Reality Bites

What is it with these writers who feel the need to make up significant portions of their “true life” stories? Why do they think they’re going to get away with it (they never do), and why does the literary world feign surprise with each new scandal? At least the much-feted youthful phenom J. T. Leroy had the novelty value of not existing at all; Leroy was invented by the California couple who had supposedly adopted him and promoted his story of childhood abuse to celebrities. The beleaguered James Frey presents the more typical case. The Oprah Book Club chose his memoir precisely because of its depiction of the author’s harrowing real life experiences, and therein lies the rub: the success of this kind of book relies on the public’s voracious appetite for horrible and nasty events, but of course they have to have really happened in order to satisfy our voyeurism. We feel disgusted and cheated by the revelation that the author’s life may not have been as wretched and terrifying as he or she had convinced us it was.

So, is the problem that there is simply not enough interesting reality to go around – in economic terms, there’s more demand than supply, essentially forcing writers to invent it simply because it would make a better story than what actually happened? Is reality, at least the “good” kind that will sell, like oil, a kind of precious and finite commodity? Or is that people who actually have nightmarish lives tend not to have the wherewithal, connections, literary skills, or relentless desire for self-promotion required to please our compulsive need to pry into their suffering? (As a friend pointed out, in such cases it’s often true that the writer’s supporters and promoters have an inkling of the fraudulence to be unmasked later on; part of the attraction of any good con job involves a nagging feeling at the back of head that one is being scammed.)

The current trend to consume reality as entertainment or even art – from Survivor, American Idol, and The Swan to the memoir fad in publishing – isn’t actually new. Daniel Defoe basically invented the English novel when he realized that the public’s demand for shipwreck stories was so insatiable that he could just make something up rather than actually go through all the bother of risking his life on a deserted island. The result was Robinson Crusoe. Defoe, intriguingly, claimed that he hated fiction in his Serious Reflections: “This supplying a story by invention is certainly a most scandalous crime…It is a sort of lying that makes a great hole in the heart, at which by degrees a habit of lying enters in.”

Viewing the novel as a form of compulsive lying – the entire story has to be internally coherent and plausible even while every detail is false – is one way to understand why so many memoirs bend the truth. A lot of memoirists are novelists, and novelists lie for a living. William Faulkner, for example, wore a phony uniform and claimed throughout his life that he served as an airman in WWI; he did learn to fly, and his fiction about flying, in Pylon and his WWII short story “Turnabout,” is masterful. The word “fiction” comes from a root meaning “to fashion something.” It’s the magic mechanism of fabrication, the urge to create what Shakespeare, in The Tempest, called “the baseless fabric of this vision.”

Should we care whether it’s made up or not? Clearly, there are some cases where a line is crossed, like The Painted Bird, whose author, Jerzy Kosinski, pretended to have experienced the horrors of WWII up close. (Kosinski’s suicide is often linked to the reputation-destroying revelation that the story was made up.) But most memoirists’ sins are minor: exaggerations, additions, tall tales, and the like. Of course, anybody who puts dialogue of any kind into a memoir is essentially writing fiction. Unless they possess a preternatural memory, they have no choice but to invent what people said. Perhaps there are hidden rules to this sort of thing: everyone understands that it’s possible that not every hilarious comment recorded in a David Sedaris story was actually said, word for word, but nobody would (or should) conclude that Sedaris is trying to trick anyone. The standard, then, is somewhat murky in a similar fashion to the problem of plagiarism, which, it is generally agreed, must be intentional in order to be a serious academic offense. Similarly, it is not enough to misremember the name of the hospital where you were born, you have to be caught making up lies about how you were born with a hole in your lung and how it shaped your later character, by a blogger who looks up your medical records.

Hollywood has taken the lead in parsing the finer distinctions of the reality-based fiction. In addition to the old standby Based Upon a True Story, we now have the brilliant formulation Based On True Events, or the even more interesting Inspired by True Events. These terms have become increasingly all-encompassing. Presumably, if somebody is on their way to get coffee and they witness a mugging, and later turn the incident into a screenplay, that could be “based on true events,” whereas if they only read about the mugging in a newspaper while sitting in the coffeeshop and did the same thing, they have been “inspired by true events.” But these phrases aren’t just so vague as to be meaningless, or studio legalese. They are also statements implicitly acknowledging that a story is far more salable if it can be shown to have some connection, however tenuous, with something that once really happened. The horror movie bomb White Noise, for example, was promoted with a frightening commercial – far more scary than the movie itself – in which (supposedly real) recordings of the voices of dead people had been caught on tape speaking from beyond the grave.

In their movie Fargo, the Coen Brothers already mocked this entire concept by claiming that their film was based on a true story when it almost certainly wasn’t. (“Names have been changed out of respect for the dead,” the opening credits read, surely a fitting ironic prelude to the “respectful” wood-chipper scene.) The Coens hemmed and hawed when they were asked to fill in details about their sources, but the deception was deliberate and satirical. It was a sly comment on our entire obsession with reality, as well as a nod to the implausible “true detective” pulp stories invoked and parodied in The Man Who Wasn’t There. Weren’t the Coens really making a subtle case for fiction, and for art, where receding levels of playful irony operate in ways that true stories, limited to the facts, can only dream about?

The process of inserting fiction into reality can have unexpected consequences. Consider the case of Ted Perry, a professor of film at Middlebury College who worked on a television documentary, Home, about enivronmental issues, in 1972. Perry was asked to write a script about the virtues of environmentalism, but the show’s producers thought that Perry’s words would sound better if some of the text was presented as the wisdom of a respected Native American historical figure, Chief Seattle. The show claimed that Chief Seattle had said, “The earth does not belong to man – man belongs to the earth.” Decades later, the saying is still ascribed to Chief Seattle, and appears in school textbooks and bumper stickers. Perry, in a turnabout from the norm, has spent years trying to get the true story out. (The saying is really an inversion of a line of poetry by Robert Frost: “The land was ours before we were the land’s.”) In all probability, however, the phrase would have never become famous without the trickery. Chief Seattle was a profound guy with plenty of wisdom, and someone realized, shrewdly, that the quotation was more marketable as a Seattleism than a Perryism.

I think it was Schopenhauer who once said that there are two kinds of books worth reading, the kind that exposes us to an experience we could never have ourselves, and the kind that is artfully written and constructed. The best kind of reality entertainment, such as Norman Mailer’s “true life novel” The Executioner’s Song – or The Armies of the Night, with its slogan “The novel as history, history as a novel” – combines both dimensions. But the truth is that many books achieve their only salability and public interest because they are true; the plain fact is that they are often so badly written that they could not sell as fiction. If your writing is false, then your story had better be true.