Sunday, February 26, 2012

Lies and Exaggerations

Fiction is about telling lies. And no one minds. In fact, the better you tell the lie, the more your work will be liked. And bought.

But what about the stories authors tell when they’re trying to ‘sell’ what they’ve written? I’ve often been told that I needed to sell myself in order to sell my work. I’ve heard that you need a character, that you need a persona. I’ve known writers who have done this. I’ve seen them become successful. These authors know, and I’m sure most of their readers know, that their persona is not quite identical with their real day to day self. But everyone is enjoying it.

The closest I’ve come is putting on my hat and coat and strapping on my gunbelt for a few author/ interview photos. I can’t tell if it’s helped much, but I definitely had fun doing it. I also exaggerated certain elements of my memoir, Days of Beer, for humorous effect. I think it’s pretty easy to tell where the exaggerated elements are, and there’s not a scene in there that didn’t happen pretty much as I described it. This kind of thing strikes me as an agreement between the author and the readers to enhance the enjoyment for everyone.

But what about when writers exaggerate personal accomplishments in order to create a certain impression of themselves as an expert in a given field. Perhaps they exaggerate their academic credentials, or try to claim more ‘street cred’ for themselves than they in truth have earned. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen some erotica authors claim more sexual experience than is likely to be the case. I imagine some western authors have made claims about their western experiences that aren’t 100 percent true.

Of course, at the far end of the spectrum we have writers like James Frey, who appears to have told outright lies about his experiences in his book A Million Little Pieces. Then there’s Margaret Seltzer, Stephen Glass, and Greg Mortenson. Outright liars get found out, though it’s hard to say how much it hurts their sales.

But how much exaggeration does it take of one’s personal story to cross that line into lying? How much is OK and fun, and how much is misleading readers purely for profit or pride’s sake? I wonder about this at times. What do you think?


Angie said...

For me, it's the point where it stops being a Show, with a wink and a grin, and starts being the author seriously trying to convince readers that their entertaining exaggeration is really true, even when asked directly. If we're both having fun together, then that's cool. If you've fooled me for your own profit, that's not.

To put it another way, am I willingly suspending disbelief about your authorial persona, or am I honestly convinced you're something you're not? If the latter, that's a problem, especially if your marketing of your book depends on the fake veracity your persona gives to the book itself.

There's another layer to this as well, and that's the matter of privilege. It's one thing for a gay man (who suffers under a distinct handicap in our current society) who wants an acting career to pretend to be straight in an attempt to level a playing field that's unfairly tilted against him. It'd be another thing entirely for a straight man to pretend to be gay -- appropriating the identity and oppressions that don't belong to him -- to get attention and sympathy, or to help with a publicity stunt. Or a white person who pretends to be of color, or a middle class person who pretends to come from poverty -- in those kinds of cases, the appropriation of an abjected identity by a person of privilege compounds the deception.


David J. West said...

I don't mind a little exageration for the stories sake, after all we all see experiences from our own perspectives-which can contrast greatly from the person beside you.

But writers like Frey who must push that "their" stories are true ought to be hung out to dry. I don't understand why they can't just stand on the merits of their own fiction writing rather than jumping on the bandwagon of this faux reality craze.

When it comes to author persona's though I like some theatric's. I know very well which authors I'd like to meet and hang out with in person-you are definetly one of them Charles.

oceangirl said...

Exaggerations like in movies I think is necessary in storytelling. But resumes, I'm not sure.

laughingwolf said...

exaggerate to make it fun[ny]; elsewise, if it makes you uncomfortable, DON'T...

those you mentioned don't have your ethics, and don't seem to care -

for myself, if i don't like them for their 'lies', i won't like them for their 'art'... not that they care whether or not i buy their stuff.... said...

Well, they say poets are often accompanied by a lyre.

In Mexico, I met a really charming man, Clifford Irving (of fake Howard Hughes biography fame). He was a liar, but great to drink with. When in my cups I fantasized he was my fronticespiece for my own work, my poetic lyre, if you will. We would brag about each other.

