An article by Matthew Davis
There’s a chapter in A Dream About Lightning Bugs, Ben Folds’ memoir, wherein he recalls a notable incident from his youth. Having taken on a job at a German restaurant as a one-man polka band recycling the same four standards on his synthesizer over canned beats – in lederhosen, no less! – he’s taken aside one night by an odd couple who criticise his performance for being insincere. He’s bored, he’s smug about the kitsch quality of the job – he’s not present. Over time, he comes to appreciate their point and resolves never to take an audience for granted.
That’s the point of his story and mine: keep it real.
Whilst art is by its very nature inauthentic, the creator must balance that artifice with truth and sincerity. It’s a delicate dance at times, almost paradoxical, but it can be done – and for work to truly resonate, it must be. That doesn’t just mean ripping painful experiences from one’s life and committing the bleeding mess to tape, or paper, or film. Even that method – the method method – is creating barriers between the reality and the art. No matter how closely the emotions and events may be detailed, they are being reframed and reworded, restaged and re-enacted. In this act they become less than true, and yet any of us could name a dozen painfully honest break-up songs that brought us to the brink of tears, movies that shook us with a deep understanding, books that made a home in a corner of our hearts. Why? Because we can relate. Because those stories feel so real. And yet, they’re not.
So, yeah… it’s complicated.
Speaking truth through lies is simultaneously the easiest thing an artist can do and the hardest. Well, lies is a bit of a harsh word – let’s use fiction. And let’s narrow our focus for the moment to the world of the written word, since we’re all readers here and many of us are writers, too.
When it comes to books, we know when you’re getting a fair shake, you and I. We can tell when the author is invested, putting themselves into the work, and when they’re skimming the surface. We’ve all read books that may or may not be technically impressive but nevertheless ring hollow. The ones we like but don’t love. The books that tick a box rather than touching a G-spot. (Mentally speaking, I mean, though far be it from me to judge how you enjoy your reading experience.) They might hold records for sales, but they won’t stand the test of time. An example? Go into your local second-hand bookstore and see how many copies of The Da Vinci Code and Fifty Shades of Grey you find. They tickled a brief fancy, lured an audience with cleverness or kink, but how many people keep them in pride of place on their shelf now?
Look, I’m not here to bag on Brown or Grey (or any other colours, for that matter). I’m just here to encourage honesty, and whether you enjoy those books or not, honest is not the first the word you’d use to describe them. They are impersonal fantasies staffed with two-dimensional characters whom we may reach to inhabit in some insubstantial way. There’s little to nothing in them that feels lived. And sure, we don’t need Dan Brown to have personally uncovered religious conspiracies to write about them, and we don’t need S.L. James to have been a sub to a rich man in order to imagine it for us (though a bit of valid research would have gone a long way in that case) – but do their leads feel like anyone we’ve ever met? Robert Langdon is the kind of man who only exists in fiction, a man defined entirely by the plots in which he finds himself enmired… and the improbably named Anastasia Steele, despite relating her story in first person, is a mere sketch of a human – like her inspiration Bella Swan, she’s a passive pawn of the plot whose sole defining quality is an inexplicable ability to attract toxic thirst-traps and win them over by crumpling like a wet paper bag at every turn.
Other authors, though, they build their careers on the honesty they share with their readers. However you might feel about Stephen King, you won’t finish one of his books with the impression he’s just in this writing lark for money and putting out any old shit. (Or maybe you will, but with respect, you’re wrong.) He’s the perfect example of a committed author, someone who lives in his work until it’s done like some deranged but wise house-flipper. You read his books and you know the guy has lived some shit, because it’s all there in the writing. It aches and it soars and it bites and it bleeds – words from a real person, keeping it real. And while his success is often attributed to his prolific output of high-concept ideas, it’s actually down to the people who inhabit his work, because King makes them real, too. Does Jack Torrance read like a thumbnail sketch of a male human, or does he leap off the page and throb in your mind like a hangover headache? What about Carrie White’s arc of ostracism, hope, rejection, and revenge? Devin Jones and his bad case of the twenty-ones? Yeah, they feel real, all right. We’ve been them, or we’ve known them. And seeing even just a hint of ourselves in these characters is what hooks us in.
