I’ve been thinking about responsibility. And trust me, this is not something I do often.
The term can be a bit strange when applied to fiction. Where does an author’s responsibility lie? Certainly to the story. Surely above and beyond all else. But does it end there? Well, some would say to the reader. Whether its someone paying hard earned cash or someone reading for free on the Internet, there is a degree to which the author has a responsibility to them.
Writers of non-fiction have a responsibility to the subject they’re writing about, to the real people, events and facts. They have to serve history and context. Fiction sometimes gets a free pass, but should it?
David Peace wrote The Dammed United about Brian Clough’s short reign as manager of Leeds. It’s certainly a driven book, it takes you along with it. It deserves a lot of the accolades that have been thrown at it but, by the same token, perhaps some of the criticism too? Peace fictionalised the lives of real people, some of whom are still alive. Many of the deceased ‘characters’, most high profile of which was Clough himself, have families left behind who stand to be hurt or moved by depictions of their loved ones.
Peace’s portrayals of many of the characters were very strong; they were driven, angry and complex. Clough was shown to have many flaws and vices amongst his genius. He was portrayed as insecure, foul mouthed and alcoholic. The legend of Brian Clough allows for each of those interpretations to be true. But the reality of a man and his private life is something only his family can know. But Peace himself has never claimed to be writing a biography. He’s used the ‘fiction defence’ a few times, something which is used to free the book from a need to stick to the facts. This has angered and upset a few people in equal measure.
Is he right? Is he wrong? I’m not the guy with any answers, just a blog full of questions.
I recently watched a long talk between David Simon and Charlie Brooker. Simon tells a story of how his reality-based fiction crossed back into reality. While spending a year shadowing a homicide unit, he encountered many bizarre stories. He recycled the basic premise of one particular murder into a script for the television show Homicide: Life On The Street. What he hadn’t thought of was that as that episode aired a young woman would be watching an hour of fiction on television and realising the story was based on the death of her parent. The Wire itself draws largely from real people, though the show is fiction. Anyone who has read The Corner will recognise people, names and events that later showed up in the show. And it has also been said by both David Simon and Ed Burns that their show actually held back; it didn't really show things as they are because that would be a bit too harsh, a bit to far.
That’s both a very uncomfortable and very interesting place for fiction to go, but is it the responsibility of the writer to measure these things?
I’ve been reading through a true-crime book, originally called Leadbelly but now often re-titled Underbelly. It has been adapted into one of the most critically acclaimed Australian TV shows of recent years, a reality based crime drama looking at the Melbourne drug wars. Whilst it was tearing up the ratings charts and garnering critical acclaim, it was also banned in some parts of Australia because the content was too close to the bone, and in some cases because people featured in it were still on trial. Now, this almost has the opposite defence to David Peace; it’s basically non-fiction. At the same rime, it’s an adapted work. It’s a serialised drama and the only real line between that and The Wire is that its events are still recent, its characters are still, in some cases, walking the streets.
Where does the responsibility lie there? Do the storytellers have to show thought for the people whose names and likenesses they are using in the name of entertainment? How about the lawyer Zarah Garde-Wilson who, whilst a TV show portrays her as involved with killers and drug barons, was trying to piece her reputation and career back together?
In both of the books I have been working on recently, there are a lot of elements of realism involved. I use them to wrap around a total fiction, but there are names, references and people mixed in there who informed my views of the area I grew up in. There is a character mentioned briefly in the first book who is someone I actually knew at university, in the second I originally had him die ‘off screen’ in a casual reference, but felt a responsibility to handle things better. Now in the case of my silly self imposed problems, the answer is simple; if it gets in the way of the story, take it out. Job done, no fuss. I avoid the issue with my own writing, or have done so far, by carefully judging when to throw in a dose of reality and when to simply use the McFet rule of MSU (make shit up)
But with so much of modern crime fiction having one foot in reality, where does the writers responsibility lie? Is the term ‘fiction’ a free pass to invent and adapt even if you’re using real people? Or does the use of reality, if you decide to use it to such a large extent, demand to be treated correctly?
Totally unrelated; Look out soon for a lengthy interview with Scott Phillips, author of classics like The Ice Harvest and The Walkaway. In fact, go read them and prepare. Or re-read them, if they're on your shelf.