Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Fiction vs. Reality

A couple of times I’ve blogged about the difficulty some authors seem to have, when writing historical fiction, in coming up with the fiction part.  When I blogged about Loving Frank I complained that the author, Nancy Horan, seemed constrained by the historical facts she was working with and that made her narrative dull in parts. 

The novel suffered from too much exposition and not enough "scenes". It also suffered from lack of a dramatic arc. One of the problems with writing historical fiction is that history is history and lives don't always have dramatic arcs although they may have dramatic moments. To make a better story the author might have to alter history. Since Horan obviously didn't want to do that, it seemed to me that she really wanted to write a nonfiction work but didn't have enough research to make a whole book.

One of the books I am currently reading is Lindsey Davis’ Rebels & Traitors and I’m finding it far too full of exposition about the English Civil War and not full enough of the story of the characters.  So I’ve been thinking a lot about historical fiction lately.

I was, therefore, delighted to read a piece that David Simon recently wrote in the Times-Picayune in connection with his new television series Treme that addressed this issue.  In Treme Simon is portraying the post Hurricane Katrina New Orleans and he says

… we have tried to be honest with that extraordinary time -- not journalistically true,  but thematically so. We have depicted certain things that happened,  and others that didn't happen,  and then still others that didn't happen but truly should have happened.

This is a nice way of saying we have lied.

I’m glad he put it so bluntly.  I’ve come to believe that lying is essential to good historical fiction – lying is the “fiction” part of historical fiction.  If you stick only to the “historical” part and ignore the “fiction” you might as well write a non-fiction book or do a documentary.  There is nothing wrong with documentaries or non-fiction books, they convey truth.  But do they convey the whole truth?

By referencing what is real,  or historical,  a fictional narrative can speak in a powerful,  full-throated way to the problems and issues of our time. And a wholly imagined tale,  set amid the intricate and accurate details of a real place and time,  can resonate with readers in profound ways. In short,  drama is its own argument.

It is a delicate balance.  Too much reality and the argument can be ruined.  Not enough reality and the argument isn’t made.  How does a writer find the balance?

If we are true to ourselves as dramatists,  we will cheat and lie and pile one fraud upon the next,  given that with every scene,  we make fictional characters say and do things that were never said and done. And yet,  if we are respectful of the historical reality of post-Katrina New Orleans,  there are facts that must be referenced accurately as well. Some things,  you just don't make up.

Admittedly,  it's delicate. And we are likely to be at our best in those instances in which we are entirely aware of our deceits,  just as we are likely to fail when we proceed in ignorance of the facts. Technically speaking,  when we cheat and know it,  we are "taking creative liberties, " and when we cheat and don't know it,  we are "screwing up."

I don’t have cable and I haven’t seen any episodes of Treme, so I can’t say if Simon achieved the right balance.  At least, not until it comes out on DVD.