I guess there is some advantage to being a liar.

Before I left Mexico, I heard tell that Clifford Irving had been promoted to professor of fiction at the Instituto Allende. Hey.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Lying is an art form, but certainly not one I'm good at.

Charles Gramlich said...

Angie, I agree that it’s at that point where it becomes serious and is carried out in face to face interactions that it crosses the line. I hadn’t really thought of the “privilege” aspect of it. It certainly makes it more disgusting to me when someone does that, although I had not stopped to consider why before.

David J. West. Thanks man. I’m the same way. I like a little drama, a little fun. I like being in on it with the writer. But the hard core liars get to me too.

oceangirl, as someone involved in hiring others at times, I know we have to check resumes pretty carefully these days to make sure there aren’t any serious exaggerations. We’ll be asking folks to do what they say they can do and have done.

laughingwolf, I agree. Exaggeration in humor is not only permissible but probably required. But it needs to be visible as a tongue in cheek kind of thing.

Ivan, sounds like Mr. Irving landed on his feet. But if he went into fiction, that sounds like a match made in heaven. I remember when I found out that Hemingway had…exaggerated a bit.

Alex J. Cavanaugh, I too am amazed at how good some folks are at it. Though in this informational age, someone will likely find out if they look, no matter how good a person is at it.

Ty Johnston said...

Hmm. Interesting topic, though I'm not sure I have any real answers as to what is permissible from a reader's point of view. I know I don't like to be outright lied to, but I don't mind a little "wink, wink, nudge, nudge" comical flibbery (is that a word? ... and if so, did I spell it right?).

To some extent, all of us present partial lies to the outside world, especially online. For instance, on my blog I try to be mostly myself, but even that isn't a true personification of myself as a complete emotional, intellectual human being. Then there are our personal day-to-day interactions in which we don't show our complete face to everyone who interact with or meet. Where is the line? And when is it okay to cross the line?

Jewel Amethyst said...

I think there is a line to be drawn between fiction and reality. If people need to lie in memoires or "true" biographies to make them exciting, then they should label them as a works of fiction based on actual events or inspired by reality.

Somehow, truth always seem to find a way to slip through the cracks of even the best woven lies. When that happens, credibility pays a price.

BernardL said...

With the pressure authors are under to promote and market, I believe the hype we see now is only a mild glimpse of what's to come. I wish I were a better marketer, but I think I'll leave the fiction between the covers of my novels. :)

Ron Scheer said...

I don't think I can illuminate this subject any more than has been done here already by others. What you write did put me in mind of western writer Will James, who invented a totally different "cowboy" life for himself, which not even his wife knew was an invention until after he was dead.

I'm old enough, I guess, that I don't expect people to tell me more than half-truths about anything. A truly truthful person can be more unsettling than an outright liar.

G said...

I'm kind of reminded of the old comedy line of "Reality is Conceptual" with this post.

I think to a certain degree, creative stretching of the truth is tolerated with the general public, so long as it doesn't go to the extremes that people have mentioned here.

In the private and public sector, I will concede that telling the truth 100% of the time is not conducive to one's career aspirations. You have to be able to bend (but not break) the truth in order to survive.

However, lying on your resume and getting caught is something that is very hard to recover from.

Even if you issue a mea culpa and rehab your entire character, there will be that tiny seed of doubt in the back of someone's head that will always question your word.

Charles Gramlich said...

Ty Johnston, it’s definitely an open ended kind of discussion. Probably no real clear answer but something I was thinking of, and that I often wonder about. I’m good with that same kind of fibbery, and I think it’s probably spelled right.

Jewel Amethyst, I know. I’ve become more and more skeptical of “biographies” and “memoirs” for that very reason. And even the regular news gets in on the act at times.

BernardL, I think you’re right. It’s getting harder and harder to tell reality from unreality, and once we all go more and more digital it may become impossible to know.

Ron Scheer, that’s true. I hadn’t really thought of that. There’s a whole theory about social evolution that involves the development of lying to allow for the very existence of society and relationships.

