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Tiah Beautement

@ Books LIVE

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?

* http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/ScreamingBirth)

** http://midwifethinking.com

*** http://midwifethinking.com/2011/04/09/judging-birth/

**** as above

 

Recent comments:

  • <a href="http://www.jamesclelland.co.za" rel="nofollow">James Clelland</a>
    James Clelland
    April 21st, 2011 @19:37 #
     
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    Tiah, you are a star. This is so thought-provoking and accurate that it shouldn't have been necessary to write, but, paraphrasing what you write, truth is very definitely stranger, etc. And I loved the slant that stereotypes can be perpetuated and continued in fiction because truth is just too weird to be believed! Well said indeed. One part of Deeper than Colour was criticised for being unlikely when I'd lived through just such an event. Duh! Where are the rules, brothers and sisters? And who creates them? And why?

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    April 21st, 2011 @22:03 #
     
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    This piece certainly has had my mind turning over what makes good stories, and good writing. Am rethinking the entire plausibility rule of editing, and I think it needs refining: the throwaway details have to be plausible. But I think a central account of events that's "implausible" or alternative is fine, IF it's powerfully and persuasively written.

    Your childbirth account is really scary. Thank goodness there was a good outcome. It reminded me of Sarah Nuttall's heartbreaking account of the birth and death of her daughter in At Risk, which everyone should read it, but with stiff drink and tissue-box to hand. Her experience had parallels with yours -- in that there was a slight anomaly, which wasn't picked up because it was an anomaly, and in her family's case it spiralled into tragedy. In fact, a book well worth attention is Jacana's Just Keep Breathing, edited by Sandra Dodson and Ros Haden, SA birth stories that certainly explode the myth of the stereotypical labour.

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  • <a href="http://tiahbeautement.typepad.com/quotidian/" rel="nofollow">tiah</a>
    tiah
    April 22nd, 2011 @08:46 #
     
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    Thank you both for reading and commenting (and book tips!). I am still toying with the subject too.

    James, you are not the first to tell me such a story. Another author told me she had to haul out the facts, sources and so on to prove that what she had describe was a very real problem that was happening all around - not some one off fluke. But she had a hard fight because her scenario was so at odds with the person's perceptions of what little girls are capable of.

    Helen, "the throwaway details have to be plausible." That may be key. 'Zoo City' still had to keep the details in order. Was especially impressed how she addressed such a scenario in prisons. Thought it was very brave of Lauren to go there.

    Also, I have received an email which has some wonderful thoughts on this subject. Hoping the person will grant me permission to post it.

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  • <a href="http://tiahbeautement.typepad.com/quotidian/" rel="nofollow">tiah</a>
    tiah
    April 22nd, 2011 @08:47 #
     
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    Ach, typos. Sorry.

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  • <a href="http://www.darlingtonrichards.com/" rel="nofollow">moi</a>
    moi
    April 22nd, 2011 @19:03 #
     
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    long ago, when I was experimenting with 55-ers, I wrote this for an online workshopping group:

    'Twas the Night Before Christmas

    Penguins, penguins, penguins. Two by two, penguins waddled past Dancer, pair after pair, penguins plodded earnestly by Prancer. Up the hill they trudged, to where the laden sleigh stood in the snow, past Rudolph at the head of the picket line.

    His whiskey breath soured the Arctic air as he hissed through clenched teeth, 'Scabs!"

    ... which was critiqued as being flawed in terms of (lack of)realism - not for suggesting Santa's reindeer would strike; not becasue Rudolph is portrayed as a lush; nothing to do with the (im)probablilities of Santa/reindeer-drawn sleighs/circumnavigating the planet in 24 hours.

    Nope, the story is unrealistic becasue penguins don't live at the north pole nor even in the arctic; they only inhabit the southern hemisphere. Which, of course, is absolutely true :-P

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  • <a href="http://tiahbeautement.typepad.com/quotidian/" rel="nofollow">tiah</a>
    tiah
    April 22nd, 2011 @20:01 #
     
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    I like the whiskey bit best.

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    April 22nd, 2011 @23:39 #
     
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    Moira, that is hysterical. The Editorial Eye in a nutshell.

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  • <a href="http://www.modjajibooks.co.za" rel="nofollow">Colleen</a>
    Colleen
    April 23rd, 2011 @01:11 #
     
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    What are 55-ers?

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  • <a href="http://www.darlingtonrichards.com/" rel="nofollow">moi</a>
    moi
    April 23rd, 2011 @10:16 #
     
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    this was back in '02, Colleen, when flash fiction was just beginning to try define itself. There were journals that published 55-word (sans title) stories, one Canadian journal that published 69-ers, and someplace that proposed the Drabble - stories 100 words or fewer. Often more fun than literary until our Liesl came along and made flash her own

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  • <a href="http://www.modjajibooks.co.za" rel="nofollow">Colleen</a>
    Colleen
    April 23rd, 2011 @11:38 #
     
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    thanks!

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  • <a href="http://tiahbeautement.typepad.com/quotidian/" rel="nofollow">tiah</a>
    tiah
    April 26th, 2011 @07:59 #
     
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    Got permission to post the quote from the email. From Ms Anon:
    'well that is extremely complex. You risk losing your audience if you write something that they do not feel is feasible, even if it is the truth. And each writer is telling their own individual story and in theory they have the right to put it however they want, with no responsibility to anything other than their story. But of course there are so many huge problems with reality not being accurately portrayed. And this damages perceptions of how life is as opposed to how it is in the movies or books. I'm not sure there is an answer to your question, it depends on how you see art, as a thing in and contained of itself, or as a thing with a social responsibility.'

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  • <a href="http://www.jamesclelland.co.za" rel="nofollow">James Clelland</a>
    James Clelland
    April 26th, 2011 @09:25 #
     
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    I'm enjoying eavesdropping in this conversation about whisky and 69-ers, what a combination!

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  • <a href="http://tiahbeautement.typepad.com/quotidian/" rel="nofollow">tiah</a>
    tiah
    April 26th, 2011 @13:15 #
     
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    James, every time I read this thread 'Oh my Darling, Clementine' plays in my head. 49-ers are not 69-ers but there we are, my word association gene is prone to tangents.

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  • <a href="http://www.jamesclelland.co.za" rel="nofollow">James Clelland</a>
    James Clelland
    April 26th, 2011 @13:31 #
     
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    Love those tangents!

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  • <a href="http://www.darlingtonrichards.com/" rel="nofollow">moi</a>
    moi
    April 26th, 2011 @14:15 #
     
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    well, no-one asked but since we're in the silly season, I dug out an old 69-er, if only to reign in those tangents a tad ;-P

    The Ultimatum

    The leader of the delegation rapped firmly upon the mighty wooden door, and waited patiently for it to open. When the great man stepped outside they read to him at length from the document they had prepared with such care.

    "So you see Mr Noah, sir," the leader said at last, "It must be all of us or none."

    And the other dodos nodded their heads in tremulous agreement.

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  • <a href="http://tiahbeautement.typepad.com/quotidian/" rel="nofollow">tiah</a>
    tiah
    April 28th, 2011 @08:49 #
     
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    Now I have 'Alice in Wonderland' going through my head. I was given the part of the crab. Take that however you will.

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