I was planning to write a specific post for today until I read the news this morning. I was horrified by the graphic nature of the news that a baby had been flushed down a public and filthy toilet in China. Although this is not the first time it has happened, this seems particularly horrific because of the fact that the baby was alive and had sustained a fractured skull. The weakened cry as it was eventually cut free reduced me to tears. I won’t add a link as not everyone will want to watch, but the video and images are all over the news so you won’t need to look far to find it.
I don’t cry easily so it took me by surprise. I still feel a sense of grief over the complete abandonment of the mother. Although I know that life has elements of evil (look no further than the recent and brutal Woolwich killing), and that humans are fallible, and sometimes mentally ill or disturbed, or just desperate, but my response made me think hard about the difference between the darker side of life in reality and in fiction.
Take Me to the Castle, my debut, was a literary historical fiction novel, set within the framework of the politics of the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. One of the earliest books, which totally gripped me was John Buchan‘s The Thirty Nine Steps. I was given it with a collection of other penguin books in my early teens and the suspenseful journey through Scotland’s wild moors of Richard Hannay, who is on the run from the police after finding a dead body in his flat, kept me turning the pages at breakneck speed. It inspired in me a love of suspense in a good story. I have recently read quite a few crime and literary crime fiction/psychological suspense novels, and I have pondered the difference between the world you inhabit in a book and the world that you wake up in every day.
With fiction there are usually rules and expectations with certain types of books. You look at the cover, the genre, the author and the blurb, and it gives you a hint of what to expect. If you read chick lit novels and do not like horror, you might avoid books with darker covers and bold print. If you enjoy sci-fi and do not like literary fiction, you might avoid the pastel covers with possibly a booker prize winning author’s name across the front. These are crude and basic descriptions but you can see what I’m getting it. Readers come to a book with expectations. They do not expect a gruesome death in a romance novel or a historical drama in a dystopian book. There are, of course, genre cross-overs and new authors breaking the rules and these are continuing to increase. Agents and editors use the term, ‘genre-bending’ to describe these books.
In fiction the darker side of a story is contained within a world with defined boundaries and, although you can become completely absorbed in that particular world, you emerge with the knowledge that the events are fictional and are not directly related to your life. With the exception of fiction novels set within the framework of specific times in history, a fiction novel is just that: FICTION. It’s effects are deep but are limited to the confines of the world the author has created.
In life, the reality of crime and the darker aspects of human nature have no boundaries. The news seems increasingly more shocking and gruesome, although much of this is down to the changing nature of journalism. It would seem that our world is growing increasingly colder and more dangerous, from the point of view of what we read in the press. My husband, however, who is a crime specialist in the field of research and policy, assures me that the world is becoming a statistically safer place. The global homicide rates are lower now than they have ever been. I won’t quote sources as that is his arena, but the issue of what I saw this morning reminds me that the darker side of life in reality does not hold the boundaries that we see in fiction and is often much harder to deal with.
The framework that exists within fiction (as a safety net for some readers) is not apparent in life and the shocking news that we read about often leaves us with deeper fears than the books that we choose to read.
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What a disgusting story. I’m not going to search it out. But your post does reinforce something I’ve long thought to be true: that fiction (no matter how graphic or well-written) will never be able to quite touch us in the same way as knowing that a story is actually true. I first thought about this years ago, having read the brilliant A Million Little Pieces. It made me cry and laugh and shiver and filled me with love for the story and characters. It was a true story. Except that a month after I finished the book, I found out that much of it was apparently fabricated. It made me unable to look back on the book in the same way… it is clearly an excellent book but reading it, ‘knowing’ that the events actually happened, made it all the more immediate and effective. If the events didn’t really happen, the book isn’t as powerful. For me at least.
Thanks, Mark, for your comments. I haven’t read A Million Little Pieces. Who is is by, I wonder? What a let down to find out that it was fabricated. It doesn’t matter if it is not a true story when you know from the start but to be led to believe that it is true is deceiving. Shame.
I think the author’s name is James Frey. It was very well reviewed when it was released. Some of it is true – and the while story is certainly based on truth – but it is now difficult to know where the truth ended and the fiction begins.