Lying For A Living
Lying for a living is no longer the sole province of the writer.
A complaint from a reviewer today about a new historical fiction. ‘It’s interesting, but would have been so much more exciting if we’d known it was a true story instead of fiction.’
Why? The obsession with true stories strikes me as odd. In the latest issue of the Crime Writers Association newsletter, author Vera Morris talks about asking permission to use real locals in her novels. We’ve all inserted friends and locations into novels – the days of writing Is visited the town of G—— have long passed – but at some point fiction kicks in. We should be able to make readers believe us through the power of storytelling.
Storytelling is what Joanne Harris does brilliantly. In ‘Coastliners’ she invented a way for a town to steal a beach, eschewing scientific research. Because, she pointed out, fiction. Given the number of novels that now use real life characters as spies, detectives and romantic leads it seems we Are being led to believe that we need veracity to swallow fiction.
One popular tactic is to take a historical event and add new characters, and there are some terrific authors doing this. We lie for a living, of course, but there’s a difference between using a historical backdrop and subverting events – Quentin Tarantino has discovered this tactic, rewriting history outrageously in ‘Inglorious Basterds’ (written with an ‘a’ to get around online censorship) and ‘Once Upon A Time In Hollywood’. Both feel like wish-fulfilment fantasies – landing a punch on Hitler and taking revenge on the Manson family – and both are undermined by the revenges enacting the same level of Jacobean overkill as the perpetrators.
At his peak Donald Trump achieved something that George Orwell could not do; convince us that a permanent state of lying would replace seeking the truth. My first reaction upon reading ‘1984’ at 15 was one of disbelief. Why would anyone believe that chocolate rations were going up when you knew they were going down? The problem was that the novel was resolutely not a satire, and traditionally such subjects were treated satirically, so how to understand it? If we’d created Trump-as-POTUS five years ago in a non-satirical fiction most editors would have questioned the reliability of the premise. We reckoned without someone coming to power who was so pathologically narcissistic that he would say absolutely anything to gain more control.
Lying for a living is no longer the sole province of the writer. Who would have thought that the defining issue of the decade would be truth VS lies? In times ahead, lying will become more refined. We’re already far past the ‘omission of truth’ stage. In today’s news (at the time of writing this) the Spanish government announced COVID testing for the Canary Islands. As this was virtually the sole remaining flight route for Britons the story was picked up by the nationals. A little digging found a single government source in Madrid, and tucked into that press release was a rider the press omitted stating that the action would take two weeks to legally come into effect. But who wants a story about a minor travel change happening in an orderly fashion? Instead the spin was, ‘Your holiday in ruins’. The churning of the mundane into the sensational creates its own falsity.
In story after story the UK press omits key elements, simplifies, slants. It’s very hard to find both sides represented. I now subscribe to ‘The Critic’, a newish magazine that takes an intelligent and seemingly multi-angled look at current affairs, because it’s something writers need to do; keep an open mind and remember that readers represent nations in microcosm.
Brexit remains the most ludicrous example of selective truth-telling, but as we watch the European economy spurt back into growth and the tarnished tinsel star of Trump plunging (I assume, this being Tuesday night) it must become obvious even to the dimmest Brexiters that they backed the wrong horse, and that the UK ‘will be left at the back of the queue for the queues.’ I dare say there’s be a novel with that setting any day now.