by Sherwood Smith
Three or four years ago, a writer was a day away from departing on a massive book tour before her equally massive launch of a memoir about growing up poor in South-central LA and her gangsta life. Then her sister blew the whistle: she proved to be an upscale Valley girl. The memoir was fiction.
Here’s the part that got to me. She claimed (and from what I could tell, this was corroborated) that her book as fiction had been rejected everywhere with a similar sort of observation: her writing was dynamic, the story riveting, but no one could sell it as fiction.
Roger that, she said. She reinvented herself, and rewrote the story as a memoir.
Sale! Except, ooops, she apparently didn’t clue her own family in on the deceit, though she brought in a bunch of ringers as gangsta witnesses in order to charm her editorial house with their lack of couth.
While this story is unusual, the central conflict isn’t: people seem to want their fiction to be . . . real.
The most obvious example of this conflict is reality TV, which I think is the direct descendant of the “True Confessions” mags of fifty years ago–and the “travel books” of two hundred years ago, many of which were written by people who’d never been any farther from home than ten miles.
I’ll get to those old examples in a second, but for now, I’ve seen various discussions circling around the question: how real is reality TV?
I tried watching one show. It seemed blatantly fake. I sensed the presence of a director just off camera, typing crazily on the TelePrompter, Be sexier! More emotion! because the body language of the actors was such a stiff, self-conscious contrast to the banality of their words as they struggled to pile on yet more intensifiers for emotions they seemed to be required (judging by the frenetic da-da-DOOM music and the wild camera angles and jump cuts) to be projecting.
But there’s no question that Top Chef is about real chefs, Runway is about real designers; my son points out that the various shows about bad drivers and cops arresting people are all taken from police car video tapes. Real people, but from little I’ve seen, (“OMG, it’s like, I’m all, OMG, it’s so horrible, so incredibly, wow, it’s just, I don’t know, OhmiGAWD!”) very bad drama.
So why do people watch these things, or read “tell all” books about similar events? Is the craving for reality really a craving for truth? Is that possible, especially these days, when paradigms are shifting so fast we can feel the breeze–when many artists are lauded for their artistic efforts to prove that there is no truth beyond experience, and that cannot be trusted?
Patricia Meyer Spacks wrote a book addressing this subject within the context of eighteenth century novels, which are closer to our concept of the modern novel than, say, Chaucer, or Pilgrim’s Progress. She has this evocative sentence at the very start, Truth, dressed–like Falsehood–by Desire, becomes Fiction which riffs off an ornately written screed by Samuel Johnson in Rambler.
Johnson considered it neither useful nor appropriate for the novelist to merely imitate actuality, Spacks explains in her foreword. And then goes on to address Johnson’s point, which was about moral or ethical truth being the goal of good fiction.
The writers in those days all felt that fiction could convey truth. Smollett, in Humphrey Clinker gleefully gives us a too-credibly disgusting view of what the Baths were really like in the 1700s–despite the high tone that Beau Nash tried so desperately to inculcate. Don’t ever read that passage around mealtimes!
Nabokov says, The good reader is aware that the quest for real life, real people, and so forth is a meaningless process when speaking of books. He thinks the “zing” of the “real” that readers crave is the pleasurable shock of artistic truth.[bolding mine]
Of course, as we can easily discover while reading over the Net, one person’s artistic truth is another’s oft-seen triteness. Reader X, running eyes down a post by Reader Y enthusing tearfully about the painful truth depicted in the latest work of a given writer is thinking, “Truth? That’s not truth, that’s sentimental twaddle–wish-fulfillment claptrap on the level of the mime with a single painted tear!”
Nabokov talks more about realism in fiction: All reality is comparative reality since any given reality, the window you see, the smells you perceive, the sounds you hear, are not only dependent on a crude give-and-take of the senses but also depend upon various levels of information.
He goes on (and I think this bit relates to SF and F): Flaubert may have seemed realistic or naturalistic a hundred years ago to readers brought up on the writings of those sentimental ladies and gentlemen that Emma [Bovary] admired. But realism, naturalism, are only comparative notions. What a given generation feels as naturalism in a writer seems to an older generation to be exaggeration of drab detail, and to a younger generation not enough drab detail. This isms go; the ist dies; art remains.
How to achieve a sense of realism, or truth, in SF and F adds a level of challenge because so much of our own personal truth derives out of experience. When we’re young, many of us read as fast as we could in order to kick and smack the boundaries of experience out as far as we could. We figured out by age six that no matter how hard we wished, we wouldn’t get a set of wings, so reading about kids who got wings was the next best thing. We gradually learned to differentiate between the stories that had winged kids but we were doing all the work of believing in the tale’s reality, and the stories that made us feel the itch and ache in our shoulder blades, the cold wind scouring our faces, the dizzying dive down a canyon just before we level out on the warm updraft. The society in the story requires wings for survival, doesn’t just exist around them; we are there, not here.
I think we can safely say that realism isn’t always verisimilitude–we can read of experiences and not believe them. We think the person is making it all up. In the matter of SF and F, what kind of experience we’ve gone through shapes our perception of the verisimilitude the writer is giving us: one reader finds the world convincing, another doesn’t. If both read on eagerly, is there a sense of truth that underlies the presence or absence of verisimilitude? Or, put another way, does the notion of truth to you function as another word for verisimilitude, or is there artistic truth that explodes the boundaries of experience for you?