Fiction Isn’t The Same As Lying

August 4th, 2004 · 3 Comments
by Booksquare

We have long argued the importance of fiction as a vehicle for social change. Just as it is easier for The Simpsons to take straight pins to the balloons of our world, fiction frames issues in a context that makes it easy for large portions of the population to understand. This morning, we commented upon how The DaVinci Code is a work of fiction and the constant debunking is rather strange — now we’re going to take another approach.

We wanted to believe Norma Khouri, author of what is now a collector’s item, Forbidden Love. After all, she dared to write about something most Westerners (and we’ll include Australia here despite the geographical issues) don’t understand — something we’ve chosen not to understand. In certain cultures, women are killed for bringing so-called dishonor to their families. Honor killings should not be tolerated in this modern world, and public opinion can be very powerful when it comes to policy decisions that give tacit approval to countries turning a blind eye to this crime.

Khouri, however, destroyed the world’s trust by lying — something her colleague (of sorts) Iain McCalman says may not have been necessary:

Ms. Khouri’s imposture doesn’t mean that she lacks literary ability. Had “Forbidden Love” been a novel, there would have been little fuss, for it is a good read. Successful charlatanism is, after all, a type of artistry, a virtuoso performance of the self that demands great psychological insight and empathy – qualities that don’t go amiss in a writer. The test will surely come when Norma Khouri decides to write her own real-life memoir, not as a Jordanian exotic but as a girl from the Southwest Side of Chicago.


This mirrors our belief — because no matter how juicy the crime, the reading public does not swallow greedily unless there is something of substance, something compelling there. Framing this book as the fiction it apparently is would have work equally well, with the added benefit of allowing the author to maintain credibility. Khouri’s loss of face may very well cast doubt in some people’s minds about the nature of the crime being described.

Literary hoaxes have a long history, and apparently they’re a sort of competitive sport in Australia. We think hoaxes also serve the purpose of upending current belief systems. We specifically recall a situation where, at the height of the Tipper Gore/Parental Music Resource Center frenzy, a fake group issued a press release calling for the ban on a series of “inappropriate” comic strips. Included on the list was Peanuts, notably for its defiance of adult authority. Despite the dubious logic and relatively benign nature of the comics on the list (including a strip that existed pretty much only in the imagination of the creator), the press leapt upon the story — damn fact checking.

The hoax was uncovered, eventually, but the point was made: you can find something objectionable in just about anything. Hoaxes are very powerful tools when used in this manner. They are not so beneficial when lives can and probably will be lost because of an author’s lies.

As writers, we must follow our muse. When we posted on this story previously, a reader wanted to know where Khouri (and we’ll paraphrase) got off writing about something like honor killings when she’s an American. If authors confined themselves to writing about their own little corner of the universe, the world of books would be very bare indeed. Of course writing about what you know intimately lends a story something extra, but we feel fairly certain that George Lucas has never been to a planet called Tatoinne. Jonathan Swift likely never visited Lilliput. Jules Verne may never have gone twenty thousand leagues under the sea. And Tom Robbins has never been a woman, at least to the best of our knowledge. You don’t have to live a specific life to imagine it — but if you say you have, have the courage to take responsibility for your work.

File Under: Square Pegs

3 responses so far ↓

  • Lorra // Aug 5, 2004 at 11:00 am

    So, if it’s fiction inspired by a true story and built upon meticulous research, is it fact-based fiction or is it non-fiction or is it something altogether different on the continuum of non-fiction to fiction?

  • booksquare // Aug 5, 2004 at 11:19 am

    I’ve been thinking about this since you asked it — I think it’s really in the eye of both the author and the beholder. It is, in my opinion and experience, impossible to write without some sort of bias. And the further away you are from the story, the harder it is to “feel” the original experience. This is why eyewitness accounts are so unreliable — 15 people can see the same event, yet have fifteen different accounts of what happened. Nobody is right, nobody is wrong — perception is a fascinating thing, and does make me question the nature of reality.

    If you say it’s fiction, then presumably you’re working your meticulous (I love that word — it always sounds so good in my head) research into the framework of the story you want to tell. There’s always the issue of how the research is or isn’t used. I often use the example of medieval stories — people can research the era throughout their lives, but they cannot truly know what it was like to live back then. Both fiction and non-fiction authors make assumptions based on what they know and what they believe. If you say it’s non-fiction (and, especially, if you say it’s a true recounting — caveats noted about — of your life), you will be held to a higher standard of credibility.

    There is incredible blurring of fiction and non-fiction, and, as you noted, rather than strict breakdowns between them, it’s a continuum — the author, primarily, chooses where the work falls. The reader may beg to differ or accept the author’s designation of the work.

  • Lorra // Aug 6, 2004 at 6:40 am

    Curiouser and curiouser!

    As far as fiction inspired by a true story (and supported by meticulous – woo-hoo- research), there are two good reasons to call it “Fiction” instead of non-fiction.

    A. You may need to prove your expertise on your subject to get a publisher to take notice, and in most cases, you will lack the expertise.
    B. Most important reason to call it fiction: to not get sued – to not get sued and to not . . . well, you get the idea. However, in regard to handing over all your earthly goods to an undeserving plaintiff with tons of money and clout who sees himself/herself in your cleverly disquised “fiction,” a recent court decision found for the writer. In this case, even though the plaintiff could clearly show that the writer was describing him when she told the story of having been physically abused, the district court declared that writing that contributes to the common good is protected by the first amendment.
    Note: Most home owners policies have a rider available (for an additional, nominal charge) that covers the writer for up to twenty million dollars in case of a libel (or slander) suit. If you are writing about an organization or person with the ability to hire many very expensive lawyers – even though you can prove what you are saying is true – you will still have to spend megabucks to defend yourself, making the rider a very good investment.