Sunday, September 10, 2006

Distinguishing between fact and fiction...is that a 3 pt or 10 pt line weight?



Fact versus fiction.

Here's a hint: sometimes it's a fine line, sometimes it's subjective, it typically depends upon the point of view...and history is usually written by the winners.

It's like painting, drawing, or photography: it's all in where the light hits and what angle you shoot/draw from. Different elements will stand out, and grab people in different ways.

I’ve noticed in the last year a very disturbing trend. It’s disturbing to me as a reader, as a writer, and of course as a publisher.

It’s the age-old “literature is dangerous” movement at core, but on the surface, it appears a large number of people in the US are having trouble distinguishing fact from fiction. Worse, it appears some publishers might be taking advantage of that fact. And worse yet, it appears that when a person is dissatisfied and feels “betrayed” by what they read, they can use the court system to demand restitution.

Let’s start where it most recently began for me: Dan Brown’s clear-as-crystal-freshly-dusted-clearly-billed-as fiction book The DaVinci Code.

Many writers make their living with this style of conspiracy-theory/action-adventure book. The DaVinci Code wasn’t even Brown’s first. I can read that manuscript and guess that Brown must have read Writing the Blockbuster Novel by Albert Zuckerman. This guy, Zuckerman, is a literary agent and self-described book doctor. (HA HA! Good one. I should use that on my next set of business cards. I’m more of an ER Surgeon, though; let me tell you, some of these manuscripts I’ve seen.) Zuckerman is the Writer’s Man. Let me name drop: Ken Follett. Editors read this book. That’s its power.

However intriguing Brown’s books are, they are, nevertheless, stationed on the Fiction Shelf.

So why the big hoopla? How could people on both side of the fence be so confused that it is fiction?

Is it a faith issue? Is it the Great Divide over the biggest of all literary achievements, The Bible? Fact versus fiction?

So what if people get intrigued and investigate some concepts in Brown’s book or any fiction book for that matter. Curiosity is a good thing. Right?

Why the need to feel so very threatened by the discussion and investigation that came from The DaVinci Code?

Honestly, I have never understood feeling threatened by anything out there. I'm a Christian, a pretty garden variety one, but one nonetheless, and I'm even one Every Single Day although I don't have any bumper stickers that say that.

I'm happy to challenge my views regularly. It doesn't shake my faith. My beliefs are ever-changing, constantly growing and evolving, which I think is fulfilling a divine purpose of my faith, answering God's call to continue to move ever closer to him.

But I still read Dan Brown and wonder, just a little, marvel at the mystery, and the history of it all.

And I read Harry Potter too.

Another tempest in a tea pot. How does that book “promote” witchcraft (why is that so bad?) any more than Dr. Seuss encourages you to eat green eggs and ham?

I have my own pet theory. It involves me having my own mind and very solid critical thinking skills, thank you very much, versus, well, not.

And these thinking skills enable me to understand that simply because a novel is written in the first person, that doesn’t mean it is an autobiography. And even if it is billed as a memoir, I know sometimes, things are as we recall them, or prefer to recall them, more so than say had Ken Burns been trailing behind us our entire life.

I am, of course, referring to James Frey's novel A Million Little Pieces.

I don’t argue that this is a somewhat nebulous affair. I think he mislead people and the publisher perpetuated it…to a degree, knowingly or unknowingly, I don’t know. It could have been error on the part of large book chains, putting it with memoirs instead of fiction, but I sort of doubt that is where it started. I don’t really understand how it came to be, but it did. And while on the one hand I understand the fine line of marketing and the perils of publishing, on the other hand, it really discredits the entire profession when something like this happens, and I feel angry.

But still, a lawsuit Frey settles suits over ‘Million Little Pieces’?

People felt defrauded, “Under a tentative legal settlement, readers who said they were defrauded by Frey’s best seller, “A Million Little Pieces,” can claim refunds, an agreement called unprecedented — and understandable — by a leading publishing attorney.”

People paid for and got a book. Publishers can't help if the reader didn't like it, or felt betrayed or unhappy from reading it.

Too many times to count I've bought a book b/c I love that author or it got good reviews...then I read it and thought, well, there's two hours of my life I'll never get back. Same goes for movies.

