Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Confronting the Truths about Fact and Fiction

“Where's the guy or girl who can stick out their novel in the midst of media furore and say "fuck you, I'm not exploiting this, you are, and I've got interesting things to say"?” – Steve Mosby

(Edited to note: The better post is here.)

By the time I got back to the comments yesterday (moderating them can be a bit of a pain) I almost didn’t know where to begin in replying. The wheels were still turning (and after a long chat with someone from Dundee about so many things I can never mention on my blog that was hardly surprising) and I think I finally started to process some of what bothers me about blatantly copying real cases.

It’s about how you do it, not that you do it. In the same way that we have our debates about gratuitous violence in fiction and where the line is, talk about using shock to sell, candidly ripping off a highly publicized and controversial case may be nothing more than a gimmick to get people to pick up the book and make a name.

Do people have the right to do that? I suppose they do. What turns me off about the blatant cases is that I do wonder if the author of fiction actually has any imagination or capacity for creation. I’m not tarring all works inspired by true stories with the same brush. Like gratuitous violence or sex, to some degree blatant exploitation of a real case will be in the eye of the beholder.

I’m more interested in insights about human behaviour than perspectives on specific scenarios.

For me, I think that’s the main point. A real case may be an ideal launch point to address specific issues in your work, but I don’t think that conveying insight about human behaviour has to rely on a strict representation of a real situation.

Steve raised some interesting points in his comment on yesterday’s post and when he asked where in crime fiction were those “unafraid to tackle confrontational themes in their fiction” I thought, “I’m not.”

The only difference is that to this point I haven’t done a literal representation of real people, and I don’t plan to at this time. Everything a person writes can be shaded by their own experiences and perspectives, and those things will trickle through at times, but there are some specific drawbacks of working off of real cases;

1. If it’s blatant you risk pulling people out of the story.
2. It risks becoming a commentary on just that scenario, not on a larger issue in general.

It’s the second point that really hits with me. I’m more interested in commentary on concepts than specifics. I don’t need to cite Mary Kay Letourneau in order to make a commentary on abusive sexual relationships between adults and children, or to make a commentary on sex in general. I don’t need to point to a former president to ask what is or is not considered sexual relations. If I want to make a commentary on the abuse of political power I need not limit myself to any one government, political party or scenario…

My agenda is to tell a captivating story that almost sneaks the deeper thoughts in. It’s more of a compliment to have someone say that they found themselves thinking about the book later, or realized I was making an observation about something. What Burns Within hits on all sorts of things: sex, abuse of authority, trust, religious abuse, equality. In reality, there were things even I didn’t consciously think about in the writing of it that were pointed out to me during my first interview on the book, but at least it gives me plenty of stuff to talk about.

When I think of memorable fictional characters, I find myself thinking about characters who resonate because they’re so real, so believable. The archetypes and stereotypes don’t stick at all. The ones who linger are the ones I’d say wrestle with angels and demons. In the process of the book they’ve become very human to me, although I may not be in the same situation or even have the same values, I can relate to them because of their process of questioning things in their life. Jack Taylor. I’m not an alcoholic, and need never be, to connect to the darkness within him. Others who linger with me? Hagar, from The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence.

I was thinking about some of my top reads so far this year:
The Hackman Blues by Ken Bruen
The 50/50 Killer by Steve Mosby
For The Dogs by Kevin Wignall
Money Shot by Christa Faust
Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane
A Thousand Bones by PJ Parrish
The Darkness Inside by John Rickards
Who Is Conrad Hirst? by Kevin Wignall

We have a university student, a few cops, a former porn star. I asked myself what it was that these books had in common. Ultimately, each had a character that was wrestling with something – guilt, grief, tragedy, loss. Using different styles, very different settings and situations, all of these books spoke about something of what it is to be human. No matter our gender, our race, our religion or lifestyle, we all feel. And often, it is through making people feel that we make them think and we make them connect. Anyone can shamelessly rip off the latest headline (and please note, yes I’ve read books inspired by real cases and not felt they were intrusive or exploitive – undoubtedly some are, and if I feel that way, I toss them, same as any other form of exploitation in fiction that doesn’t work for me) but as authors we breathe life into our characters and we can’t just copy the facts and expect it to all carry over. Facts alone aren’t enough to make people care.

There’s a word for books that have no contribution to what it means to be human: fluff. We’ll all define it differently, but for me, as much as I want to be entertained (after all, you are supposed to tell a story and meandering for hundreds of pages through musings on colours isn’t going to cut it for me) I want to be challenged to think about human behaviour and why we do the things we do. I want to feel I’ve expanded my understanding of people and the choices they make.

When I thought about that episode of Without a Trace and the concept of removed reality, I found myself thinking automatically following someone around, photographing them without their consent and then painting the photograph wasn’t a good idea.

