True and real: fiction, non-fiction and the interior world of the reader
Slender Man is a construct some of you may know from the video game of the same name. He’s a faceless demon with many arms who kills anyone who looks at him, and has a predilection for kidnapping children. No, not kidnapping, that’s too prosaic. Making children disappear.
A number of the youth in the youth group I facilitate are obsessed by the creepy and macabre and love scaring themselves silly with thoughts that the Slender Man myth might be true. One session, which became a show and tell via YouTube (my ‘show’ was of an elephant painting) ended with a youth choosing the Slender Man ‘documentary’ to show to the others. He was convinced it was real. (One look and you can tell it isn’t, plus if you Google ‘is Slender Man real?’ the doco is debunked.) Another youth repeated my adamant statement that the doco was a fake, but I could tell she was more than a little spooked. As I walked her home I told her to do a little research into it. “Sometimes things aren’t real but they feel true,” I said.
This thought echoed through my head as I walked home. It is the job of a writer to make the world of the work true, even if s/he is writing fiction. In sci-fi and fantasy in particular it is the author’s job to make readers believe in the world they’ve created, that it logically follows rules, even if the rules are also fabricated by the author. Authenticity comes when readers buy into the fictionalised space.
When I read PM Newton‘s piece in Seizure magazine’s Crime issue on the increasingly violent and sadistic ways victims are tortured and killed in contemporary crime novels, it occurred to me that perhaps these authors were missing a trick, and a literary one at that: the level of horror we feel for a victim does not come from the level of gruesomeness of their murder but the empathy we have for the person killed.
The murder must feel authentic to us, it cannot be an exploitation simply to show off the twisted imagination of the author. There must be something at stake for the reader: our piece of mind, our comfort. When a murder is fantastic there is novelty value, yes, but the death is strangely hollow, which leads to desensitisation. It does not affect readers in the way that it must, at an empathetic level that makes such a crime possible in our hearts and minds therefore evoking a reaction of horror and disgust.
Newton writes: “Violence and sexism and racism are powerful and important subjects that should be explored by writers. But they are all the product of forces far more complex and powerful than the actual mechanistic acts of their end points.”
Then: “As a crime reader and writer, violence is only of interest to me for what it has to say about the people, the place and the politics involved in producing and reproducing it.”
And just as crime is not the act, but the motive and the context of the motive, sci-fi is not the science but the agents that use the science and how the science affects society. All this is just a long way of saying there is a difference between true and real. While non-fiction writers may focus on ‘real’, all writers should strive for ‘true’. It’s the only way the reader accepts the written world.