Tuesday, November 24, 2009

You couldn't make this up

By Jay Stringer

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.


Ray Banks said...

Similarly, what about Roberto Saviano's Gomorrah? That's also some hybrid of fiction and non, and Saviano's in hiding most of the time. At least Babs Clough never put a price on Peace's head.

Jay Stringer said...

Good point. Unless there's another reason why Peace lives in a foreign country...

Dana King said...

I think if the author is going to use real people, there's a certain obligation to adhere pretty much to facts, especially if the person is still alive. It's easy enough to make up a character based on a real person. That character can then do whatever the story needs, no harm done.

I sometimes use anecdotes of real people, usually criminals, in my writing. They're always dead, and I have a factual basis for what I have them do, unless it's an innocuous conversation or event. No one's reputation or family is hurt if I say Sam Giancana and Tony Accardo each used to run Chicago's Outfit, and no one really cares if I create a scene where Accardo gives a young hood some help or advice.

There are libel laws, but, beyond them, there is fairness and good taste. Not everyone will be pleased, but I wouldn't go out of my way to possibly offend someone, either.

John McFetridge said...

Is the term ‘fiction’ a free pass to invent and adapt even if you’re using real people?

Good question. It used to be the names wee changed but everybody knew who it really was, so maybe this is just the natural next step.

These days, I'm not sure you can say that, "the reality of a man and his private life is something only his family can know." More and more people live their private lives fully in public. Some of what the writer adds is speculation, sure, but it's usually not too far out.

David Simon's issue with the young woman watching a fiction about her parent is a real issue, I think. Tragedy pulls unwilling people into public view (unlike managing Leeds United which is still a voluntary position, isn't it?) and often that increases their tragedy. People will justify it in all kinds of ways, that using this story to inform greater numbers of people will help, blah, blah, blah - I don't buy it.

Writing fiction isn't charity and it isn't social work.

Each witer is going to find their own line they won't cross, but it's good to have this discussion.

Steve Weddle said...

Crime fiction rooted in "real world crime" is the clear connection here, but I'd be sci-fi writers have similar concerns. And writers of historical romance.

But we're a special lot.

For LOST AND FOUND, I used a real event in the real recent history of the real Shreveport, La, the book's setting. People died. Real people. So how much do you mess around with the actual events?

Is it fair to the people involved to just make up your own changes?

Is it fair to really depict their actual deaths?

Tough things to think about.

I think Russel has mentioned this elsewhere, as well. When he's writing nice stuff, he uses the real place. When he's writing about something nasty, he changes the place to fictionalize it. I understand that.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I often feel irresponsible when I use events from the lives of friends/family. But really, you can't make some of the stuff up. And my husband's family has been the source of many stories. He doesn't usually mind as long as I don't name names. As far as adhering to the facts, sometimes you have to discard some of them. Reality can be too much for the story and for them. I don't think I would invent something for a real person unless it was tongue in cheek or clear I was doing it.

Mike Dennis said...

I agree with John; this is a very good discussion. It's a topic not frequently brought up.

If a person is still alive, I would feel uneasy writing something that puts him in a bad light unless it were absolutely 100% true, AND if that truth was widely known.

For deceased people, it's a different story. James Ellroy, for example, has used dead celebrities in his novels (Sal Mineo, Steve Cochran, Ida Lupino, Spade Cooley, and others), drawing the seediest possible portrayals of them. I asked him about this and he replied that if they're dead, you can say just about anything.

I would tend to go along with that, but without letting things careen out of control.

Jay Stringer said...

Good replies on here. Thought provoking answers.

I've asked these questions not because i have a fully formed opinion, but precisely because i don't. interesting to see other peoples takes.

As John said, everyone has to draw their own lines to draw up. And Mike raises a crucial addition in James Ellroy.

I think, maybe, my personal line might be forming somehwere between Ellroy and Peace. Using people who are long dead is one thing, but using people who have died within recent memory raises a few doubts. That would suggest there is some distinction; that people long dead belong to history and can be toyed with, but people with living spouses or children still have a place in the minds of those surviving relatives.

Or maybe slightly different; maybe it's just down to the author to recognise there is some form of responsibility. What i mean is; if you want to use someone in your fiction then go ahead. But be prepared to accept responsibility if you hurt somebody.

I don't know, i'm still trying to form an opinion.

John McFetridge said...

I seem to remember a James Ellroy story with Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr., going to Mexico and things, "careened out of control."

Last year I worked on a TV show and sometimes I felt like some of the material I was giving to the producers was like giving kids matches to play with -- but books are different, right?