Thursday, March 18, 2010

Fiction Must Be More Realistic Than Fact

As Type M’s resident “golf guy,” you can bet I’ve been following the gory Tiger Woods saga, and I—like you—have been stunned by Woods’s personal and professional hubris-riddled freefall.

Each year, I teach Sophocles’s OEDIPUS REX, one of the original tragedies. In the play, as with all Greek tragedies, the protagonist, Oedipus, suffers a downfall beset by hubris. Everyone, including the audience, watches and predicts what awaits him. In fact, Oedipus seems to be the only one oblivious to his impending doom. I’m a sucker for internal conflict, but the play’s conclusion could not be more anticlimactic. It’s like watching Rod Blagojevich’s final days in office. The only difference is that in 420 B.C. there was no paparazzi, no 24/7 HEADLINE NEWS. If there was, no one would buy the plot.

Or would they?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for willful suspension of disbelief. Yet I’ve long believed that fiction—especially contemporary crime fiction—must be more realistic than truth most of the time. For instance, as much as I love the ancient tragedies, I’d never come up with a Jack Austin plot calling for the world’s No. 1 player to lead a secret life for years only to have it catch up to him and, in the course of two short weeks, have him seemingly lose everything. Any thoughtful reader would logically (and rightfully) ask, How could the world’s most recognizable athlete lead a double life? No way, not in the age of 24/7 media coverage. Who can argue that logic? The plot would seem ridiculous. My editor wouldn’t read ten pages. Similarly, what writer would have the audacity to propose a novel in which the wealthy son of a former U.S. President somehow gets elected and launches a war founded on false threats of WMD and then gets re-elected? Again, a demanding reader would say, This could never happen. The U.S. media would be on top on the story.

Oops.

There are two ways to look at the reality-is-stranger-than-fiction concept. Perhaps these recent storylines mean nearly anything is possible. Again (as I did last week), I will lean on Raymond Chandler’s accurate line, “There are no dull stories, only dull minds.” However, willful suspension of disbelief only goes so far, especially among mystery fans. The average mystery reader wants to learn something new—about a unique occupation, about a unique setting, about the human psyche, about a particular crime. The genre has evolved immeasurably from Edgar Allen Poe’s story “The Murders in Rue Morgue” or even Sir Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes tales. In the age of CSI, COPS, and other reality-based TV shows, accuracy is at a premium. If you write contemporary crime fiction, don’t show up to work without it.

It was Ernest Hemingway who, in A MOVEABLE FEAST, wrote, “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know” –a lesson for fiction writers, a mantra for crime-fiction writers because our readers demand much more reality than our daily newspapers sometimes offer.

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