Monday, May 9, 2011

Can Fiction Be Fiction?

By Julie Daines

I've been following the story of Greg Mortenson and his book "Three Cups of Tea." So sad. And yet, it is the perfect reminder to me of why I tend prefer the novel over nonfiction and memoir. How do I know what the author wrote is true? Everyone is prone to embellishment. But when it's out there in a book, it doesn't feel like embellishment, it feels like lies.

So then I started wondering ... is there room for embellishment in fiction? We watch TV and movies where stuff that could never happen happens all the time. And we say, "Cool! They just figured out who the killer is and saved the world based on a grain of sand." Or "Wow, that car just did a triple back flip over a cliff and the driver didn't get hurt at all." We accept it and move on. Maybe with film, seeing is believing.

It seems harder to get away with stuff like that in a book. I don't know why. Maybe the printed word carries more weight. Maybe we don't have that "real life" visual image to help us suspend disbelief. Instead, we read with skepticism, questioning the "reality" of what is happening in a book of fiction. Then we scoff and say, "Ha! I don't buy it."

Every genre of fiction has different standards of realism, of course. And things have to fit into their specific realm of reality--all with some sense of believability.

But it makes me laugh when a child looks up from a book and says, "Mom, I don't think a giant, poisonous worm would actually be strong enough to crack the mountain like that." 

So why is it that fiction can't just be fiction?


Deren Hansen said...

I wonder if the key difference between films and books is that with the latter we must create the "film" in our minds. Without a team of special-effect artists to help us, if we can't imagine how it might be, based only on the text, it doesn't ring true.

Taffy said...

One of my favorite movies is "Stranger than Fiction" with Will Ferrell.
Know what? I think it's ironic that reality shows aren't reality. Maybe they're fiction!

Scott said...

Great post.

Most readers are willing to suspend disbelief for a couple of things in a fictional world, but after that, everything must conform to the sense of reality in the story world.

If the story is set in our real world, you can get away with less without it becoming a fantasy. If the story is set in a totally fictional world, we still look for consistency and a kind of reality within that world.

It's why I have trouble with some stories involving magic. For example, if there are mages in the medieval-based fantasy world who can blow up/dissolve/pass through stone walls, then there is no reason for any town or fortress to go through the trouble and expense of building a stone wall.

Tolkien's Middle Earth works so well because it is a world with a consistent reality.

Maybe the real question is, can nonfiction be nonfiction? Eyewitness accounts of a crime or accident are notoriously unreliable, and no two people see the same event exactly the same way.

All nonfic is passed through the filters and perceptions of the person telling the story. It's not just a matter of deliberately making stuff up. We're all going to see the same thing a different way, and it will be personalized even more when we try to retell it.

I'm never surprised when I hear that somebody disputes something in a memoir, bio, or other nonfic book. Reality just isn't that easy to pin down. It's always changed by personal experience.

Julie Daines said...

It would be cool though, wouldn't it? If we had special effects for everything we do.

Michelle said...

I just watched a 60 minutes clip on Three Cups of Tea. It was sad, I really liked that book. It seems like when we read fiction we read it with the attitude "it didn't really happen, but it COULD really happen". Maybe we don't have that same attitude with movies. Although I do hear people talking about things being realistic within the "rules" the author/screenwriter sets up for the story. So even in fantasy, unrealistic things can happen if the author hasn't set up the story properly.
I don't mind some fiction in my fiction. Life is real enough for me, I don't need my books to be 100% realistic. I want to be able to relate, but after that I like the boundaries to be pushed a bit.
Such an interesting post! I'd never really though about it before.
The other day Rachel pointed out that Frances doesn't wear underwear under her dress in Bread and Jam for Frances. I guess she is starting to want realism in her stories :)

Julie Daines said...

Good thoughts Michelle. I think I'm like you, I like realism that pushes the boundaries. And Rachel is so cute!