Friday, March 15, 2019

Art vs. Life

by Jean Roberta

It’s too true that the relationship between erotic writers and our actual experience puts us between a rock and a hard place. If readers think we have actually done everything we describe, we are likely to be regarded as trash, especially if we’re women. If readers think our sex scenes are unrealistic, they are likely to think we’re out of our depth.

However, I don’t think anyone could seriously blame writers of fiction in general for using our imaginations. That is the only way to write fiction as distinct from non-fiction. Some readers don’t even mind if an author takes on a persona which resembles a character, but extended into what passes for the real world.

There have been various literary hoaxes in which a writer tries to pass him/herself off as someone else, sometimes as someone of a different age or gender, someone who has grown up in different circumstances. Some avant-garde readers simply find that sort of thing very postmodern. I find it as creepy as hell.

I hate being lied to, even when the lie is only intended to be entertaining, or to improve the plot of an anecdote from real life. Real life is often inconclusive or disappointing. Punch lines and great comebacks usually occur to a person after the confrontation is over. So I understand the impulse to embellish a story, especially if it gets retold over and over.

Folks, this is why a fiction market exists. If you want to tell stories, please do. You can share them with a small, closed audience, or publish them yourself, or send them to traditional publishers who might accept them for publication in a collection.

Or you can officially become a performer. You can play the role of Lady MacBeth or Everyman or whoever. You can write your own one-person play and perform in a festival. You can become a stand-up comic and adapt your own real-life material so that it sparkles and snaps with wit.

But please don’t confuse real life with your own imaginary revisions, because that way madness lies. I decided when I was still a child that I would save my story ideas for actual stories, not eyewitness accounts or explanations. When interacting with other real people, it’s important to tell the truth. Even then, two people who have experienced the same event are likely to have different emotional reactions. If the teller and the listener can agree on the facts, they can agree to disagree on their emotional significance. As long as they can’t agree on the facts, there is no resolution. Eventually, there is no relationship.

A recent issue of The New Yorker (February 11, 2019) and an issue of The Guardian (UK – not sure of the date) contain articles about American mystery writer Dan Mallory, whose own life is mysterious. He has told different versions of his life to various people, mostly those who have enabled him to find success as a writer and editor. He has won sympathy by claiming to have nursed his mother through her last illness, but a little investigation revealed that she is alive and well in the northeastern United States. He has claimed to have bounced back from brain cancer without losing any weight or hair. While living in England, he told stories about his American past, and after returning to the U.S., he was free to brag about his accomplishments in England.

“Dan Mallory” (which seems to be a pen name) is not alone. It’s not hard to see how creating various personae for oneself and living a double or triple life is parallel to creating characters and weaving them into a plot. Novelists, in particular, must spend much of their time in an imaginary world because that’s the only way that extended narratives get written.

Nonetheless, there are crucial differences between an artist and a liar. I don’t want to read the work of someone who can’t seem to grasp reality, no matter how much the work is praised. (If I know the work was written by a liar, I can’t trust that it wasn’t at least partly plagiarized, or that the praise itself is trustworthy.)

Maybe I’ve been soured by real-life sexual relationships with Significant Others who exaggerated their accomplishments, their feelings for me, and their intentions in order to get what they wanted in the moment. No matter how good the sex is, it can’t compensate for the feeling of being pushed out the window from the 13th floor of a high-rise when one discovers that Don Juan is actually Joe Doe who has no professional credentials, is not a genius at business, and only knows one language. And to top it all off, the man is likely to be married with children. If pressed, he will admit that he never planned to make a commitment to anyone else.

I’ve met raconteurs whose stories sound too good to be strictly factual, and I wish they would stop trying to pass them off as truth. I’m not condemning the art of conversation, but I think I’ve developed a bullshit-detector from long and painful experience. Those who lose my trust are unlikely to get it back.


  1. A neat twist on the topic, Jean. I sometimes wonder, though, whether bullshit artists don't actually believe their own stories. That's why they can be so convincing.

    1. I even wonder that about our country's Liar in Chief. He may actually believe the whatever he says now is true, never mind what he's know to have said before. Eerie.

      Getting back to writing fiction, readers may well form their own images of writers according to what they've written, and been exceedingly disappointed when they met the writer in real life. I've seen this happen rather dramatically to a well-known science fiction writer.

      I assume that having my photo on Facebook, etc., and doing live readings in various venues, does a good job of letting readers know that my characters are what they are, and I'm someone else. I'm just glad that none of the publishers I've worked with put author photos on their book covers, though. I don't want to scare potential readers away from my characters.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.