This would be a handy platform for me to bash fiction I don’t groove on, but you know what? If you enjoy endless trilogies of Faery Sue fantasy or reskinned The Walking Dead fanfic, more power to you – you’re still reading and obviously you’re getting something out of it, so rock on, my friend. But me, I need heart and human grit and those little details that tell you the author has lived a life not so dissimilar to mine – their existence may be quite different, but I want to understand how they feel and why. Even if you’re writing hard SF with no human characters, this should be a byword; if you expect us to relate to X’xxrt and B*aba*ba’s body-positronic love scene, it needs to hold elements we can recognise. Maybe X’xxrt makes the kind of passive-aggressive remark we’ve heard (or made) in our own real-life romantic dramas, or B*aba*ba’s horrible ex is much like someone we’ve met, dated, married. As far as speculative fiction roams, there’s always a common crossover point with the quotidian world we know – and while I sometimes feel that placing humanity at the centre of everything is typically parochial of us, one must remember that books are written for a primarily human audience. We are the only thing we understand, and even that only sometimes.
But if we hope to understand ourselves, we need an honest view from the outside. We need to see ourselves depicted in art so we can check out the angles the mirror won’t show us, the sides our friends are too polite to mention. And we need to see others in the same way, which is why representation is so important – not just so folk of all types can join in the fun and feel a part of it all, but also to show that people are people the world over. Books allow us to explore others, feel their pain and their ecstasy, understand them as we understand ourselves. It’s no coincidence that readers tend to be more empathetic, more compassionate. While those who don’t make time to read often spend more of it around real people in the real world, bookworms get nested deep in made-up characters and come out of it with a better understanding of humanity. And that’s not a side effect, it’s the whole point. Writers want you to feel, whether it be joy, terror, love, suspense, amusement, or all the above. And in a world that seems to be split further by deep divisions with each decade, feeling what other people feel is so important. Communication is essential; honesty is paramount.
This post is a fair example. Instead of merely penning a lofty essay on why (sniff) True Art is the Only Art That Matters and So Is My Opinion (sniff), I’ve framed this piece with a story I liked and my reaction to it. I relate to Ben Folds, relate my position to you, and hopefully you relate to me. A sincere message has passed from him to me to you, and so, in its own opinionated and long-winded way, this writing is real. (And struggling to make its point, but to be fair, life is just an endless quest for meaning anyway.)
I’ve got a novel out now, my first. It’s called Midnight in the Chapel of Love. And yes, it’s all lies, a dark tale to titillate you – none of it actually happened. But… some of it did, didn’t it? I live in a city and have complicated feelings about the small town where I grew up; I’ve had relationships that dissolved and left me grasping for resolutions to love and life’s mysteries; sometimes I’ve been tested, and sometimes I’ve failed. I’ve hurt people and I’ve been hurt, been confusing and confused – and I’ve been scared. I think you’ll know that if you read the book. I think it explores humanity as deeply as any lauded mainstream literature; I think it asks questions you’ve all pondered, and maybe some you haven’t. You might not connect with it, and that’s fine. But I lived in the story as I wrote and edited it, put pieces of myself and people I know into it, expressed views and emotions I understand and some I don’t – it’s as real and honest as I could make it. Whether you like the book or not, you won’t walk away thinking its characters are cardboard cut-outs, that I didn’t care about them or telling a story that is uniquely mine, that I’m just in this writing lark for money and putting out any old shit.
You’ll see me. And perhaps in the telling of this tale, you’ll recognize others – in the way a character talks or thinks, in the choices they make or the regrets they carry, or even in something as random and minor as the way they walk or the clothes they wear. Maybe you’ll see family, friends, lovers, haters, the workmate you think is a dick or the childhood friend you wish you’d never let go.
Maybe you’ll see you.
I hope so. After all, a good book is like a good mirror. If you look in it and see yourself, it’s doing the job it was made to do.