March 18, 2011 · 7:50 am
I very much love reading fiction, but there’s just one thing that bothers me when I do. My mind starts spinning around fictional scenes and I begin wondering how much of what I see is not fictional but true; that is, based on actual events in the author’s life? So, dear Reader, I think I may have developed a solution to this question of real versus fake via the development of a new ratings system.
Publishers, effective immediately, each novel is to carry a cover sticker that states, “This book is based __% on actual events.” Yes, every fiction book is to carry an informational sticker that gives the prospective reader a number that represents the average amount of content derived from true happenings. Or should it be the median?
The beginning of each chapter must also contain a similar statement, “Chapter 4 is based 62% on actual events in the author’s life.” In addition, at the rear of the novel, a summary must detail which ” fictional” scenes were based on which real events in the life of the writer – let’s call her Suzie Smith. As an example, “When the protagonist Liz Bordon crashes her Mini Cooper into the Goodwill drop-off box on her way home from a college party in 2011, this scene was based on the time that Ms. Smith crashed her Toyota Tercel into a U.S. postal service box on her way home from a fraternity-sorority mixer in Berkeley in 1987.” See, in this way, we will be able to determine exactly how original and creative each author is, and we’ll also see how often they’re just writing down things that happened to them decades earlier.
This relates to the matter of why most successful novelists are past their twenties and early thirties… Because one needs to live at least 35 or so years before one has enough big and interesting experiences in life to turn them into alleged fictional events. If you think about this, it’s totally logical. How would one be expected to make up things about situations one knows nothing about? It would be like asking a middle school drop-out to write about life in graduate school at Harvard. You’re not very likely to get a novel out of that. But ask a Yale graduate school drop-out to write about graduate school life at Harvard and you might well have something. (Note: A new federal law prohibits individuals from making up scenes about life at a rival’s campus. If you went to Stanford, you cannot legally write fiction about being a Cal student. Writers, this is a matter to talk to your legal counsel about. Better safe than sorry.)
This is not something that I’ve studied scientifically, but my guess is that the range of fictional content in a novel is likely to be in the range of no more than 20 to 35 percent. If this is true, then there’s bound to be a demand for additional consumer protection. Federal regulations will surely come into play requiring a minimum of 51 percent fictional content in order for a story to be classified as fiction. Anything less, and the book must be labeled as a pseudo-fictional work (Caution: This book is substantively based on things that happened in the writer’s life when he/she wore a younger person’s clothes. You’re not getting much fiction for your money if you buy this one.)
See how helpful this will be? And, yes, I can see what it’s going to mean in the long run… Many of today’s novelists will be converted into new-born memoir writers, telling us about their past lives without covering them in the guise of fictional events. The truth shall set them free!
If you think I have some good ideas here, then write your congressperson or U.S. senator today and urge them to adopt these essential reader protections. Or better yet join my public interest group, the Association to Properly Brand So-Called Fictional Works. Once my crusade has proven to be successful, I may write a novel about it. Oh, make that a memoir.
Pictured: The Other Life: A Novel by Ellen Meister which was not based on actual events (read the synopsis and you’ll understand why). BTW, this is not intended to be a serious essay – it’s a joke, folks. Thank you.
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November 21, 2010 · 2:19 pm
Recently, I was communicating with an author when he happened to reference the “judgment” contained in book reviews. And that’s when it dawned on me that I don’t see reviews as necessarily being judgmental; instead, I see them as impressions. A review reflects the way in which a reader-reviewer perceives the book at a particular point in time in his/her life. As with everything in life, this is subject to change. It may be, for example, that a novel that a reviewer could not get into while battling an illness would be highly enjoyable at another time. Many of us have had the experience of reading a particular book years ago and labeling it as a favorite, only to be surprised when we return to that book and find it flat and dull. Did the book change in any way in the interim? No, our life – the reader’s life – changed in such a way as to change our perspective of the book.
Let’s think about this in terms of a physical landmark. Let’s say that I view the Golden Gate Bridge on four occasions – firstly in the middle of the afternoon on a warm and sunny day, next during a rainstorm, then while the bridge is bathed in fog, and lastly on a moonlit night. Each time the bridge will appear to be different, and I would likely describe the bridge in different terms if I were writing about it. The bridge itself never changes, but my view of it – my impression – will change based on external factors.
So, one thing to keep in mind while reading a review is that it’s a point-in-time statement. It’s also something that’s subject to revision. The reviewer who slammed a book with a negative review might find, to his surprise, that he enjoys it when he looks at it months later. And the reviewer who loved a book and added it to her personal collection might wonder a year or two later why she loved it – something she’ll ponder while putting it on the giveaway stack.
What does this mean for an author? Simply that both positive and negative reviews can be discounted. The book that one reviewer perceived as a flop may be a hit later, and vice versa. Life changes and so do impressions.
The author of a recent survey book noted something interesting about how film and book reviewers are perceived. According to a study referenced in the book, the authors of generally negative reviews are viewed as more intelligent than reviewers who almost always draft positive reviews. This is due to the perception that “anyone can say nice things,” while the negative reviewer is seen as a person who must have an extensive in-depth background – otherwise, how would he/she know what to nitpick and criticize? This does not mean, however, that the average person prefers to read the reviews of a generally negative reviewer.
When given a choice between reading mostly negative or positive reviews, the typical person will more often select the positive ones. And when asked about the people who write the reviews, most people will select the positive one as the nicer person – the nicer person is, therefore, the one whose reviews are read more. So this leads to a choice among limited options for the book reviewer. Do you want to be perceived as smart and well-read, or as the less smart writer whose reviews are more often read?
The appropriate response may be to write a mix of positive and not so positive reviews, so that one is viewed as both smart and nice, if not both at the same time.
Pictured – The Other Life: A Novel by Ellen Meister ($24.95, 320 pages) which will be released by Putnam Adult Books on February 17, 2011.
Note: After writing this article, I happened to come across the following statement from Robert Christgau, music critic for the Village Voice: “I don’t usually fluctuate wildly with what I initially thought about an album because I wait to write the review until I know what I think… My first judgment is solid and secure. But records do tend to either gain or lose aura as decades pass.”
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