And when people found out, they weren’t too happy.

If people wrote about things in my life? Well, the only person who really knows it all is me, right? So at best all anyone could do is project. And that’s when I start to understand why it can be risky to rely too much on a real situation. I would rather comment on domestic violence than just comment on one specific case. It may be a fine line, but that’s how I draw it.


Graham Powell said...

I think the question when your are fictionalizing a real incident is, are you using this to illustrate issues you want to talk about, or are you trading on someone else's misery to get some press?

The difference is a matter of degree and of taste, but I think that, much like porn, most of us can recognize it when we see it.

I am not really interested in exploring universal themes in my stories. I'm more interested in the particular - what's happening to these people at this time in this situation. But the stories I write are inteded to be entertaining first and foremost, so others may have a different view.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Ah, but perhaps the question is, can you write believable characters without touching on universal things? Everyone relates on certain points - pain, betrayal, love, lust, dreams, desire.

I think that some books are for pure entertainment. Nothing wrong there. Some are trying to balance, entertain and also have a bit of insight. I suspect many people will read WBW and some of the thought points won't even register, partly because the experience of reading includes what the reader brings with them. You know, the idea that what you're looking for you see everywhere all of a sudden.

If your characters are realistic, people will connect, and they'll be memorable, even if your primary goal is entertainment. But I do think there's a reason that comedies don't win Best Picture (or often, at least) and movies with talking animals usually don't get nominated - people are looking for the human experience.

Which opens up the whole door to discussing cat mysteries, but I won't go there.

John McFetridge said...

You know Sandra, what you're really talking about here is often what people mean when they ask why some books are "literature" and some are "genre."

Most books that stand any test of time are firmly rooted in real events and real people - not just crime fiction, but all fiction.

It would be great if we could just have the "good" ones and not the cheap, exploitive, fluffy ones but it just doesn't work like that.

For books to be really good they usually have to push some buttons, cause some controversy, get some people upset.

I gave a reading at Harbourfront earlier this year and when it was over I got cornered by a guy very angry that in my book there were young black guys with guns shooting people. He was upset, offended, and it got very uncomfortable. alli could tell him was, don't read the next one...

Sandra Ruttan said...

I think my interpretation might be a little different, John, but I'll be honest. I think the reason that "genre" fiction doesn't get respect is because it encompasses books that abandon reality.

I don't think everything has to involve real events - drawing a keen distinction between real and realistic here. What matters is if it's believable. That said, there's Animal Farm, enduring and unforgettable for different reasons.

But for all the bickering over genre vs literature, I would say that much of what is in genre is on par with literature. I'd certainly class the works of Bruen, Wignall, Rankin, Lippman, Pelecanos, Lehane and many, many others as such. However, the scope of genre also includes things so far-fetched as to buttonhole themselves as pure fiction, fantasy, 100% entertainment.

Paranormal dances closer to the lines because there's much we can't explain, even in this day and age. So I find it can be classed "literature". But we won't see cat mysteries shelved as such, or much of what gets produced under the genre label in Canada, for that matter.

Now, that all may come off more critical than it's intended to be. Really, whatever people aim for, that's the standard they should be measured on. That's why I stress that you should know what reviewers cover when sending out arcs - don't send me a mystery where the toddler solves the crime, or something truly out there in the amateur sleuth vein. It's not my thing. That doesn't mean it isn't great for other people, and honestly, I don't really care if people want to read fluff. It's better that they read fluff than to read nothing at all. If it works for them, great.

I think we see in Lippman, Wignall, Lehane, Bruen, etc. the ability to create characters as memorable as Laurence's Hagar and Bram. They resonate. (And I'm a huge fan of The Fire-Dwellers as well, darn it all that she took that title!) That's what sets it apart for me. And I have read amateur sleuth books I've loved - it's really just a delicate balance.

My favourite Star Trek TNG episodes were always the ones that took global issues and transferred them to space to make commentary, btw. THE HIGH GROUND. After living in Ireland (several years ago), that episode really got to me. If I hadn't lived in Ireland, though, it might not have affected me the same way. Part of the filter of experience we bring to the table, sometimes projecting more than is even intended into the work.

RAC said...

This topic (of using real-life people as characters) has come up at a number of writers' conferences I've attended, and everyone usually says, "Go ahead and write the story as you think best. Lawsuits are few and far between." Unless you're outside the United States -- they say the U.K., for instance, is much less tolerant of potential invasions of privacy and potential libel situations.

stevemosby said...

Hmmm, I think I disagree with you a bit, Sandra - especially your 1.31 pm comment. This is off the top of my head, so probably rambling...

My only reservation about drawing from real-life cases is whether the result should be classed as fiction or non-fiction. In film, such things might be called docu-dramas, but I don't think there's an equivalent term in literature. Nevertheless, I have no interest in the writer's personality, motives, the effort he put in, his 'creativity', and so on - these things feel a bit irrelevant in terms of judging the artistic merit of the book.

