Thursday, October 27, 2011

Where do we draw the line?

Recently, NPR ran an article about a recent book, Sybil Exposed, that discussed how the woman the book Sybil was based on basically admitted she was faking it, and yet, the psychiatrist continued to treat her as well as publicize the story for her own financial gain. While it has its own merits for discussing journalistic integrity, or pop psychology becoming the norm, or the problem of real psychiatric issues being clouded by fake data, what still strikes me is the writer's aspect of it.

The original writer, psychiatrist Dr. Connie Wilbur, received her patient's confession in the middle of writing her book, after she was already committed to completing, after she was already speaking publicly about her subject matter. She chose to go on with it, explaining everything away, that it was just more subterfuge on her patient's part. In the end, her story was more important than truth. How often do genre writers face the same dilemma?

I won't touch the issue of journalistic integrity. What I'm talking about is how writers can sometimes take shortcuts, either by choice, ignorance, or market necessity. It gets explained away as, "Well, I'm writing escapist fiction. The reader doesn't want the truth. They just want to get lost in the story." Which is true, to a degree. The question becomes, then, where do we draw the line?

Readers often put a lot of trust into the writers they read. They trust historical writers to get their facts straight. They expect internal world logic. They want genre norms to be met. What happens when we give them false information? Well, if it's factual, it'll yank a reader in the know out of the story. They might not commit to the writer whole-heartedly again. It's the reason so many readers don't like to read about what they already know, i.e. lawyers reading about lawyers, medical professionals reading about doctors and nurses, and so on. Because they are the most intimately aware of the milieu, they're usually the first to spot the errors, thus destroying the illusion reading is meant to evoke.

Wrong facts also present the danger of perpetuating falsehoods. How many of us actually believe a silencer is quiet? We take these interpretations, gleaned from books, from TV, from movies, and apply to them to future situations. That's dangerous, through and through.

The matter of artistic license is one every writer needs to answer for themselves. Some lines get drawn in the sand because of genre. For instance, romance readers expect protagonists to be sexually faithful, yet in real life, for instance, gay men tend to be more accepting of sex for the sake of sex, able to dissociate the act from the emotion. Put that into an m/m romance, and you better have some darn good explanations for it, or some readers will be most unhappy.

I'll admit, it's frustrating sometimes. I do everything I can to research details before seeing a story go out to the world, and still, sometimes something gets by. I push boundaries as much as I can on genre expectations, but I'm well aware that I skirt the edges of it too much for a lot of readers.

If you're a writer, where do you draw the line? What about readers? Do you prefer the fantasy if the truth gets in the way of the story?


Elyse Mady said...

It's an issue every writer has to grapple with. For me, it comes down to a matter of integrity. I will make mistakes, despite all the research and all the planning. But any mistakes I make are mine and I never knowingly deceive my readers. Reading something like "Million Little Pieces" or "Sybil Exposed", thinking it to be documentary, and then finding out it is a deception? It just sits wrong with me.

It's not about getting the name of the tool used in the ER wrong, it's about claiming that something is authentic when it clearly isn't. Writing - whether it's genre writing or not - should expose some sort of truth about the human condition. What it is to love. Or lose. Or find love or patience or forgiveness or the 1001 other emotions we experience. Faking that is about as low as you can go IMHO.

Vivien Dean said...

It's that knowing that really gets under my skin. Because yeah, we all make mistakes on fact checking, but when you purposely present something as truth when you know otherwise? Wrong on so many levels.