G, that’s absolutely true about the resume thing. If I ever caught someone lying there I could never really trust them fully again.

the walking man said...

Writing a story that is fiction is nothing but a well told lie, if it's a good story. As for the persona thing..I dunno, I have a life and I am living it. If where I've been and what I've seen isn't where I've been and what I've seen or needs embellishment I doubt anything I write would be any good as fiction. I really don't know how to lie about myself, because I know the truth of who and what I am so why waste what little mind i have left trying to remember shit I nevr saw?

Charles Gramlich said...

Mark, lying definitely takes more effort than telling the truth. Mental effort at least.

Travis Erwin said...

I think if it is an over the top representation of the truth it is fine. Exaggerating the facts is different in my mind than flat out creating them.

Charles Gramlich said...

Travis, I agree.

Anonymous said...

I think the arena for characterisation is the narrative. Within the narrative the paradigms for fact and fiction blur.

Liane Spicer said...

I don't equate writing fiction with lying. Lying misrepresents something real and concrete; fiction is imaginary and exists only in the minds of the writer and readers, no matter how closely it may resemble reality. The rules are different.

Lying about concrete realities, such as in a memoir, is dishonest and contemptible, whereas hyperbole is a perfectly acceptable literary/humorous device where the reader generally recognizes and understands the underlying intention.

I'm dismayed by the growing obsession with the authorial persona and detest the idea of having to create one to sell books. Maybe I should reinvent myself as a tri-sexual, ex-con drug addict hooker with four doctorates who had an affair with Obama. That should make my books fly off the shelves...

Charles Gramlich said...

Richard, hum, some food for thought. Thanks.

Liane, I agree with you about the persona. Other than some hyperbole fun type stuff, I don't want to do it. AS for the lying in fiction, I'm taking off from Bloch's book "telling lies for fun and profit." :)

Angie said...

I agree with Liane. Lying requires an intent to deceive, and there is no such intent with fiction.


Jess said...

I have a wip about a liar--she feels she has to. Can't find a publisher interested in it even though she confesses, grows, feels an adequate amount of remorse and guilt at the end of the book. I'll be taking another look at it once I finish what I'm working on now. I'm not sure people like liars--even in fiction.

Charles Gramlich said...

Angie, I didn't really mean it literally. More along the lines of telling tall tales kind of thing.

Jess, sounds pretty interesting. I can certainly understand that frustration, as I believe most of us writers can.

KeVin K. said...

My name often doesn't appear anywhere near my words. With book/story rescues, where I complete works the contracted author didn't deliver, I can't even admit I know anything about the work. Signed a lot of NDAs over the years. I have business cards with my name, the word "writer" in large print and contact information. (This would do me no good with anyone in the publishing industry.)
My persona with fans on the various websites is an exaggeration of the real me; I go for a Dave-Barry-esque voice.
And to a certain extent, I think marketing is a legitimate reason to project a "corrected" (or even fictitious) version of yourself. When I start publishing romance, for example, I'll have a female nom de genre (my wife's already named "her").
But I agree there's a line between marketing and lying. I write a good deal of military fiction, but I'm always up front about the fact I was 4F in the days of the draft and never served.

Erik Donald France said...

Anything presented as fiction, poetry, etc., has complete freedom to either "lie" or tell "historical truth."

Memoir is trickier. If it's telegraphed for fun entertainment effect, no worries. But if it's an outright fabrication for personal gain, then that's not much different than résumé padding, or making stuff up like Glass and Frey. Because of the comedy elements, I take David Sedaris and Augusten Burroughs with a grain of salt, and so it undoubtedly is with those parts in Days of Beer that you reference.

As for persona, it's anyone's game. Enjoyment does seem helpful.

Charles Gramlich said...

Kevin, the military comment catches it perfectly for me. An exaggeration of self, or a nom de plum is not an issue I think for anyone. But someone who lied about their military service, as some have done, would definitely cross the line.

Erik, yeah, the 'padding' element is a real problem, when it is used to exclude readers from the truth rather than include them in the fun.