The Reality of Fiction

Art is a lie which makes us realize the truth. Picasso

I have quite a few fictional friends, probably more than are actually alive. They offer me the pleasure of their company. They engage me in conversation, pose questions, pass along ideas worthy of consideration, and point the way out of the mundane dilemmas that unsettle my days. It is a treat to know them. They don't shout or insult me and from time to time they are a source of those truths that do not, as so many have said before, appear in any source other than literature. Who could ask for more of any friend, fictional or otherwise?

While the personal relationships we form with our fictional friends can be a genuine pleasure, they can also complicate the lives of authors as well as readers. This point is discussed by Alexander McCall Smith in a delightful article in the April 4th issue of The Wall Street Journal. McCall is the author of more than sixty books, mostly mysteries, including the popular “No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” series, now showing on HBO.

Smith recounts the following tale about one of his heroines called Isabel Dalhousie, a woman in her early 40s who has a boyfriend 14 years younger. As he was signing a copy of one of the books from this series a woman approached him and said: “…this relationship between Isabel and Jamie, the younger man, was not a good idea at all.”

Smith replied: “Why shouldn’t they be together?” The answer came quickly. "Because it’s not going to go anywhere.” “But I thought it was going rather well,” Smith protested. Again my reader lost no time in replying. “No, it isn’t she said emphatically.”

From other similar incidents and criticisms, Smith concludes “that the world of fiction and the world of real flesh-and blood people are not quite as separate as one might imagine. Writing is a moral act: What you write has a real effect on others, often to a rather surprising extent.”

His point is not only that readers experience fictional characters and incidents as real but in addition that it has serious implications for how characters are depicted in novels. He says it can be inhibiting for an author if he or she knows that what happens in fiction is going to be taken so seriously.

In this respect, a novel is no different than a film or television show that depicts cruel and extreme acts of violence. Many object to these presentations because they are repugnant and also because they can trigger similar acts in some viewers. The impact of media violence is a widely discussed issue, but it is rarely associated with depictions of similar events in novels.

A novel is not just a story. Readers often experience what happens to characters on the page as real. We develop fictional friends, we are sad when they experience an unfortunate event, elated when they overcome an obstacle, and when a character in a mystery commits a gruesome murder we are distressed and even more so if the act goes unpunished. Unless, as Smith notes, they are someone like Tom Ripley in the Patricia Highsmith novels, who we may be rather pleased if he goes unpunished. Why is that?

Smith answers: “Perhaps we merely want his story to continue because we are enjoying it so much. If Ripley had been arrested, or disposed of by somebody he had crossed, then that would have been the end of the series, and that would have been a disappointment.”

“Stories have an effect in this world. They are part of our moral conversation as a society. They weigh in; they change the world because they become part of our cultural history. There never was an Anna Karenina or a Madam Bovary…but what happened to these characters has become part of the historical experience of women.”
And I should add, men too.

Smith confesses that when he viewed a pilot scene in the HBO series on “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency,” he found himself “weeping copiously, right there on the set. I felt rather embarrassed—it was only a story, after all.” The director, Anthony Minghella put his hand on Smith’s shoulder and said “that was exactly what he had done over that particular scene.”