Lying For A Living

Reading & Writing


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.

22 comments on “Lying For A Living”

  1. Bernard says:

    I feel that storytelling and lying are not the same thing. A liar claims to tell the truth and knowingly does not, while a storyteller does not make the truth claim.

    Sadly, few Brexiters will recognize that they backed the wrong horse and fewer will admit it. The horse most backed was anti-immigrant, anti-establishment, anti-Westminster and had little to do with expectations that it would deliver economic benefits. As with Hilary Clinton in 2016, Jeremy Corbyn in 2019, and, we pray, Trump today, people feel more strongly motivated to vote against than to vote for.

  2. Helen Martin says:

    Here in the Pacific Time Zone it is half past noon on Tuesday and voting across the US appears to be proceeding in an orderly fashion. Imagine feeling the need to say that!

    You’re correct, Bernard, they’re not the same. Stories which borrow from real life, especially well known people’s names require an additional suspension of disbelief. It can only be names because we don’t know those public people well enough to be sure of their reactions to our imaginary events. (How terrified would HM Queen E. II be at a zombie’s appearance in her sitting room?)
    Putting imaginary people in a real setting is not so difficult unless you’re putting a family of eight into a village where the population is known to be ten. (“Where does this writer get off? There isn’t even an empty house there for them to live in.”) Believable has to be believable. I used to enjoy novels set in fictional places (“a village near Boston”) but I seem to be shifting to preferring real places even if the people are all fictional. You can imagine Bryant and May travelling through London and shaking your fist at Victor as Bryant wheels around a corner. I can even imagine totally imaginary people walking through my Vancouver and L.R. Wright had a whole RCMP force in Gibsons and Sechelt dealing with people I could never meet, including the Sechelt librarian. No problem. It’s when you can’t imagine the characters in the place (like the family cited above) that there’s a problem. An alternate universe, yes, or a future time, also yes, but those situations must be clear. An alternate time line (what if the Jacobite Scots had won in 1746?) takes a lot more effort and you’d better have done the research on the back story.

  3. snowy says:

    Anybody that feels the need for a diversion from current events might like to pick up a copy of:

    ‘An Egg for the President’ by Alistair Beeton

    It speculates about what would happen if the American people ever elected a very stupid and vain man as head of state and how he would behave if confronted with a global pandemic*.

    …. Oh! Perhaps not then.

    [*It’s a satire written during the ‘W’ period.]

  4. Chris says:

    I’m a brexiteer and I didn’t back the wrong horse.but I am dim if it makes you feel better

  5. Peter T says:

    Most of the people, most of the time are looking for evidence that supports what they want to be true. It’s quite unusual, not to say rather boring, to seek facts in order to make a rational decision. Perhaps that’s a good reason for our adversarial justice system.

  6. Jan says:

    I’ve just woken up and watched Mr. Trump stand up and say vote counting in the US election should be stopped. That he’s legitimately won but is being subjected to some form of electoral fraud. This patently isn’t true.

    How can fiction get any stranger than this? Looking at what Peter T has contributed
    “Most of the people, most of the time are looking for evidence that supports what they believe to be true”
    You can’t argue with that can you?

  7. Liz Thompson says:

    Why on earth would I think that fiction was fact? It’s in the name (according to my dictionary). Oh, I’ve just remembered, there were people that thought The Da Vinci Cods was true……..

  8. Paul C says:

    A lot of complaints were levelled at the films ‘Michael Collins’ and ‘The Iron Lady’ because they the distorted facts for dramatic purposes and some people might take them as truth. I think the public is more intelligent than our MPs and
    commentators believe. They are perfectly capable of distinguishing between fact and fiction. I knew little about Collins but the film inspired me to read books to learn the true story. Even Shakespeare distorted facts for dramas so what’s the problem ?

    Reminds me that a few early reviewers of the first Flashman novel thought it was a genuine biography !

  9. Martin Tolley says:

    William Blake: “When I tell the truth, it is not for the sake of convincing those who do not know it, but for the sake of defending those that do.”

  10. Helen Martin says:

    The British public is better at recognizing the truth than the Americans are? I am becoming more and more negative about anyone, including myself , recognizing the truth in any situation at all.