Similarly, I think you're wrong about crime not being taken seriously because it frequently departs from reality. Literature - and art in general - has no duty to mirror reality, or even get close to it. It's a standard example, but if we're faced with ten old portrait paintings, we don't need to know how accurate they are in order to judge their merit. We don't need to read Russian history to evaluate the artistic virtues of War and Peace. And we know pigs can't talk, but Animal Farm is still great literature, as is much fantasy.

It's one of the reasons I was left slightly cold by that post-Harrogate radio discussion, where both Mark and whoever-it-was were arguing about whether golden age or modern crime was more realistic. It just doesn't matter. I agree it's about human experience, but the value in literature is generally not that it reflects the real world: it's that the real world reflects literature. We're presented with a fictional particular that provides us with an insight into the universal. (Or, if you like, we should be presented with archetypes not stereotypes). Animal Farm is not remotely realistic, nor is it celebrated solely as an allegory for Stalinism. We're led to an understanding that "power corrupts" through a story, and we then see aspects of the book reflected in the world around us. It has taught us something we can use, and we now see the world in a new way.

Obviously, you can look at (and value) art on many different levels, and one of them is as entertainment. There's nothing wrong with that. To me, the 'realism' issue seems to be based more on this level, in that you've got readers looking to be entertained who will object if you use the wrong embalming fluid. They might say they want to be challenged, but most of the time they don't. How often, for example, do you see a variation on the theme of "I started it, but nobody had died by page 30, so I lost interest." Or the writing advice: you have to hook them with the first paragraph. Why? Because they'll pick something else up instead. The market's flooded; the product's devalued.

It's not a criticism of those writers or readers - I am one of both - but I think that's closer to the truth of why crime isn't taken as seriously as it sometimes should be. It's an issue of attitude. It feels like many people think "I've paid my £5.99, now entertain me", when 'great' fiction demands and repays more investment than crime is generally approached with. Reading great literature is like having a relationship. Sometimes it takes effort, other times it's easier, but you expect to have to work at it in order to get the most out. Yet I think there's a lot of pressure on crime authors to fuck on the first date if they expect a second, and this expectation is not always the ideal starting point for a relationship.

I repeat - there's nothing wrong with being entertaining: it's a good thing. History will sieve a few into the canon, for what that matters. And eventually - to end on a note of optimism - in a hundred years or so, crime books will finally be valued more highly than slim literary novels, simply because there are more of them and they'll burn longer.

Sandra Ruttan said...

I have no problem with being entertaining. At all. I actually expect books to entertain me, because they need to present an interesting story that I want to read, not feel like I'm forcing myself to plough through.

But I think you slightly misunderstand what I mean about representing reality. And that's one of the dangers of making comments, because even my blog posts are done in quick order, but comments are shorter and faster, and it isn't like an article where you take the time to go over presentation of points.

Now, I've read some books that I would put in the 'abandon reality' category, but maybe it's just easier to reference movies. Stuart Little as opposed to The Departed. Why did one win Best Picture, and why would the other one not even be nominated? To be literal, neither are real. However, one delves into trust, betrayal, pits good against evil if you want to pare it down that simply.

Now, perhaps you could say that Stuart Little can teach a valuable lesson about accepting anyone regardless of size, race, whatever. But even as a kid reading the book I thought this family was a bit odd. When you read Animal Farm, you aren't meant to take it all seriously, in the sense that nobody's asking you to believe that animals talk. It isn't a vegetarian statement that we shouldn't eat pork or anything like that. It may actually be contrasting the complete fantasty of a talking mouse that drives cars and wears pajamas against flesh and blood people that underscores the point - this is complete fantasy.

I don't know - it's hard to convey, really, because I'd rather explain it from the books, it would be easier to make my point. But I very specifically don't want to name names. Bottom line is, I really don't give a shit what people read, as long as they're reading.

BUT do not write about goldfish that genetically mutate and run around with swords saving the universe from crabs and expect people to take you seriously. Part of the problem is that with many of the works I would point to, there's a strong comedic aspect to the stories, and that's the real striking difference. I'm not thumbing my nose at comedy, because it's damn hard to write and do well and lord knows we can all use a good laugh...

But comedies don't tend to get nominated for Best Picture for the same reason that some people draw hard lines between literature and genre - they aren't taken seriously. This may be one of those things that solely comes down to tone.

I'd better stop there before I dig my foot in deeper.

Lyman said...


Here's what a very smart man once said about literary vs. genre fiction.

"Genre Fiction reflects society while entertaining. Literary Fiction doesn't particularly care if you're entertained." ~Welch Everman, mentor for my undergrad.