The Public Humanist

The Newfound Fact of Fiction

When the real increasingly becomes the surreal, where does one turn for a dose of the truth? Maybe back to the original lie: literature.

Six years ago, when it was revealed that James Frey’s memoir, A Million Little Pieces, had originally been submitted to publishers as a novel but only accepted as non-fiction, it offered a curious question that the public and media ignored: Why, if something is moving, is it more moving when presented as non-fiction? Are real events that happen to unimagined people truer than fiction?

Since Frey, two forces have continued to converge in our culture: our zeal for the real has only increased, but at the same time, many stories initially offered as true-life tales have since been outed as make-believe.

Take, for example, Mike Daisey who, two weeks ago and after much resistance, apologized for his one-man show about Steve Jobs, which included fabrications about the working conditions he witnessed at Apple’s factories in China.

Or Tom MacMaster, the straight, married American man who posed as “Gay Girl in Damascus,” a kidnapped Syrian lesbian blogger named Amina. In the aftermath of his hoax, which resulted in an online frenzy of support for Amina’s release, MacMaster explained, or justified, what he did by writing: “While the narrative voice may have been fictional, the facts on this blog are true and not misleading as to the situation on the ground….” And then, “…to a large extent [it was] almost as though I were writing a novel.”

There’s also Greg Mortenson, who last year was accused by Jon Krakauer (Into the Wild) and 60 Minutes of deceiving readers in his bestselling memoir, Three Cups of Tea, which chronicled his mission to build schools in Central Asia. Last week, the author settled a lawsuit and will return one million dollars to the charity he founded based on his book after it was discovered that he used donated money to finance travel engagements, speaking fees, sales, and promotion for said book.

It’s only natural that the exhaustion these and other fictions induce would make us desperate for art¾or anything¾that appears real. Even if it is a coterie of Kardashians or Jersey Shore slackers. Watching reality TV and reading real-life memoirs have become vicarious fixes for our truth cravings; they promise to act as exceptions to the lies that daily assault our minds and times.

It wouldn’t be a lie to say we live in the era of the lie—and not just in literature. Examples abound in politics, of course (Anthony Weiner, John Edwards, etc.). And on the sports pages (from anabolic baseball players to NFL bounty hunters). In corporate America, the last four years seem to proclaim that fraud is the rule, not the exception. Even more serious have been the lies of “weapons of mass destruction” and “mission accomplished.” Looking back, those manipulations have led to ten years of mortal consequences that have the misfortune of not being fictional at all.

Given the headlines, publishers and entertainment executives might be asking, what’s the harm? If we could lose our retirement savings or go to wars based on falsehoods, is it a mortal sin to suggest that book sales or ratings could be enhanced by them? Whether it’s Frey, Daisey, MacMaster, or Mortenson, the subtle cultural message has been that however moving or profound a story may be, it has more of a “platform” if presented as a true-life account, meaning it’s more saleable under the banner of “this really happened.” Even if it, well, didn’t. (You can always apologize later.)

But here’s the rub. Three Cups of Tea and A Million Little Pieces remained, even after their exposures, bestsellers. In fact, between 2003 and 2011, Mortenson’s charity reportedly took in $72 million in donations. Daisey’s show has been a critical darling, and though his observations about witnessing abuses at Apple’s plants were false, they contributed to a public outcry that has led the company to hire labor monitors to investigate. And MacMaster, however phony and damaging his blogging was, did captivate the public and the media as he illuminated the hidden struggles of those he impersonated.

But more telling than all these counterfeits are the culture’s current blockbusters—fictions in the more old-fashioned sense of the word. Of particular note are those stories spun for a generation brought up in the era of the lie. Consider Harry Potter; The Hunger Games, the plot of which deals head-on with the undersides of the reality obsession; Twilight; and Game of Thrones, to name a few—all inventions in the grandest, sometimes most operatic of registers. These fabulist tales—rich with the tools of misdirection known as metaphor, allegory, and myth—have produced voracious readers, zealous hordes at the cinema, and many months of “very long waits” for Netflix subscribers.

All this begs the question: If we have begun to feel the truth most reliably and resonantly in the faked, might fiction be the new non-fiction? In the era of the lie, are we more compelled by—and more trusting of—the imagined than the actual?

The cultural pendulum may be shifting, and it may indeed be poetic justice that in this lying age we have come to regard those scribbling fictions as better sources for truth than those marching under a banner of “real life.”

And why not? The fact is that the “duplicities” of those working in the realm of the imagination are intended to illuminate, not obfuscate; to reveal, not to conceal; to apprehend the truth, without apology. Such an attempt these days is a welcome, and necessary, reprieve, and the market may be bearing that out.

One wonders: if six years ago publishers had made an equal commitment to marketing books like A Million Little Pieces as fiction as they had non-, chances are they would not be marred by their fraud but instead credited for what they had already provided a worldwide audience: a real encounter with human truths.

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