Fact VS Fiction II: Lying For A Living

The Arts

The great thing about children is that they talk rubbish with more conviction than politicians. Lies, fantasies and half-truths are glued into a kind of surreal pudding that defies you to disbelieve your ears. I should know; at the age of the boy in this story I used to tell the kind of whoppers that could make your eyes fall out. Every adult still believes one hopelessly illogical, morbid thing from their childhood, like if you eat a sandwich you can’t go paddling for two hours or you’ll get cramps and drown. What do you still believe?

But children get to the truth of things too. I was sitting in a cinema watching ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ and the little girl in front of me said, ‘Esmeralda’s tears are going to fall into the Hunchback’s eyes and bring him back to life.’ Which seemed a perfectly reasonable solution to their dilemma.

Fact and fiction are melding to become what we want them to be. Lately there has been an interesting blurring in films and books. Stories which purport to be based on fact veer off into fantasy in order to please the crowd. Take ‘Stan and Ollie’, which is set against Laurel and Hardy’s aborted tour of Northern England just after their fame has faded. The film ends on a triumphant final London show that never happened, yet it’s presented as fact.

Sometimes it’s obvious why these choices are made; we get the endings everyone wants. In these alarmingly uncertain modern times we need to go back and tidy up history, to see it as we wish it had been. Facts can be rearranged, tragedies averted, love can overcome adversity and conquer all. In have come books of ‘novelised nonfiction’. Geoff Dyer wrote, ‘The potential for confusion was there from the outset; when Jonathan Miller was turning Kapuscinski’s book about Haile Selassie and Ethiopia, ‘The Emperor’, into an opera, the author reminded him that it was really a book about Poland.’

There is now an entire subsection of writing that sets famous real life characters into new fictional stories. Antony Beevor said, ‘We seem to be experiencing a need for authenticity, even in works of fiction’. Hilary Mantel does the reverse, fictionalising scenes in nonfiction; ‘For a novelist, this absence of intimate material is both a problem and an opportunity… Unlike the historian, the novelist doesn’t operate through hindsight.’

Michelle Huneven (who was herself unflatteringly fictionalised in another author’s biography) says in The Paris Review, ‘As a novelist, I tend to know significantly more about my characters than I do about my friends…Even when I’ve borrowed a character from life, I have to fill in a lot of blanks, not to mention make them do things they’ve never done in life. Often, it’s this auxiliary material that the fictionalized find especially painful, for they see in it a kind of subconscious, inadvertent truth telling.’

But now that we have Donal Trump and Boris Johnson flatly denying things we have them actually saying on film, and there’s minimal outrage, only a shrug from voters that says, Well, what did you expect? does it matter that we’re melding fact and fiction with such lack of concern? Isn’t the whole of history written through the prism of the present anyway?

Tarantino’s audacious film ‘Inglorious Basterds’ (the ‘e’ was there to get around online censorship problems) went the whole hog and rewrote the Second World War in a way that was much more acceptable to Millennials. In a way it’s what I do, reorganising London to be the way I like it best – yet there’s enough peculiarity in London still for it not to seem false; I know half of the characters I write about in the Bryant & May books, and they’re real – if anything more extreme than their fictional counterparts.

Some people are taking great exception to this form of ‘fake fiction’. Personally, I think it’s another example of fiction’s ability to endlessly surprise us.


6 comments on “Fact VS Fiction II: Lying For A Living”

  1. Peter Tromans says:

    When the story is biography, can we allow some licence? Can we regard the final successful show in the film as symbolic of the eventual recognition of Stan and Ollie as great masters of comedy? Real history should be different, but we have incredible problems of interpretation. Which side won the Battle of Jutland in WWI is more a political question between the supporters of Admiral Jellicoe and Vice-Admiral Beatty than a matter of what happened and what the consequences were. In WWII, the success of the Royal Navy in the Battle of Norway is a forgotten footnote, overshadowed by the military defeat on land. Yet it was of enormous significance in that the German surface fleet suffered severe losses and the Royal Navy established a position that made an invasion of Britain close to impossible.

    Please, don’t change how you treat the world and characters of Bryant and May.

  2. J F Norris says:

    You ought to read The Lifespan of a Fact. It’s a non-fiction book about a fact checker assigned to an essay by John D’Agata prior to its acceptance for publication. The 15 page article underwent intense scrutiny by the fact checker, a young intern who took his job literally and never allowed for creativity, metaphor or any type of literary license. He came up with a report that was over 100 pages long with inaccuracies and questions about facts. In some cases what he found was possibly damaging and libelous if the article was published as is, but most of what he found was negligible and a sign of rigidity in understanding what needed to be checked as fact. I saw a dramatization of the entire incident in a new Boadway play recently. The title of the play is the same as the book. If it is produced in London you ought to see it. So much of what you’ve been writing about in the past two posts is addressed provocatively in the play and the book.

  3. admin says:

    This sounds intriguing. Today I’m proofreading notes from a US fact-checker, and while they’re extremely diligent and intelligent, they often miss the point of how fiction is constructed.

  4. Stephen says:

    Hi Chris,I’m currently reading The Dark Masters Trilogy which uses famous real people in a fictional context as you know.

  5. Wayne Mook says:

    Should we discuss statistics too?

    Some fiction even goes further, putting fictional characters created by others with real life characters. To be honest when done well it is enjoyable. Although I do tend to steer clear of Docudramas, usually because they are not good in so many ways. Based on a true story at one time did become almost a code for, tedious tripe, in my mind.

    As to what is a fact, it does change as we find out more (not just re-interpretation), it’s one of the reasons I so enjoy watching QI.

    “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story,” as Mark Twain coined, or did he?


  6. Helen Martin says:

    The facts surrounding an event can colour how we view that event, but which facts do you choose? That has always been a journalist’s dilemma. Is what just happened to be considered the culmination of a series of events leading to a complete takeover of the levers of power? or is it just an isolated incident, one person’s upset and reaction to a misinterpretation of another event? Go with the obvious connections, I imagine most editors would say, so it doesn’t take half a page to explain and besides, the obvious is probably true.
    The more we dig into old diaries, obscure newspapers, and filed away documents the more information we have with which to surround our event. The more clues we have to the thinking behind the action and the more justification for “fictional” internal dialogue.

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