Thursday Reading FUNdamentals: Reality Bites
Do you remember the James Frey fiasco from a few years ago? If you don’t, to recap, Frey released a book called A Million Little Pieces that was supposedly a true story of his time in a rehab clinic. He received a lot of notoriety when Oprah Winfrey plugged the book for her book club. Then it was learned that a lot of what Frey wrote was bull plop. At first Oprah defended Frey and then later turned on him, throwing him under the bus on live TV. There were lawsuits, refunds, and all sorts of junk. Frey went on to release an actual novel called Bright Shiny Morning; I have no idea how it’s doing.
Anyway, after the hubbub died down, I decided to read the book. My library as a compromise between filing it as straight fiction or a biography put the book in the Health & Wellness nonfiction section.
My overall reaction was that if I had heard nothing about the Oprah debacle, I still would have thought the book was fake. None of the characters seemed very real to me. Frey was the classic gruff antihero like Clint Eastwood or Russell Crowe only in a rehab center. The girl he meets was the old hooker with a heart of gold cliché. Then was the wise, fatherly mobster, who I assume did not sound like he had a ball of cotton in his cheeks. One thing I pointed out in my review was the scene where Frey runs into a crack house to rescue his girl and a shocked counselor tells him “You shouldn’t have been able to do that!” I laughed out loud at that because it seemed like a scene cribbed from The Matrix when Keanu Reeves discovers he can dodge bullets. He shouldn’t be able to do that! But he can because he’s The One.
Of course the obvious thing is that even in “nonfiction” you’re always going to get things that are fictionalized. The only way for any piece of “nonfiction” to remain pure would be to covertly record everything and transcribe it exactly as it happened. That would be quite cumbersome, though and probably no one would want to read it because it wouldn’t make much narrative sense.
And that gets to my point for today. What is real in fiction? The answer is that real fiction does not equal real life. You know why? Because real life is messy. Real life is boring. In real life things happen randomly for no reason. There’s no narrative sense to real life. We try to make a narrative sense, especially with religion. When someone dies, we try to look back and find the point of it all. We try to cast this person as the hero (or maybe the villain) and give meaning to his/her life. In other words, we try to make a story out of his/her life.
That’s what every storyteller does. We examine the pieces and put them together into some coherent form to make the point we want. What the novelist does then is filter out the random crap, the meaningless scenes, the boring junk, and leave the few bits that when put together form something that would make sense to others. It’s the same principle going back thousands or millions of years (depending on your point of view) when our distant ancestors were sitting around campfires.
Think about it, not even a caveman would go on for ten hours about tramping through the wilderness and stopping to do his business and eat some berries or whatever before he got to hunting the mastodons. Because no one wants to hear the tedious little details of how he got there; they just want to hear about fighting the mastodons.
There are some who attempt more “realistic” writing by using stream of consciousness and other devices like that. The problem is that even that method can’t create a purely “real” experience. The simple reason is that everyone censors and/or embellishes things. Again, the only way to guarantee actual “realism” is to use a hidden camera and follow someone around 24/7 like The Truman Show. Even that’s not purely real because it’s taking place in a false environment.
In The World According to Garp, the titular character tries to make the point that no matter what happens in real life, he can imagine something better. If you can imagine a tragedy he can imagine something more tragic. (Then later he has to eat his own words.) The point he was trying to make though is that in novels there’s a difference between things what truly happens and what happens truly. That’s where Frey’s book fell down for me is that I didn’t feel it happened truly. It might have truly happened but to me it rang false. The goal for any good fiction writer should be to achieve the opposite: to make what hasn’t happened ring true. It doesn’t matter whether you’re writing literary fiction, romance, mystery, sci-fi, or fantasy, the goal should be for the audience to believe it could happen. (Of course in fantasy and sci-fi that would mean that it could happen in a world populated by dragons or robots or whatever.) A lot of what’s on the bookshelves is the type of cliché-ridden tripe that doesn’t ring true in any sense; that at best could be called “escapist literature.” I’m sure we’ve all read at least one of those at some point.
During a few blog interviews for my book, Where You Belong, I was asked by a couple different people how much of the book actually happened. The answer is none of it. The book is fiction. I was not orphaned as a child or badly burned. Never met any twins or practiced kissing to A Streetcar Named Desire or any of that. What would be more accurate is to say that some of these things in the book are symbolic representations of things that have actually happened. I’d rather not say what. I would say that the college Frost initially attends–Northeast Iowa State–was loosely based on my alma mater. Nothing else was really pulled from actual experiences. Again, some of it might have been artistically reinterpreted from actual experiences. That goes back to my point about storytelling; what we try to do is take things and arrange them so they make some kind of coherent point. Sometimes this means taking real events and reimagining them so they fit into the story. That’s probably what James Frey did and what created such a problem for him. It’s probably really hard for a non-writer to appreciate the difference between true stories that actually happen and true stories that feel like they happened.
What got me thinking about this was when I wrote my entry last Thursday about Next by James Hynes. In it the middle aged man ruminating about his life is suddenly killed in a terrorist attack, which I decried as a deus-ex-machina device. That got me thinking: well, doesn’t that make it realistic? I mean in real life shit like that just happens. Case in point 35 people were killed on the Moscow subways just a couple of days ago in terrorist bombings. Those were probably ordinary people going about ordinary lives and then BOOM!–just like Next. The problem for me was the same as with A Million Little Pieces in that even if it could–and does–actually happen, I found it extremely hard to believe that it would happen at that particular moment in someone’s life.
That in turn got me thinking about what it means to tell a true story. I have to agree with Garp that what makes a true story is that it feels true in what it’s saying to you rather than it’s true in what actually happened. A middle aged guy who’s pontificating about his wasted life suddenly getting blown up in a terrorist attack on Austin, Texas didn’t strike me as a true story in what it was saying to me. Sure, I could get blown up in a terrorist attack tomorrow. So could you. But there’s a 99.9% chance you won’t. You could also have a meteor crash through your roof and kill you, but you probably won’t. Or get struck by lightning, gang probed by aliens, and so forth. Extraordinary things can always happen, but they usually don’t. So when you have an ordinary guy going through an ordinary crisis and then throw in an extraordinary plot twist at the end it just rings hollow to me. It seems contrived. Convenient Plot Devices are something I should probably save for a Terrible Tips Tuesday.
Tomorrow, Good Friday, I’m going to mourn the loss of my former critique group Writers.net. This will replace Sunday’s entry since it’s Easter and I will be eating Reese’s peanut butter eggs and ham.