For a variety of reasons, authors lie to their audience. It makes perfect sense, because most fiction is indeed a falsehood. The author tells a story, with an implied wink, and for a short time we choose to believe it at some level. Most of us have those moments, when we are transported during a good story, and briefly forget at the conscious level that it isn’t real.
This one of the most common lies that authors use, and the audience understands. It’s a forgivable lie. Even the classic fairy tale opening: “once upon a time,” is designed to trick us into believing that this did happen once in the past. For a variety of reasons, however, there are three other lies that authors use, which are more atrocious.
Lie #1: “Written by…”
Many authors choose to hide their actual names when publishing their work, using a pseudonym or “pen name”. If you have a name that identifies you as a particular gender, and you want to publish in a genre that is dominated by a different genre, then a pen name might be considered a good idea.
It took me a long time to decide whether or not to use my actual name when writing: I have a surname that is very difficult to spell or pronounce at a glance, and a first name that everyone somehow struggles to spell correctly, when there is only One True Spelling that should be used. The argument could be made that I will never become a best-seller, because I refuse to write under the name J. E. Wilson, for example.
Finding out that your favourite author is fictional can be a real sting. Children’s authors such as Dr Seuss and Lemony Snickett are household names, and yet neither name is real. They are the perfect names for writing: they lodge inside your brain, and are so unique that they are easily branded or trademarked. Many of you will be disappointed when you discover that Stephen King is actually an army of authors, who take turns wearing his skin to interviews.
However, even this lie of authorship is forgivable, because it’s the opposite of plagiarism. In an ever-globalising world, you can understand why an author, even a popular author, might choose to disassociate themselves or their brand from something they’d still like to publish. The next lie, however, is more despised.
Lie #2: “Found by…”
Let’s use a hypothetical situation outside of literature for a moment. You decide to sell tea leaves in a saturated market. Your tea leaves are good, but they aren’t exceptional. So you proclaim the following in your marketing:
These tea leaves represent the culmination of a Taiwanese family’s 400-years in the tea trade. These leaves were hand-picked after climbing a cliff-face with tissue paper. The exact whereabouts of this cliff remains a closely-guarded secret, which the family patriarch has taken to his sudden and unexpected grave.
During their collection, the harvesters, who were recently-adopted orphans, witnessed seraphim watering these tea leaves with their tears, and shading them from the harsh sun with their wings. ($45.99 per bag.)
The tea leaves might be great, but they are made better by the meta-narrative surrounding them. Each time you took a sip, you’d be compelled to reflect upon that angelic cliff. So, let me now give you a literary example of this.
The very first gothic novel was titled The Castle of Otranto, and was written by Horace Walpole: 4th Earl of Orford and son of the first British Prime Minister. The novel contains bleeding statues, a labrinth beneath an ancient castle, and a young virgin fleeing the incestuous advances of the man who was going to be her father-in-law.
In my mind, Walpole probably finished the story, measured it against his social standing in 1764, and then promptly lied about where it had come from. What follows is an excerpt from the first edition’s preface, which was widely successful. Walpole, pretending to be the translator, then goes on to give a review of his own novel:
The following work was found in the library of an ancient catholic family in the north of England. It was printed in Naples…in the year 1529…the beauty of the diction, and the zeal of the author…such a work as the following would enslave a hundred vulgar minds…I cannot but believe that the groundwork for the story is founded on truth. The scene is undoubtedly laid in some real castle. The author seems frequently, without design, to describe particular parts [of the castle].
Walpole’s preface is as carefully constructed as the novel itself. Every sentence is crafted to make you believe that this book was accidentally discovered, so you can’t be upset at its contents, because it’s a classic from the time of the crusades. Therefore, The Castle of Otranto doesn’t actually begin at Chapter 1. The fiction, the lie, begins on the front cover.
Lie #3: “Based on a true story…”
Walpole uses a certain phrase towards the end: “…the story is founded on truth…”, which brings me to the final lie authors tell their readers. It’s a trend in horror that has continued to this day. In modern times, they’ve changed it to: “based on a true story”.
The problem is with the word “based”, which could mean practically anything. For example, I could make a lasagna “based” on the colonisation of the Americas. You’d never be able to discern much history from my lasagna, however.
The only exception I’d make to this point, would be historical fiction or documentary dramas. Even then, each work differs depending on how much research the author has done, how much artistic license they take to make the story interesting, and how much historical information is available in the first place.
Horror movies often use the “based on a true story” lie, because it’s effective. If we return to the premise of fiction (lies that we choose to believe), then horror movies run into a problem. If a viewer can choose to believe the story, they can also choose the opposite, and then the movie is no longer scary.
However, if you can claim the story is somewhat true, even a tiny bit, then many will find the horror more confronting. “Did that actually happen?” the viewer asks themselves. “Is this part real, or did they make it up? It seems like it could be real…”
The rise in popularity of “found-footage” horror films (Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity) can be attributed directly to this lie, and lie number two. The lie isn’t believable when you think it through: “We just happened to find some terrifying footage with ghosts murdering people. Instead of calling the police and handing it over as evidence, we’ve edited it into a full-length feature film, and written a soundtrack to accompany it. Please don’t think about the fact that if anyone did this with real footage, they would be arrested.”
The lie doesn’t have to be believable, however. It just has to work as another tool in a writer’s toolkit.
In conclusion, the audience chooses to believe lies that authors use. We subconsciously want to believe these stories are true, because it makes the stories better. So, we allow ourselves momentary lapses, where we suspend our disbelief.
I guess what I’ve been trying to say is this: I recently discovered an ancient book, hidden in the haunted house of my distant uncle. He’d spent a lifetime studying the hidden temples of Tibet, and so the book was written in a long-dead language. After countless language experts tried and failed to uncover the meaning of the manuscript, I decided to send the document to an eclectic group of monks. These monks were finally able to translate the work, after meditating and fasting beneath a solar eclipse. The good news is that I’ll be publishing the translated book next year for $20 as a paperback, or for $2.99 as an eBook. It’s what my late, distant uncle would have wanted.
Walpole, H. (2008). The Castle of Otranto: Oxford World’s Classics. Oxford University Press.