Recently I heard an author complain about a poet because she hadn’t done any research. The poetry was about prostitutes, their struggles and how they reacted to being raped. No interviews! No research! Worse, the poet had made the (hyper)critical error of not actually being a raped prostitute herself. The poet simply made up a story for her poem based on her own imagination. No, I haven’t read the poems, but I don’t think I need to know the details of particular human tragedy to extrapolate the feelings of violation that must entail. I’ve read a lot of fiction that was clearly “just made up”, but the writers I love still strike a common chord of humanity that spur me to cry, get angry and get engaged.
The writer was disgusted with the poet because she “just made up” her fictive poetry.
“Beyond the pale!” she said.
I’m skeptical of proponents of research, especially if it falls into the category of “exhaustive.” It’s not that knowing your stuff is a bad thing. It’s that knowing your stuff can often lead to recording instead of creation. (Sometimes military thrillers beat you over the head with the research so hard, you’d think the serial numbers on the missile casing is more important than the nuclear warhead exploding over Miami.) For me, the authenticity of the enjoyment of the writing — the feelings stirred — trump the details of the particular brand of cigarette available in certain cities at certain times. Which is a fancy way of saying I don’t give a shit as long as the story is plausible within its own world. For instance, do all prostitutes read Proust? It’s probably not required reading, but you could easily convince me one prostitute reads Proust if you can write a convincing context.
Is it necessarily better fiction because it springs directly from the real world? Kevin Bacon went back to high school for a day before filming Footloose, for instance. Do you think that was crucial to performing what was already in the script? And if the writer of the script hadn’t grown up in a repressed town that outlawed dancing, would Footloose be any less awesome? (I refer here, of course, to the original Footloose. There’s a remake, but I decree it shall not be discussed and anyone associated with that abomination can go shoot themselves in the face…I digress.)
There is a dangerous trend in fiction that many writers think is required. It goes like this: If you’re going to have anything to write about, you have to go have a lot of experiences, many of them bad. That’s the dry, sterilized version. In practice, it’s more like this: You can’t write about rehab unless you’re an alcoholic or a junkie first. Terrible life choices make for great writing, assuming you don’t kill yourself in stage one of the writing process in which you’re actively pursuing bar brawls each night. Unless you’ve experienced what you’re writing about, it’s not authentic enough.
And I call bullshit. It’s fiction. Make it up but make it seem real enough that I can suspend my disbelief. We all have human experiences and we can imagine pain and transfer it to the page. You’re experience doesn’t have to be exactly what you’re writing about. Otherwise, you’re not even writing fiction. That’s memoir.
About fictive memoir (since this case inevitably springs to mind): Some people bought into the overhyped nonsense around A Million Little Pieces because James Frey fictionalized some of his “memoir” of addiction (after first shopping it around as a novel.) Nobody gives David Sedaris a hard time for doing the same thing to very humorous effect. Also, a lot of people also said that A Million Little Pieces helped them kick their addictions, even though some of it wasn’t real. Placebos often work on people, even when they know it’s a placebo, so what’s the harm in a book that’s 80% correct to the facts of one junkie’s life and 100% true to the feelings of thousands?
I have censored myself when my fiction didn’t pass my personal standard for believability. I admit I have recently dumped two short stories involving military personnel because, though I grew up around the military, I’ve never been in the military. I just wasn’t confident enough that I had the details quite right. I was writing about people, but I didn’t think the environment they swam in was there to deftly suspend disbelief. However, I have written stories from the perspective of old Asian men, a little girl, an autistic boy, adult women and a gay dinosaur.
For the record, I have never been a gay dinosaur
(not that there’s anything wrong with that.)
A few years ago a group within PEN Canada insisted no one could write about the minority female experience except minority female authors. I think that idea kind of fizzled because of the unrealistic limits (and ghettoization) such a policy could lead to. First, it was censorship, which most writers are against and (Thank Zeus!) there wasn’t a way to enforce the decree, anyway. Second, its logical conclusion was that black women could never write about white men. We would all have to conform to our stereotypes and human beings are way more variable than our stereotypes. After a short hullabaloo, the idea lost traction. Shakespeare, after all, was not Italian and never saw Verona.
We’re often told “write what you know.” That would leave a lot of sci-fi and fantasy out of our lives. Instead, I suggest you write what you care about. Write what you can make me believe. If someone doesn’t think you did a good job of recreating their real experience, they can go ahead and write their memoir so the heroine smokes the authentic brand of cigarette (good for Writer 1, but I’m fairly certain I still won’t give a shit.)
Fiction is a work of the imagination.
It’s our job as writers to make it believable.
It’s our job as readers to get into the spirit of the art instead of looking for things to bitch about.
- In Defense of Memoir: Once More Into the Fray (brevity.wordpress.com)
- Fiction vs. Non-Fiction, What’s Your Approach? (k1ypp.wordpress.com)
- (Re)Imagining True Lives: On Historical Fiction (themillions.com)