Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Truth in Fiction

A novelists, we struggle to put the truth on the page. We hope to tunnel so deeply into our characters' lives that what is on the page feels absolutely and complete real-so real that we fully expect the characters to walk past us. But we novelists also deal with some people thinking that what we have written is really about us personally, about our lives, that even though it is fiction, it is also absolutely true. I can't tell you how many times people have asked me what is going on my life because of what I have written. (Sometimes it's nothing!) Or people imagine that the husband in the story is my husband, the main character is me, or that I am opening a window into my personal life, when actually I am inhabiting another world, I am living another life through my characters. While certainly I write about the issues that obsess me, I'm not writing diaries.

Recently, the writer Leora Skolkin-Smith told me that she had gotten a letter back from a great publishing house about the submission of her new novel Hystera, which is this ravishingly good book about mental illness in the 70s. The editor felt the book was halfway between memoir and fiction, something that astonished both of us. What was she saying? That the book sounded so real that it felt like memoir? That she wanted it to really be a true story instead of a made-up one (and why would she want that? Do memoirs sell better than novels?) But don't we want our fiction to be so real that we feel we are a part of that world? Isn't that a good thing?


Clea Simon said...

Well, nonfiction does sell better than fiction. But was this editor pushing Leora to market it as a memoir? I guess that was a compliment, "it sounds real," but... well, unless the editor was making an offer for the manuscript, I think it goes in the "WTF" file. Editors! Sheesh.

Anonymous said...

Agree. Memoirs sell better than novels. My last novel, which happened to be set in a town like the one I grew up in, and which involved incidents similar to aspects of my youth, my publisher wondered if I wouldn't like to rework it as a memoir? I didn't. They passed on the novel, which they had already contracted and paid the advance (which I kept, thank you very much).

Ironically, I think that "memoirs" are pretty much as fictionalized as novels. I mean, memoirs with quoted dialogue from one or two or three decades ago is what?

Leora Skolkin-Smith said...

Clea, what was truly puzzling to me was that it wasn't even remotely a memoir. It was all fictional. And yes I was glad that he thought well of it to believe it was an actual memoir in part but I was also really frustrated when he actually thought it would have been more vivid if hadn't been a hybrid of a memoir and fiction.Not even a millionth of it was a memoir. He just made that assumption and in making that assumption, (deciding it WAS a hybrid) he then went on to conclude a judgment. It really hurt but I also just can't figure out what he meant. That it wasn't vivid period or BECAUSE it was a hybrid (which is wasn't) it was less vivid??? At any rate, he was essentially a non-fiction editor but I got crushed.

I love writing but when I have to send the work out, I just feel so crazily hurt by everything.

Thinking of just writing these days because I love it so much and not sending it out. It gets overwhelming. And more so if every time I write something people think it's all true and what really happened to me. Yikes!

Robin Antalek said...

I live in a small town. When people find out I write fiction I'm greeted with a bit of an arched brow, as if to say: oh really, you make all that stuff up?

Leora Skolkin-Smith said...

Hi, that's funny Robin (but also uncomfortable, too I'm sure) but you see I think the degree of discomfort also depends on what your fictional work is about. I wrote a fiction in this new book about a young woman who had a severe sexual delusion and was committed to a mental hospital. So you people assuming she is me presents a bit of a problem, you know? My last book was about witnessing a murder on the West Bank and all sorts of politically volatile material so people thinking I'm part of a terrorist movement was also a little bit of a problem. I wouldn't mind so much if people thought it was real, but unfortunately I have a really perverse and sick imagination and so I write some intense stuff. So when people start telling me I'm my characters it's hard to feel comfortable with that.

Robin Antalek said...

Leora, I think it has something to do with the reader trying to connect the real with the imagined. It is almost like a little kid who believes in the existence of the bogey man even though they've never seen him. Perhaps people have a hard time imagining that you would inflict something so horrific on your characters if it hadn't happened in "real life" - or perhaps it is just a symptom of our 24/7 tell-all society. Nothing is sacred anymore, everything is for public discussion, nothing is out of bounds. And there ceases to exist a barometer of truth in our confessional society - after all many who seek the spotlight with their "true tales" have been exposed as liars - which in some strange way has taken the mystery out of fiction causing the reader to turn back to the author and question not the validity of a story that has transported them momentarily out of their own lives but to become the seekers of truth, as if that would somehow make the fiction all the more real and of course, entirely misses the point of reading and writing fiction!

Clea Simon said...

Leora - I understand the hurt, believe me, I really do. But I think you've got to read this as a cockeyed compliment: You created a fictional world that the editor believed in so thoroughly that he (or she) couldn't accept that you'd created it. Screwed up? Yes, especially for an editor. But... well, you created a reality on the page.

Leora Skolkin-Smith said...

Clea, THANK YOU!!! Really, your support has meant a lot to me.
And Robin, I just LOVE what you're saying here about our culture. This is exactly what I think and feel All the soap opera and "real-life" tales of mental illness to a self-serving end for the writer..and so many of the memoirs feel more fake than a work of fiction to me sometimes.Nothing lies more than facts. And then on the other side we have so many novels where the mentally ill person is made to have such romanticized attributes it's feels very condescending to those truly afflicted,("hey, you sure can sing and dance" sort of bias) I really took on the book to fight back as a fiction writer--my husband is a psychiatrist and I taught in mental hospitals for years, actually had a whole writing program for patients, and I was moved, living so closely with the "real" thing which can be harrowing but also very poignant, very human, very fragile, and yet illuminating to everyone about what it means to be so "possessed". It's so much a part of the human condition, a part of all us.I love fiction and think there's nothing more frightening to read about depression than Kafka's Gregor Samsa waking up as a cockroach and how much deeper into "truth" a work of fiction can go, and how it can connect us empathetically to this mysterious realm...but, really, you've said it so eloquently,we've been blitzed with so much. I am remembering and taking heart in that assessment of our culture. Many "memoirs" I have to say, really don't tell me a "truth" about this, but I'm equally upset by also the constant over-romanticizing about mental illness in fiction, fiction writers painting characters as people with schizophrenia in such romanticized ways which really kind of degrade the "truth" and the condition (don't want to mention recent books,there are alot but it really is the reason I wanted so much to take the theme on.

Thank you, all of you for writing in, it helps to hear this.