What responsibility do fiction writers have to tell the truth?
On its face, the question is ridiculous. Not only is “fiction” the literal opposite of truth, but it’s increasingly accepted that “truth” itself is a subjective and pretty suspect concept.
When you’re trying to write fiction that captures experiences that are not only your own but are important to many people you care about, it feels important to be true to life. But a story needs to be satisfying and make sense, while reality has no such obligation. Nowhere is this a thornier problem than in fictional stories situated in political or social movements.
Political movements usually have an identifiable beginning, but they often have no clear end point. A story can’t just end with the protagonists staring into space, wondering if they will ever accomplish anything. It can’t be filled with march after march at which everything goes like clockwork, a few hundred or a few thousand people show up, everyone has a nice day and they all go home without having made a discernible change in their conditions.
So we pick the most dramatic moments to build our stories around, compress the timeline, amp up the tension. That’s no different from what other writers do. As Tolstoy observed, happy families don’t make interesting subjects either. But there are two reasons it seems more problematic to make those adjustments in activist fiction.
First, most of us who write about movements are in movements, and we want people to get involved. While making the work seem more exciting and faster acting might be helpful in drawing people in, they’re not likely to stick around if it seems a lot more tedious and less productive than they imagined. Second, our core audiences are going to be other activists, often people who were involved in some of the same movements as we, and people are notably intolerant of different perspectives on the things they know intimately.
When I read Sarah Schulman’s fictional account of AIDS activism, People in Trouble, I was furious that she made it seem much easier to get national press for a routine direct action than it ever has been, in my experience. From a remove of twenty years, I ask myself why I thought it mattered so much. But at the time, with the chants of “AIDS = Genocide, Silence = Death” fresh in my ears, I hated the thought that people might think all you had to do was take over a hotel lobby for a few hours to have CNN at your door. If that was all it took, would we have stopped traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge? We led a march into a struck hotel the night the first Iraq War began in 1990 and barely got 2 minutes of local press.
A friend who also writes political fiction objected to Sunil Yapa’s new book, Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, about the 1999 protest against the World Trade Organization summit in Seattle, because he felt the characters were too much archetypes and the story line too predictable. I agree with those criticisms, but didn’t mind because ultimately, I felt that he accurately captured what it felt like to be there – impressive since he was not there. He also stayed pretty true to the level of violence that we encountered – bad but not too bad. If someone had been killed in the book, I would have been really angry because no one was killed at those protests, even though someone was killed just a few months later at a similar protest in Genoa, Italy. But writers fictionalizing activist moments often inject deaths that didn’t occur as a way of upping the stakes, and many writing teachers would say that’s a good choice to make.
Some of my friends enjoyed the film, The East, which painted fairly sympathetic portraits of anarchists taking militant direct actions. I hated it because it made the group into a type of cult in which each of the members has some personal score to settle, as if the only reason someone opposes corporate greed is to get back at their parents or avenge the death of a brother. That’s not my experience, it’s not the experience of the activists I know, and it’s not what I want people to think. The ending, in which the FBI agent turned anti-capitalist crusader goes around the world, armed with nothing but a handshake and a story, convincing powerful people to switch sides and spill their beans, is the treacly icing on the stale cake.
Starhawk (The Fifth Sacred Thing, City of Refuge), China Mieville (The City & the City), Ursula LeGuin (The Dispossessed) and Pat Murphy (The City, Not Long After) successfully avoid the truth dilemma by setting their stories in fictional times or places. I can accept that what might not work in 2016 San Francisco might work in the San Francisco dreamed of by Starhawk or Murphy. But for the books I write, about contemporary Palestine, that doesn’t provide much of a guide.
A radio host recently asked me, “Which is more important to you, to teach people about the situation in Palestine or to write a good mystery story?” I answered without hesitation, “I don’t think there’s a conflict, but if there were, I would have to choose good storytelling.” A fiction writer’s first obligation is to entertain, to write the best story we can. And that is more likely to get people interested in our issues and our movements than telling the literal truth. Even Emma Goldman, the early 20th century anarchist and feminist leader, warned that her two-part memoir, Living My Life, is more inspirational than strictly factual. At the same time, I think those of us who write politics should opt for the real over the ideal whenever possible.