It never occurred to me to sue anyone because I felt defrauded (damn you Baxter on NPR, that book SUCKED see you in COURT buddy! damn you Random House, the reviews on the cover promised a great read, I feel defrauded, see you in court! Barnes&Noble you SUCK, who among you put this book on the Must Read table, see you in COURT!)

This lawsuit seems frivolous and lawyer-oriented to me. I find it an unreasonable expectation to claim to be defrauded and sue.

I've worked in publishing for many years. And this stuns me. I can't say that too many books are terribly profitable. First, there is the development cost. Then the design and layout cost. Then the printing cost. Then the royalties and staff costs. In financials, dollar for dollar is....hmm a complicated thing to hit. I know how the businesses stay afloat and do profit. But it is a challenge.

I know the feeling of "our name is our true value" and desire to maintain a good reputation. I also know many people don't know the name of the publisher.

I've had to deal more than once with people who were disappointed with their purchase and wanted a refund direct from us, the publisher. I can't think of a time we didn't grant it. I admit on my end it was usually with an eye roll.

In my very humble opinion and experience, the only time a true refund should be granted is if a reference book is erroneous, a product is damaged, or the true purpose of the book was somehow perverted.

That book---whether fact or fiction---was for entertainment.

Lie or truth, well or badly written...it's all subjective.

And speaking of subjective, let’s talk about the upcoming WTC mini-series, The Path to 9/11.

Another fact versus fiction.

This is where I employ my suspension of belief. It’s TV made by producers who are looking to earn Big Bucks. They will go for the Highest Drama necessary to draw and entertain the masses. Ratings count. This is why I don’t even believe my local news station to be completely n the up-and-up as far as presenting a real picture of the world I live in.

Still, we do have a responsibility to accuracy, but more so, to the implications of what we do. So perhaps having only a single advisor from the Bush Administration wasn’t the wisest move. It is a pretty heady insinuation, if it is actually made, that Clinton’s and Berger’s inaction was the cause of the attacks.

From the sounds of it, the writer and producer are either hopelessly na├»ve, thinking “any press is good press” or they have an axe to grind with the Clinton Administration. Many big names have weighed in to say it is an egregious misrepresentation of facts and even calling it fiction isn’t enough. The producers claim it is based on the 9/11 report, and how many people have read the entirety of that? And know it well enough to know which parts of the show are real versus drama?

Maybe I shouldn’t assume that because I automatically deconstruct everything, others do. There are many different people out there, as the Brown and Frey situations demonstrate. People who don’t so clearly distinguish between fact and fiction.

Is it enough to say it isn’t a documentary? Is it enough to say “based on?”

It should be, but I can also see where it is confusing. I guess it’s fair game. The Reagan mini-series was pulled for very similar reasons. Maybe it simply needs to be true enough to not be deliberately misleading.

Perhaps that is the line, although I still don’t know its weight.

Fact is the really nebulous thing, and no one person has the patent on the entire story exactly as it happened. Like I said at the beginning, it all depends upon the angle you shoot from, what picture results.

I always try to shoot from many angles. When I put these together, I get a truer, more three dimensional image.

Sources: Frey settles suit (MSNBC)
Clinton blasts 9/11 film, amid report of changes (CNN)


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2 comments:

bubandpie said...

I haven't read The DaVinci Code (scared away by all the allegations of execrable writing style), but I have met many people who seem to swallow it whole, "fiction" label notwithstanding. So I can see why churches are hopping on the debunking-the Da-Vinci-Code bandwagon. Even if the plot of the novel is fiction, much of the hype around the book is based on the claim that there is some historical basis for it.

As for books/programs NOT clearly labeled as fiction, I'm all for critical awareness, but there's still a place for accountability - if you say you're telling a true story, you'd better be able to back up what you're saying. Bias is one thing; pure fabrication is another. Not that the courts are always the best instrument of accountability, of course.

As for reading Harry Potter - clearly you're demon-possessed. That's your problem. ;)

metro mama said...

Just found you from Bub and Pie.

Very interesting post!

Bub and Pie: good on you for resisting DaVinci Code. A few hours of your life that can be better spent!