Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Of fact and fiction

Novelist Kerry Greenwood (the author of the Phryne Fisher books, now a successful TV series), has recently published a book on the Somerton Man mystery, Tamam Shud: the Somerton Man Mystery. The book interweaves Kerry's memories of her late father--a wharfie who loved telling stories--and her memories of Adelaide with the famous mystery of the unidentified man dead of unknown causes found on Somerton Beach in 1948. The tale being one of her father's stories--odd and memorable because it had no conclusion. The title of the book comes from the torn-out scrap of The Rubayiat of Omar Khayam that was found in a secret pocket in the dead man's suit. It is not really "true crime" because it is not clear there was a crime; it may have been murder, but it could also have been suicide, or natural causes. (Declaration of interest: I did some of the research for the book.)

A review of the book in the Sydney Review of Books notes with some emphasis Kerry's comfort with her working class origins and bemoans an allegedly missed opportunity to challenge the distinction between fact and fiction:
Someone in love with their form can see infinite potential within it, and Greenwood’s storytelling is impeccable, engaging, great fun. But someone in love with their form can also miss the potential that lies in breaking away from it, shifting familiar parameters to suit the demands of a different kind of story. Greenwood’s curiosity is so infectious, her stories so interesting, and the mystery of Somerton Man so fascinating, that this flaw can easily slip past us. And yet Tamam Shud strikes me as a missed opportunity to challenge the separation of fiction and non-fiction, and bring them together in some kind of whole. It’s almost as if the book is haunted by Adelaide’s psychic dualities.
Actually, the reviewer writes 'fiction and non-fiction', which lacks the blunt directness of 'fact and fiction'. The latter phrasing can be expected to resonate with someone who is legal aid solicitor operating in magistrate courts, where separating fact from fiction is rather the point of the exercise. Facts about the law, facts about the case.
In fact, an unsolved mystery such as that of Somerton Man rather starkly reveals the distinction. Fact turns on what is known, fiction has no such limitation. For it is a work of creation, constrained in what can be known about the characters and their motives only by the decisions of the writer.

Fiction has other limitations. To be successful, it has to generate what J. R. R. Tolkien called (in On Fairy Storiessecondary belief. We have to be transported into the imagined world and held there.

The various forms of fiction also impose particular limitations. As Kerry Greenwood points out, a crime novelist has expectations to fulfil:
No coincidences are allowed in fiction … It is because readers of crime fiction rightly demand three things – a crime, a detective and a solution. Crime fiction is a puzzle and the author must play fair.
But fiction does not have the limitation of lack of knowledge--at least not about the characters, their action and purposes--because fiction is an act of creation. Where knowledge cannot take us, imagination can still venture. But then it is not fact, but fiction or speculation.

It is not that there was no complete story about Somerton Man. As the fictional crime novelist Castle observes in the pilot episode of the TV series of the same name in an exchange with detective Kate Beckett:
Richard Castle: I'm here for the story.
Kate Beckett: The story?
Richard Castle: Why those people? Why those murders?
Kate Beckett: Sometimes, there is no story. Sometimes, the guy is just a psychopath.
Richard Castle: [scoffs] There's always a story, always a chain of events that makes everything make sense. Take you for example. Under normal circumstances, you should not be here. Most smart good looking women become lawyers, not cops. And yet here you are. Why?
Kate Beckett: I don't know, Rick. You're the novelist. You tell me.
Richard Castle: Well, you're not bridge-and-tunnel. No trace of the boroughs when you talk. So that means Manhattan. That means money. You went to college, probably a pretty good one. You had options. Yeah, you had a lot of options, more socailly acceptable options. But you still chose this. That tells me, something happened. Not to you. No, you're wounded, but you're not that wounded. No, it was someone you care about, it was someone you loved. And you probably could have lived with that but the person responsible was never caught.
Richard Castle: [silence]
Richard Castle: And that Detective Beckett, is why you are here.
Kate Beckett: Cute trick. But don't think you know me.
Richard Castle: The point is there's always a story. You just have to find it.
Kate Beckett: [opens up letter and eyes grow wide] I think I just did.
[shows Castle letter with a drawing of the crime scene]
There is (or rather was) a chain of events which makes what happened to Somerton Man make sense. The facts are that much of that chain of events is lost in the passage of time, likely never to be recovered. It is not that there is no story, it is just that not enough is known for us to have the story. The story is not accessible, it is lost to the realm of speculation.

