There be Danger in Fiction’s Lies
Editing, rewriting and digesting constructive criticism have become part of my daily life. Thus, I hardly blinked when my work was returned with the tell-tale signs of tracker run amok. The editor had made careful notes, with numerous well thought out suggestions. Overall the entire experience went smoothly, but for one little bump: an unseen editor decided to change the cause of death to a more realistic single shot to the head. The original cause of death defied belief. Stranger than fiction, the mantra says.
As Helen Moffett writes in her famous (or should be famous) piece Stuff that authors (AND editors) need to know, ‘Your fictional world has to obey much stricter rules of internal logic and consistency than the real world. . . In real life, the unimaginable happens all the time, widely improbable coincidences occur daily, and characters are much larger than life.’
But who is deciding what is real? Are there times where our fictional lies become so ingrained that they colour reader’s perception of reality? Because my disagreement with the editor was not over my latest short story, but a non-fiction essay. Thankfully we all came up with an honest solution to the problem. But what a bizarre experience it was to defend a factual suicide against perpetuated fictional myth.
Here’s another tale, one from my hometown: A man walks into a bar and shoots the bartender at point blank range. The shooter then turns the gun on himself, firing a bullet into his head. Both men survive.
Unbelievable? Perhaps. Unusual? Most certainly. But to the best of my knowledge, it is true.
It is a Catch-22. The truth is too strange to be commonly written in fiction, so the writer falls back on myth and stereotype; this reinforces readers’ beliefs that the lie is actually true. The reality is that a bullet to the head is not a guarantee of death. It does happen, of course. But at times the victim survives, as Stieg Larrson’s trilogy accurately illustrates. But how many people thought Stieg Larrson had crossed the line into improbability until Senator Gabriel Giffords was shot?
Fictional lies masked as realistic portrayals can lodge into the common psyche, unwittingly contributing to unnecessary drama and be life threatening. Ever watched a Hollywood film where a woman in labour doesn’t scream while being overcome with mind-numbing pain?* It does happen. Of course it does. As Midwife Thinking** shows, these screaming women are too often painted as being unable to cope, and this is perceived as the norm.
But screaming does not necessarily mean the woman can’t cope. Nor does every woman, even without the help of drugs, labour loudly. ‘Because we are individuals, our birthing behaviour is also individual. Some women become quiet, withdrawn and “in control”.’ *** A woman’s response to labour is not a choice or about ability to cope, but instinct. ‘Our birthing behaviour originates in the limbic system, the area of the brain shared by all mammals. To labour well we need to shut down our neo-cortex – the thinking human part of the brain.’****
After my son’s safe arrival to planet earth, the administrator struggled to enter our records into the hospital system. This was because the computer wasn’t programmed for births that occur inside the hospital yet outside of the labour ward. My quiet, highly strenuous, yet not actually painful, labour was labelled ‘pre-labour’ and consequently, I was denied access to the proper ward. Thus, what should have been a beautiful and straightforward experience was one that was unsafe, unsanitary and mentally scaring. My labouring against stereotype led to poor advice, insults, condescending comments and commands that, had they been followed, would have put my son’s life at risk. If only someone had actually noticed my son had crowned, my husband would have been spared the traumatic experience of seeing a foetal heart monitor persistently displaying a flat line no matter what the experts did.
We were unusual, they said. An exception to the rule. But when I attended a mummy and baby group I met a woman whose experience practically echoed mine word for word. Then I heard another similar tale. And another. Friends of mine gave birth in hospital bathrooms, or without proper staff present– more and more exceptions – these women who find labour intense work, but do not scream, who supposedly give birth more promptly than the ‘norm’ and thus are ignored.
I wonder if it is like a gift of a thousand compliments. People can shower a person with praise, but one voice of criticism is the comment that lodges in the brain. Whether in movies or novels, fiction’s refusal to portray anything but the stereotypical birth, the not-so-unexceptional experience is constantly disbelieved despite the fact it is happening in reality – all the time – but discounted.
So I ask:
1. How many more inaccurate portraits do the strange lies of fiction perpetuate: of women, masculinity, the supposed innate differences between young boys and girls, of life and of death?
2. Does ‘stranger than fiction’ ever hurt fiction writers’ ability to accurately challenge the myths which cloud issues such as eating disorders, sexual abuse, rape, sexism, racism, religion and marriage?
3. Is our understanding of nations, cultures, religions and even the difference between small town life and suburbia struggling to rise above cliché and stereotype due to the truth being too hard to believe?
4. What are the ethics, if any, of the writers, the editors, the movie producers in the part they play in this Catch-22?
**** as above