What the Heck is Fiction Any More?

First, in the Shameless Commerce Department: 

Please join me for the launch of the fourth Elder Darrow mystery, Last Call at the Esposito, on Tuesday, September 24 at 7 PM at Longfellow Books. There will be cake, maybe pie, a little reading and a chance to pelt the author. Mark your calendars—would love to see you there!

There’s nothing much dumber than a turkey up an apple tree trying to pluck apples off the branches while its brethren and sisteren mill around the bottom, feeding on drops. Or so I thought, until I came across a review of one of my books recently, which I will not quote in its entirety so as to save the face of the ignoramus (though it is practically a truism that no one whom a character is based ever recognizes him or herself).

. . . Well written with realistic characters and dialog, and intriguing storylines. I made it to 16 percent (Kindle location 845) when I came across a derogatory political opinion that has nothing to do with the story.

Although not a Republican, I do not support the socialists, oops, democratic party. As a proud American, I will not support this or any author’s unasked for opinion about Trump or other politics. It’s a shame, I actually enjoyed this book and was wanting to read more of his work, which that won’t be happening now.

The particular idiocy to which I refer is, of course, the ascribing of a character’s words and thoughts to the author. In this case, clearly, something the character said triggered a reaction in the reader that amounted to the Kindle equivalent of tossing the book across the room. (Though I’m quite impressed by the specificity of the point at which he abandoned the book.)

I wouldn’t have thought much of it, except that I’m seeing more and more of that casual misunderstanding of what fiction is and does lately, and it disturbs me almost as much as certain people’s dismissal of anything they don’t agree with as “fake news.” Quotation marks sic. If I were the repository or every thought, attitude, and action of my characters, I would indeed contain multitudes. It’s fiction, people, made-up stories about made-up people.

I was reinforced in my sense that people are misunderstanding fiction when I was following up a review I posted of Laura Lippman’s magnificent Lady in the Lake on Goodreads and happened to scroll past some of the comments.

Sidebar: I implore you, you few readers left in the universe to support the books and authors you read by reviewing them, even in 10 words or less. You have no idea of the impact you can have.

Return to regular rant:

The comments were generally nice words about Lippman’s book and generally high ratings for it. Lippman has been very open about the fact that she used Herman Wouk’s Marjorie Morningstar as a jumping-off point for her own novel, imagining a woman like the Morningstar character in a different milieu and a different mindset and time. Which I thought a reasonable approach for a work of fiction, imagining a life for a character who may be superficially like another fictional character. Until I read a review excoriating Lippman for “stealing” the Wouk character, said reviewer advising Lippman she ought to write her own stories and not appropriate others’.

By this time, I’d despaired of the good sense of some readers: first, the misunderstanding of character, then the misunderstanding of motive. Then, farther down the Lady in the Lake comments, I came across a complaint about from a reader that the multiple points of view in the book (each clearly labeled at the head of a chapter and each with a unique voice) were too complicated and that three points of view was certainly plenty for a thriller.

At which point I threw up my hands and tried to ignore the composite reader I’d just built: someone who thinks a writer believes everything their characters say and do (a particular problem if one of them is a murderer); someone with a misapprehension of how one writer’s art builds on another’s, and someone who’s never written a novel feeling free to suggest how a particular book should have been written.

I trust this isn’t a general trend, but I’m feeling as if all the squishiness about truth, fake news, people in power lying in the face of incontrovertible evidence to the contrary, has somehow slipped into some readers’ views of what fiction is. Am I naïve to think that it still is only made-up stories about made-up people? Does everyone, even people who don’t write books, get a vote in what I write?

About Richard Cass

Dick is the author of the Elder Darrow Jazz Mystery series, the story of an alcoholic who walks into a dive bar in Boston . . . and buys it. Solo Act was a Finalist for the Maine Literary Award in Crime Fiction in 2017 and In Solo Time won the award in 2018. The third book in the series, Burton's Solo, came out in 2018 and Last Call at the Esposito in 2019. Sweetie Bogan's Sorrow was published in 2020, to thunderous pandemic acclaim. The sixth book in the series, Mickey's Mayhem, will come out in 2021. Dick lives and writes in Cape Elizabeth.
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9 Responses to What the Heck is Fiction Any More?

  1. I also see this trend in many reviews I read these days, alas. It’s particularly present in books where hard core/rigid christians enter a review. Several of my YA author friends have lamented how their work gets trashed if there’s even a hint of sex in the story. This is why I review almost every book I read on both Amazon and Goodreads because authors deserve positive feedback for their work. Our mutual friend Tim Hallinan keeps the fires of intellectual freedom stoked on a daily basis, thankfully.

    • All the time, parents ask me if there is sex in the books I write. When I assure them that there is no sex but that there is some violence, I always get, “Oh, that’s all right.” What does that say about us as Americans? We’re more comfortable with violence than we are sex?

      • Julianne Spreng says:

        It says we have never gotten over our Puritan roots. Even the stuffy English are comfortable with a randy wit. It says that we are still mired in the violence equals strength myth. It says we are one screwed up nation.

      • So true! And I have heard that in Scandinavia it’s just the reverse with sex being preferable to violence. H-m-m-m.

  2. It’s like a contagious disease, and we need to find an antidote. This is a good and necessary post, Dick. Thanks.
    Looking forward to your launch of Last Call at the Esposito.

  3. Excellent post! In the books I write, some of the characters are killers with no remorse. I sure hope readers don’t think this is a reflection of me. 😉

  4. David Plimpton says:

    The world is going to hell in a handbasket and people know it, consciously or unconsciously, which spawns fear, hate and anger. Then, projection can take over, As illustrated in “Man and his Symbols” (1964), edited by the Swiss psychologist, Carl G. Jung, that’s when the shadow (the dark side of the ego-personality, the negative qualities and impulses in all of us) can appear. And when many of us deny in ourselves what we can nevertheless see plainly in those different from us. So, rather than integrating our dark sides, as constructively and creatively as possible, we sometimes project the dark side onto others, like perceived political, ethnic, racial and religious enemies. I may be Exhibit A, but I’m working on it.

    I’m no expert, but wonder whether the phenomenon Dick describes could be addressed by an author’s note that the views expressed by characters aren’t necessarily those of the author. Or, for those who don’t read author’s notes, introducing a (perhaps gratuitous) narrative, rhetorical counterpoint to, say, an anti-Trumpian character view, so the reader can see the author isn’t taking sides?

  5. Pingback: What the Heck is Fiction Any More? — Maine Crime Writers – Three Rivers Novelties

  6. Brenda Buchanan says:

    You cannot make all of the people happy all of the time, and in my view, it’s not wise to try.

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