Friday, August 7, 2009

I knew this would happen...

It's always such a lovely thing when someone reads one of your books, and then takes the time to write you you and let you know that they enjoyed it. The first time it happens, it's actually kinda surreal, and even after it's happened a few times, it never gets old.
I got home this afternoon to find a card on my desk. Sent via my publishers by a nice lady who'd recently read Into White Silence. She liked it. She took the time to buy a card with a suitable image on it. She wrote a sincere and very thoughtful message on the inside, telling me as much.
Only one problem -

She thinks the novel is non-fiction.

Now, she's by no means the first to do so, and I'm the first to admit that this is entirely my fault. I knew when I wrote the book, and decided to use a character named 'Anthony Eaton' as the narrator, that some people would probably not get that I was playing around with the line between truth and fiction. I definitely wanted my readers to question both themselves and the book. I thought it was a pretty clever way to explore the construction of truth and fiction, and (if I'm being really honest) I'll admit that I kinda liked the idea that some people might fall for the deception, at least for a little while. Hell, I put a lot of effort into making the whole thing as believable as possible. The picture below is part of a sketch from my journal which I used as the basis of the Raven plans: I spent hours getting the details of that ship as accurate as possible, to try and put its existence beyond question

But, at the same time, I really didn't want to upset anyone. That's why I made sure that I put the fiction disclaimer in my acknowledgments, and it's also why the imprint page includes that little line from the publishers that says 'this book is a work of fiction.' I also figured that most people would work it out. Or at least extend me the benefit of the doubt. Because, if you've read the book, you'd know that the 'Anthony Eaton' I've invented for my own nefarious storytelling purposes isn't exactly the sort of person you'd want people to view you as.

Of course, it didn't work out that way, did it?

At least one reviewer read the book as non-fiction, and got remarkably upset upon being informed of the 'truth' of the issue. (To her great credit, she then returned the book un-reviewed, rather than publishing a negative review of it...)

But back to the subject at hand...

I'm really not sure what to do about this card. On the one hand, courtesy would seem to dictate that I reply, just to say thanks for the card, if nothing else. And as a writer it's such a big deal to me to know that somebody has taken the time out of their life to sit and express their thoughts - especially positive ones. People are always happy to tell you when they've disliked your book, but positive feedback is a rare thing and should be treasured.

On the other hand, how do you thank someone politely while at the same time telling them that they've completely misunderstood the book, and do so without making them feel stupid? (Which they're clearly not - as I say, at least part of me knew I was blurring the lines with this one.)

It's a funny thing. When you write a book, especially a work of fiction, I guess there's a kind of unwritten contract between the author and the reader, and it's all based on a sort of honesty that underpins the lie of the novel.

Or, to put it differently:

A reader knows that a novel is a lie - a fiction. They know and accept this for a number of reasons. One of these reasons is that while the book might be a lie, authors generally tell the truth about themselves; it's implied that while the story itself is invented, the motivations behind it come from the reality of the author's life/experiences/imagination, so it's much easier for a reader to 'accept' the lie of the novel as a result.

When authors deliberately break this unwritten agreement, lie about their background and experiences, and claim that their fictional background informed their fictional book, then all hell can break loose. Think Helen Demidenko.

But that's not really what I've done here. I hope. It's certainly not what I set out to do. Actual deception was never part of my agenda - hence the disclaimers in the acknowledgements etc...

Except that I have, haven't I? I'm very aware that there's a very thin semantic line between 'playing with the concepts of truth and fiction' and 'making shit up about yourself'. And I knew this when I wrote the book. And I did wonder if it would lead to problems, but I went ahead and did it anyway. And when it was done I managed to convince myself that I'd made enough of the basics unbelievable that nobody would take it seriously.

Don't get me wrong - I'm not intending this post as a self-justification, or anything like that. I don't have any regrets about the way I wrote the book, nor the way it's been read. I do think it's important to question everything you read - fiction or non-fiction, and I am happy when people read Into White Silence and comment on its believability. I think this is an interesting aspect of writing fiction, and one I'd never really given much thought to before writing this book. It makes me wonder about the thousands of books I've read in my own life, and how many things I've just accepted without question.

And I suspect that it's got some broader implications in relation to the whole adult/young adult discussion, too: When a mature adult writes in the voice of a 16-year-old, about the world of a 16-year-old, then it's important, I think, to consider the truths and fictions behind their motivations, too. We're all constantly inventing our worlds and ourselves, I suspect.

Anyway, this post feels like it's going nowhere, so I'm going to leave it at this and do some work.

And write a letter that I'm really not looking forward to.


  1. Well, Tone, I understand the dilemma as being an extension (and confoundment) of that cheesy bomb that comes up in every second presentation to an audience of kids ... "How much of the book is real?". My cultured response is "Well, a fair bit is real, but I can't tell you which bits or I'd have to go to jail". I'd be tempted to praise the writer of the card but not do anything to wound her illusions of the veracity of the text - like a good psychologist and writer, you should let her make her own discoveries. After all, a line in a book like "This is all crap, by the way" tends to dampen the reader's experience.

  2. Yeah - it's a strange one. I'm considering Sandy F's recommendation - the oriental approach where I praise another aspect of the card, then tell the truth about the book (gently) thus allowing the sender to save face. Either way, I really should have seen this coming.



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