Truth in Fiction

On both Fuse #8 and Liz’s site, there are fabulous and fruitful discussions going on about authenticity and what obligations, if any, writers or reviewers have in terms of ensuring a narrative’s authenticity–and, darn them, they got me thinking about that.  Eventually, I opened my big mouth and posted a comment that I’m also posting here because, well, you know, I spent a lot of  time thinking about this (which means that both Liz and Betsy did their jobs extremely well) and if I spend that kind of time, you should, too.

Really, it seems to me that what they’re talking about is that unspoken contract formed between writers and readers that has everything to do with trust: what a reader brings to a book before she even cracks the spine, and what keeps faith in a narrative, or destroys it.

So, what follows below is my response to Liz–and it’s not supposed to be either the final word or even all-inclusive because there are only so many hours in the day, and I got books to write.  Feel free to put in your two cents, or travel on over to either Betsy’s or Liz’s site and enter the discussion.

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Now, I’m probably not going to explain this well–which is kind of a kicker, considering that I’m both a writer AND a child psychiatrist–but you bring up some great points, ones that got me thinking about what engenders a reader’s *trust*–because that’s what feelings of authenticity are. Do I, the reader, trust you, the writer, in our unspoken contract to deliver a narrative I feel is true? What is authentic is not necessarily the *same* as what is true, but if truths (read: facts) are used in a narrative then they must work to foster a reader’s trust in the story.

Honestly, it seems to me that feelings of authenticity are directly related to how much the book grabbed you. Period. As with your example about New Jersey and gas (thanks for that, btw; I’ll remember that if I ever set a contemporary YA in NJ–although my husband’s from NJ and I married him anyway): you know about NJ gas stations. You would know that this is a factual error. The question is whether or not the error is enough to kick you out of the story or influence your judgment as to how good the story is. In other words, do you lose trust in the narrative?

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read books that feature child psychiatrists or doctors or scientists or hikers or survivalists or climbers or, for that matter, divers . . . and there’s almost always something that rises up from the page and smacks me a good one because I KNOW when the facts aren’t quite up to snuff. Sometimes, that’s enough to destroy the story; I’ll pitch that sucker across the room because I’ll be darned if I waste my time. (Psychotic, incompetent, cross-dressing, and/or homicidal shrinks almost always make me cringe. Really, most of us have gotten *so* much better . . .)

At other times, though, I’ll re-read the passage to make sure I really read what I read and then, usually, one of two things happen: either I’ll kind of shrug and move on because the story’s pretty darned good, or I’ll roll my eyes and continue on but with a heightened sense of okay-prove-to-me-that-I-should-keep-putting-effort-into-this. If the author makes a couple more boo-boos, then I give up because, really, if you don’t care to get your facts straight, bub, I don’t care to waste my time. I don’t *trust* you any more. In those instances, my doubts about a writer’s trustworthiness color everything I read.

But writers do make stuff up for a living, and I think readers have to bear that in mind. By definition, there’s only so much research you can really do and I guarantee you that if I wrote a book centered on a women’s prison or juvenile detention facility, someone will think I musta made that up. (Uh . . . that would be no; I’ve had a ton of personal experience working in those arenas. Remind me to tell you the one about a certain toe tag . . .) But I might not craft a story well enough to make you trust me, and so you’ll feel my work is inauthentic when, no, no, that really happened.

Further, feelings of inauthenticity are also directly related to expectation: what people *think* that, say, autism ought to be like . . . but how are those perceptions built? Through experience? Exposure through various media? Another book that you think “did it” particularly well? Or, as Charlotte wrote, something unconscious (even fantasies of what something “should” be like)?

The other thing is that authenticity in some branches of fiction is easier to create and sustain than others. I’m thinking of, for example, historicals. I once read a book–a bestseller, by the way–where Cleopatra used a fork. Uh . . . what? WHAT? At the time I didn’t know diddly about forks, but that was enough to throw me because I had a dim-enough understanding of utensils to figure, whoa, that’s not right. So I looked it up and found that forks weren’t invented until the 11th century or thereabouts–and that gave me pause in terms of the rest of the book. I mean, honestly, if *I* can figure this out with a few minutes’ effort, why can’t the writer? The story wasn’t bad–it was actually quite good–but I began to doubt the rest of the historical detail. I think I even got a little pissed–like, do your homework, bub–and this from a woman who grew up devouring science fiction where all bets are off. I no longer trusted the writer.

So, in the end, you know . . . a story is fiction; fiction isn’t necessarily about what is true (that’s why it’s fiction); but facts in fiction generally *are* supposed to be true and truth is directly related to a reader’s sense of a fiction’s authenticity: the degree to which you abandon yourself and trust in the writer. Me, I think that’s mostly about story and how well a narrative is crafted: have you grabbed me; have you held me; and can I stay buckled in regardless of the speed bumps? Will I forgive you a couple of mistakes? If I can, then the story is true enough to and for me, and I will trust the writer. If inaccuracies foster enough doubt, well, then . . . you broke our contract, and them’s the breaks.

If that’s clear . . .

3 thoughts on “Truth in Fiction”

  1. Fiction, it seems to me, is always pushing a little past the truth. I think that an authentic character will feel authentic. It doesn’t matter if the character is a Martian, a button, or a dog. If the book isn’t working, it may be simply because the character and situation aren’t plausible.

    Of course, readers bring expectations. Sometimes those expectations are absurd–if, for example, a reader brings romance genre expectations to military science fiction those expectations may not be met. Realistic fiction raises the bar pretty high as far as expectations go. My book may not clear the hurdles for some readers.

    I haven’t yet read Mockingbird, and I must admit that it may take me some time to get up the nerve. I have been both grateful and uncomfortable with the uptick in fiction that features characters on the spectrum. I deeply appreciated “The Speed of Dark” by Elizabeth Moon, for example. But I feel sort of grumpy when characters on the spectrum edge toward the “typic.” And that brings me right back to your point about authenticity. Authentic characters aren’t “typic.”

  2. Yeah, I hear you. I think that the entire debate about truth is moot when it comes to fiction, and it’s a little silly/odd to ask about a writer’s sources unless the writer volunteers and presents that she’s some sort of expert. Frankly, I don’t think that’s necessary anyway. It’s not as if I’d turn to a novel for a factual presentation about autism. If I want that, I’ll read a textbook. Better yet, I’ll hang with a psychiatrist . . . oh, wait, that would be me ;-). But I don’t look to fiction for facts, necessarily. If you do employ facts–history, science, etc.–then I’m going to assume you’ve done your homework. If the *facts* are a surprise, I’ll go look them up and make sure. Otherwise, you know . . . there’s a reason it’s called fiction.

    Anyway, I haven’t read the book either and don’t intend to. Nothing against the book: I’m sure it’s fine, but it would be too much of a busman’s holiday for me and, honestly, I would probably pick it apart since there is no typically autistic kid (and I’ve seen plenty, all along the spectrum). This, of course, doesn’t stop me from writing about, say, psychiatric problems. It’s just that I don’t go out of my way to read about them for enjoyment’s sake.

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