Reality and Fiction: To Intentionally Mislead Readers


I was initially inspired to write this post after reading the headline of this article: “The boy who didn’t come back from heaven“. After reading the article, it looks like I’m going to be taking up two linked, but very different, topics in regards to the relationship between reality and fiction.

Since I’ve linked the article today, I’m going to talk about intentional misrepresentation of reality. The Guardian’s article, for those who didn’t read it, is about a young boy who survives a near-death experience that leaves him as a quadriplegic and is exploited by his father and a publishing company. Malarkey, then under the age of 10, told stories of heaven after coming out of a coma which his father immediately bulked up, offered to a publishing house, then slapped his son’s name on. All this despite the boy’s and his mother’s opposition.

What is really important to note is that Malarkey’s story, like others of its kind i.e.: Heaven is for Real, are marketed as non-fiction books. For those of the less-skeptical-variety, if a book has a non-fiction label on it they are inclined to believe it is truth.

I don’t want to squash anyone’s beliefs here. I really don’t care if you believe wholeheartedly in either of these books. That’s your right. I don’t believe the tales of either narrative. I don’t want to strip the universe of all its magic, but I really don’t believe either of these two boys saw heaven, let alone came back to tell us all about it.

Please note, neither does Malarkey. His story buckled underneath his own opposition towards this book with his name on it.

I do have a point here, even though it’s probably geared more towards non-fiction writing. These two stories make me think about eye-witness testimonies in courts of law. Eye-witnesses can be woefully unreliable. Even the ones who believe they are telling the absolute truth. Physical evidence of a crime has even proven some witnesses wrong. The human brain is an amazing entity, but it is also fallible.

Have you ever shared a memory with someone that was there with you and you each recall different details and points of significance to the degree that you both seem to be talking about separate events?

Representations of reality are where fiction and non-fiction writing have a major point of divergence. I ask: Are readers of fiction, knowing that the story held in their hands is largely fabricated, more likely to fact check and come to their own conclusions about what the story imparts? Conversely, are readers of memoirs more likely to get caught up in someone’s remembered emotional journey and believe completely everything they’re told? Even if that writer doesn’t provide a bibliography of sources?

I don’t know.

I think all writers have a duty to be honest with their readers and not mislead or exploit them. Intentionally slapping a non-fiction label on a story you know to be made-up irrevocably undermines peoples trust in you and the craft. I would never intentionally mislead anyone. And if I did unintentionally, I would be apologising faster than I could be accused.

There’s a key word in all of this: intentionality. As a writer of fiction I feel that it’s my job to research aspects of reality I portray to the utmost that I can. Only when I know it well do I feel like I can mould it how I want to so that it fits my world. To me, there’s nothing malicious about that. My disclaimer would make sure of that. This makes me wonder if non-fiction is mired in a vaster kind of ethics.

What are your thoughts on this topic? I would love to hear from non-fiction writers.


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