Guest post: I can tell a story about a concerned, caring Earl

Originally a comment by A Masked Avenger on Guest post: Narrative in literature is about explaining something

Narrative is a particularly engaging form of explaining.

Engaging… and dangerous. I can tell a story about how a woman saves herself from an attacker in the park by shooting him with her concealed weapon, and influence readers to believe (a) that “normal” attacks against women are by strangers in parks, and (b) women would be safer if only they carried more guns.

Or I can tell a story about a concerned, caring Earl, who sticks by his servants despite their being arrested twice and charged (falsely, of course) with two different murders, and who spends himself to the brink of penury all for the welfare of his tenants.

Or about the woman plantation owner whose slaves are heartbroken by the emancipation proclamation and insist on continuing to work for her without pay because she’s such a wonderful mistress.

Or about the libertarian paradise, or the socialist paradise, or… or… or…

I’m having trouble tracking it down, but I seem to recall that Mary Roberts Rinehart wrote a popular novelization of a famous crime, in which she exonerated the counterpart of the person who was actually convicted for the crime, with the effect of convincing many people that the person was innocent after all. I’m probably misremembering that it resulted in an actual pardon. In any case, again IIRC, Rinehart’s theory of the case was deemed unsupportable.

Whether or not that’s accurate, there are enough examples in which novels and movies “based on actual events” have colored public memory of those events to the point that misconceptions of those events are more prevalent than accurate knowledge.

I don’t see a solution to the problem, but we’re suckers for a good story. To a terrifying extent.


  1. iknklast says

    This fits right in with a panel I’m going to be chairing this summer on truth in literature. What are our obligations in writing fiction to get it accurate, if we are using actual events and/or people (or scientific principles)? I’d love to hear everyone’s thoughts on that, help me prepare. Does artistic license allow us to color a story in a way that skirts or even totally sets aside the truth? (My definition of truth for this purpose is that which most closely matches actual circumstances based on the best currently available evidence. I hope to stave off all of those in the literary community – and they are myriad – who say there is no such thing as truth. I will probably fail at that).

  2. brucegee1962 says

    I tend to agree with Shelley, that “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Obviously, of course, he meant by poets the broad category of creative people in general.

    If that is true, then cries of artistic license are bs. Sure, artists CAN write or create whatever damn thing they want. But ethically, their actions are held to the same standards as all of our actions are — but more so, because of the whole “legislating the world” thing. If they aren’t striving to make the world a better place, they should at least be struggling not to make it any worse.

    Incidentally, on the Margaret Mitchell reference — I think she’s a classic lesson in intersectionality. When I read GWTW, I was struck by how very far ahead of her times she was on womens’ rights — at the same time she displayed deeply died racism on every page. A good lesson in how complex people are.

  3. Lady Mondegreen says

    When I read GWTW, I was struck by how very far ahead of her times she was on womens’ rights

    Admittedly it’s been a long time since I read GWTW, but I doubt she was really all that far ahead of her time on women’s rights. Feminism was a thing in popular culture in the early twentieth century. It hadn’t been that long since women had fought for and won the right to vote, and fights for contraception were going on.

    Feminism was eclipsed in the 1950s by pop-Freud propaganda urging women to leave their wartime jobs and become wives-and-mothers. But plenty of writers in the ’30s would have been influenced by the feminism of the oughts and twenties.

  4. Dave Ricks says

    On this topic of telling a story, I can recommend the movie 24 Hour Party People as it explicitly shows the viewer some of its stories did not happen the way the movie shows. As Tony Wilson said on a DVD commentary track:

    The miracle of this movie is such a collection of bloody downright lies should in so many ways tell a series of profound truths.

    His commentary track goes on to describe how some characters and scenes in the movie were different than real life, and you might see if the movie captures aspects that seem legitimate.

    On a somewhat different topic of photography, to understand what some people are thinking about truth in art in general, a Google search for Richard Avedon and lies turns up some thought provoking stories like this one:

    Richard Avedon once said that all photographs are accurate — but none of them are the truth.

    Curiously, he would tell lies to reveal some particular truth. One of the most famous stories about him relates how, to catch King Edward VIII and American divorcee Wallis Simpson off guard, he told them, while shooting a portrait of them in 1957, that he was sorry for being late but his taxi had just run over a dog (which wasn’t true). He captured them in that moment of being aghast, knowing (he is reported to have said) that they loved dogs more than anything.

    The photograph of them is accurate — we see what happened at that precise point in time — and we see one truth about them. It is not, though, the whole truth and unless you know the anecdote, their expressions could mean any number of things.

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