A guide to the land of Faerie
A guide to the land of Faerie
Which makes it splendid fodder for fiction, since the writer can do what reality can likely no longer do--provide a coherent story. Somerton Man does not blur the difference between fact and fiction at all, but renders the constraints of fact particularly stark. We are pattern-seeking beings, and having merely bits of the pattern, so that the story is lost, is frustrating. Hence the urge to find the missing pieces, the enticement of an unsolved mystery. Unsolved because the key bits of the pattern we want to discern, the story, the chain of events which makes things make sense, are lost to us.

But the distinction between fact and fiction is not quite the same has that between fiction and non-fiction. For fact has no audience, it just is. It may or may not be discovered, but is not less real for not being known--otherwise the process of discovery is something else. Non-fiction and fiction both have an audience (or at least seek to do so). They are aimed at an audience, at garnering a readership or viewers. One is an audience for facts, presented coherently; the other for tales, which offer a more complete coherence.

Non-fiction accepts the constraints of fact; which are heavy constraints. But does so without the joy and burden of creation that fiction both instantiates and labours under. Indeed, the constraints of fact are so heavy, much non-fiction fails to abide by them, intentionally or unintentionally, to a greater or lesser extent.

The commonalities of seeking an audience, and providing pattern and structure, do not, however, relieve the writer of the constraints of the difference between fact and fiction. On the contrary, they make those constraints of distinction even more important. To blur the distinction so that the reader does not know whether they are dealing with fact or fiction is not to play fair with the reader, with the audience. It is a distinction with a difference and a conscientious writer is always acutely aware of it.

Hence novelists, particularly historical novelists, typically research the facts of a period so they can invoke it more effectively. Getting the period details right also plays fair with the reader, that the world they are being asked to believe in could have happened; the more we believe in the possibility of its reality, the more we are transported into it. The more it has secondary belief.

Fiction can, after all, not only provide us with a sense of the past (or the future) but also the present. Over the years, many an observation by a novelist (particularly female novelists) on abiding emotional truths about people, and the interactions they have, has provided me with enlightenment, or solace, or both. Nor am I the only one, as this classic blog post I am a Dark Elf expresses nicely; how a Muslim immigrant can find inspiration in the story of a drow from tales set in the Dungeons & Dragons universe. A story has that much more power the more it is embedded in the reality of people, in emotional truth.

Yet, they remain made-up stories, things of secondary belief, of sub-creation, however great the art and perception they may embody.  The story of Somerton Man is not made up; it is opaque to us precisely because it is not made up. As Tolkien says of Fantasy, but applies to fiction generally:
Fantasy is a natural human activity. It certainly does not destroy or even insult Reason; and it does not either blunt the appetite for, nor obscure the perception of, scientific verity. On the contrary. The keener and the clearer is the reason, the better fantasy will it make. If men were ever in a state in which they did not want to know or could not perceive truth (facts or evidence), then Fantasy would languish until they were cured. If they ever get into that state (it would not seem at all impossible), Fantasy will perish, and become Morbid Delusion.
For creative Fantasy is founded upon the hard recognition that things are so in the world as it appears under the sun; on a recognition of fact, but not a slavery to it. So upon logic was founded the nonsense that displays itself in the tales and rhymes of Lewis Carroll. If men really could not distinguish between frogs and men, fairy-stories about frog-kings would not have arisen.
How real are you? Real enough for emotional power?
How real are you? Real enough for emotional power?
The appeal of fiction is precisely that it invokes the reality we live in but is not entirely constrained by it. In particular, it does not have the epistemic constraints of reality. There is precisely the level of mystery about people, their action and motives that the author chooses, and no more. Reality is nowhere near as obliging. We can only work with what we have or can find, with no guarantees or promises that it will be enough.

As reading Kerry Greenwood's rather splendid rendition of the mystery of the unknown man, dead of unknown causes, found on Somerton beach in 1948, makes very clear; a rendition interwoven with her past and that of her father's. To seek to blur the distinction between fact and fiction is not to provide new understanding, it is to betray the understandings that both can give us.

[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer.]


  1. Speaking of fiction and fictional "events" you may find this assessment of a well known highly influential work of religious fiction of interest.


    Plus this essay too:


  2. http://tomsbytwo.com/

    There is more here, and some new information, as we attempt to conjoin fact with fiction.