  11. Vee says:

    Just stopping by to say thank you to Christopher Fowler for the Bryant & May series. And now that I’m here to also say I am a little bit in disbelief that in addition to the books you write and read, you blog do regularly and even reply to comments— who does that?

    The comments here are also interesting—again, where does that still happen?

    Seeing that there are people like you out there who seem to run on different batteries than the rest of us, people who are interested in things and therefore interesting is a joy. In my world, people are mainly interested in the quickest way to, as the 4-year old son of a colleague put his greatest desire, “dominate.”

    I wish a very long life to this impossible, weird and wonderful patch of the world and to the imagination of the writer who created it. Rock on!

  12. Peter T says:

    How would HM QEII react to a zombie in her sitting room? Quite calmly. She’s been meeting our PMs and foreign heads of state for decades. She would be more shocked by a regular, honest human being.

  13. Rob Lloyd says:

    I use ‘real’ characters in my fiction, which has the effect of making me feel obliged to treat them fairly. For example the book I’m writing includes the staff of the Bethlehem Hospital in 1682. I have a (surprising to me) lot of detail on them. So I’ve got the real names of the Porter, the Matron, the Steward, the Apothecary, the Physician, and some of the ‘basketmen’, the fetchers and carriers. Odd rules start to apply: can’t be too mean to her, can’t kill him, have to be fair to them, no that didn’t happen. I enjoy the limitations this places on me.
    Then I decide, no actually, I will kill him off…

  14. Jan says:

    She got on quite well with the burglar that time!

    Even sorted him out a ciggy.

    On the quiet they must have some bottle these folk. Even though they lead lives of immense and untold privilege it must always be there in the back of their minds somewhere that they and the people they love are liable to be the target of some nutter.

  15. Paul C says:

    Re truth in the US elections recalls the scene in Citizen Kane where he prepares two newspaper headlines in advance : KANE ELECTED and FRAUD AT POLLS !

    I wonder if Trump is aware of this eerily prescient scene ?

  16. Percy Elliott says:

    Hi Christopher. I am a Brexiter and have a slsight suspicion that the epole around me don’t regard me as being particularuly dim-witted. For me, Brexit was about the issues of sovereignty and democracy. The EU is a monolithic, highly undemocratic organisation. I don’t dispute that it does do some quite good things, I merely wonder if it’s worth sacrificing sovereignty and meaningful democracy for some nice new motorways etc.

  17. Helen Martin says:

    Paul C, I had forgotten that. I doubt if Trump knows the movie at all.
    Jenni, I’m Looking forward to hearing from you.

  18. Helen Martin says:

    Chris – please remove my comment above. Jenni & I have contacted each other.

  19. Ruth says:

    I love novels that use real streets and places – I get the maps out and track the characters as they move around and imagine them in their fictional everyday lives. When a London street is mentioned I think about a character I’ve read about who lives or works there. But I don’t confuse it with reality – fiction is better because after a while you can start to create your own scenarios – what if Ben Aaronovich’s Peter Grant went to work at the PCU.

  20. Helen Martin says:

    Ruth, the mind boggles!
    I am reading Babylon Berlin which is set in Berlin of 1929 and mentions seemingly every street the police use so I’m going to use Google Earth and tour around to see how many of those streets still exist. (Didn’t know that you could go to Unter den Linden if you were looking for a prostitute.)

  21. Ian Luck says:

    Helen, those ‘Babylon Berlin’ (which struck me only recently, as a possible pun on the title of the single ‘Babylon’s Burning’, by punk band, The Ruts), books, were one of my favourite reads of last year. Dense, and full of detail, but easy to visualise – if you’ve seen ‘Cabaret’, then you’ll get it. I have also just re-read the ‘Lucifer Box’ novels, by Mark Gatiss. Very rude, extremely clever, and often laugh out loud funny. Well worth a few hours of your time.

  22. Ian Luck says:

    Ruth – If Peter Grant went to the P.C.U., he’d be welcomed with open arms – except by Raymond Land, who would probably ‘go sick’ the first time he saw Peter do any magic. Arthur, on the other hand, would probably have crossed paths with Nightingale in the past. I would certainly expect that Maggie Armitage would be well aware of ‘The Folly’, and what went on inside it’s walls.

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