Fact VS Fiction II: Lying For A Living
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.