, even though it was based on a novel and not a memoir because it explored a perplexing case and gave a potential explanation of the hoaxer's soul.

A good book doesn't have to be non-fiction. It just has to be true.

Addendum

This is a great piece from Slate on this topic.

6 comments:

Charles Gramlich said...

I saw the movie, "The Night Listener" and enjoyed it, but haven't read the book. I agree with you absolutely. Fiction can reveal truth just as well, and sometimes better than nonfiction. I really hate how we have watered down nonfiction, and I can't forgive those who just outright lie and call it truth.

Miladysa said...

I shall have to look out for it.

"What if we could just convince readers to remember that often a novel can deliver more in the way of truth, that it can be richer and engaging with it's portrayal of multiple characters and inner lives and sometimes metaphor can speak more than words."

How true! :-D

Sphinx Ink said...

Ditto to you, ditto to Charles, ditto to myladysa.

Lana Gramlich said...

Personally I'm bummed about the recent literary hoaxes that have come up in the news. I agree with you--why not publish them as fiction? At least please, please, please don't lie to everyone!

Shauna Roberts said...

Ditto to everyone's comments. This trend also cheapens the work of people who write truly nonfiction nonfiction and put in all the hours of research and interviewing. People can't trust that their book is true given that some editors now encourage authors to lie.

avery said...

The recent scandals reek of desperation--although I believe it is also on the part of the publishing entities and not wholly the author. Struggling writers are desperate. And, the longer we stay unsold, the more frantic we become. But, that's a universal truth, one the publishing houses know all too well. It just seems a very convenient opportunity--the need to bolster sagging sales combined with a desperate writer. The publishers are protesting their involvement too vehemently, I think.

Taking a risk and turning the other cheek as the line between fact and fiction is smeared is all well and good, but sending authors up the creek by their lonesomes when it backfires is just plain wrong. Then again, authors should all be catching on to what a spectacularly bad idea this is by now, and any future occurrences will be greeted with zero pity from me.

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