Thursday, 9 October 2014

Fiction and lies; good and bad

One of the more curious quirks of the human mind is the way we distinguish between lies and fiction.

We know fiction is untrue. We expect it to be untrue. We don’t want it to be true. In fact, there’s even a psychological mechanism, suspension of disbelief, that allows us to enjoy the untrue narrative we’re reading or watching, because at one level we believe it – we get into the story – while at another we know perfectly well that it’s impossible to believe.

This even leads to curious paradoxes, such as our rejection of inappropriate actions by fictional beings. In Lord of the Rings, for instance, if Sauron had decided that his behaviour was reprehensible, chosen to retire, backing Aragorn for King and handing over the keys to Dark Tower to Gandalf before heading for a small cottage by Lake Nurnen, we might have had trouble going along with the narrative. 

Sauron may be a fictional character, but we understand how he should behave, and that isn’t it.

Sauron's lidless eye.  "This dark lording fair takes it out of you.
Time to put my feet up. Fancy a cuppa?"
 I don't think so.
Just to add a further twist, as we know what to expect from certain fictions, a good writer can achieve comic effect by making a character behave against nature. 

Terry Pratchett has a vampire character, Otto von Chriek, who has taken the pledge and forsworn the drinking of blood (the “b-vord”, in his Germanic accent, as he prefers to call it). Otto proudly wears the black ribbon of vampires who are on the wagon. To distract him from his addiction, he has become a photographer, which is awkward since vampires can’t handle bright light. He therefore carries a small phial of animal blood around his neck, so if his flash causes him to turn into a pile of dust, it will break and let the blood out to reconstitute him.

Layers upon layers, you see. There are no vampires, but we know how vampires should be; we know that light turns them into a pile of dust; we know it only takes a drop of blood on that dust for them to resuscitate; because Pratchett has stuck to these conventional characteristics of the vampire, he can take liberties with others and create a wonderful comic figure for us.

So fiction may not be true, but it does have rules. Which is perhaps what distinguishes it from simple lying.

Those rules are particularly strict when it comes to historical novels. The basic events described have to be as accurate as possible. The best exponents of this genre therefore put a lot of effort into making sure they are as well informed as they can be, given what’s known about the period in which they set their book. Hilary Mantel’s books about Thomas Cromwell are compelling not just because they are a fine telling of a gripping story, but because we know she’s gone out of her way to get the factual basis right. Of course we realise that she can’t possibly know what Cromwell said to Henry VIII in private, or how he felt about his wife and family, but we allow Mantel licence in that area – we suspend disbelief – because she’s so rigorous elsewhere.

The same is true of Robert Harris’s An Officer and a Spy, a masterly novel on the Dreyfus affair and its finest figure, Colonel Georges Piquart. If you haven’t read it, read it soon: it’s a great and enthralling piece of fiction supported by fact.

Then, however, we get another kind of writing which is far less honourable. The kind that claims the same kind of adherence to fact as Mantel and Harris espouse, but fails to live up to it.

“All rituals, science, artwork, and monuments in this novel are real,” claims Dan Brown at the beginning of The Da Vinci Code. And then proceeds to lay before us a stream of undiluted tripe. The Priory of Sion was a secret society founded in 1099, he claims, when in fact it was a hoax set up in 1956. There are 666 panes in the Louvre pyramid, the number of beast, according to Brown; in reality, there are 673. Extraordinarily, at one point his characters take the London tube at Temple station, to travel to King’s College, London. Which is right next to Temple tube. No other station is closer.

The Da Vinci code's claim to factual advice
doesn't stop it being unadulterated drivel
This isn’t playing with the rules of a genre, as Pratchett does, it’s flouting them. You make a Mantel type claim about respect for fact, and then deliberately break it.

To me that no longer feels like fiction. It’s simply lying. And I’ve had nothing but contempt for Brown since I realised that’s what he’d done.

Why am I talking about this now? Because something came up the other day to remind me of this particular kind of lie.

We recently watched the 1996 film Fargo and the series of the same name that was spun off from it. Each episode of the series starts with a claim that echoes the one made at the start of the film:

This is a true story. The events depicted took place in Minnesota in 2006. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.

That’s rubbish. The events are completely fictional. Fargo’s claims are just as false as The Da Vinci Code’s. Which is infuriating. 

However, what infuriates me is not that I can’t forgive the creators of Fargo for being so free and easy with the distinction between fiction and lying, but because I can’t write them off for it as I did Dan Brown.

And why can’t I feel as ill-disposed towards them?

Because Fargo
s good. And The Da Vinci Code’s drivel.

Fargo. Outstanding. A lie's a small price to pay
Ultimately, that’s the reality. Fiction? Lies? The only distinction which matters is quality. If it’s well put together, fiction can be forgiven anything, even if it strays over the boundary into falsehood.

Fargo’s good enough. But Dan Brown never wrote sufficiently well to merit that kind of indulgence.

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