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True fakes

In 1841, a crowd gathered at the New York docks anxious for news of a young girl in England who was terminally ill. ‘Is little Nell dead?’ the passengers who had just arrived from England were asked as they disembarked. The concern was real, but the child was not. She was a character in Charles Dickens’s novel The Old Curiosity Shop, which at the time was being published serially in monthly instalments.

Few deaths in fiction have provoked such an outpouring of emotion among readers—understandable in an age when the infant mortality rate was much higher in the West than it is now—though subsequent critics of the novel poured scorn on what they viewed as cheap sentimentality.

Aldous Huxley cited Little Nell as a prime example of ‘vulgarity in literature’, with the death scene of the child being a crude appeal to bathos rather than furthering a serious artistic purpose. Oscar Wilde is said to have commented: ‘One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.’

Absurd or not, the effect achieved by Dickens is not unique nor entirely unknown in our time. We all know about the supposedly true books that turn out to be fakes—the Norma Khouri hoax last year is just the most recent example—but perhaps even more remarkable is the way fiction can somehow become fact.

The difference between true fakes and false ones was illustrated within the space of one week in January this year with the controversies surrounding J. T. LeRoy and James Frey. Frey is a real person accused of fabricating the details of his autobiography and would thus be considered a straightforward hoaxer, or true fake. On the other hand, LeRoy, supposedly a former street kid who wrote fiction heavily based on his personal experience with drugs and prostitution, is himself a fiction. The experience depicted in LeRoy’s books may be real for some people but the figure of the author was invented by a middle-aged couple and impersonated in public by the sister of one of its creators.

The news that the film rights to Gregory Roberts’s Shantaram have been snapped up by Hollywood star Johnny Depp after huge sales here and overseas is proof of the success of what could be called the reverse hoax. Shantaram is a novel, but it is no secret that the story is based very heavily on the colourful life of the author as a notorious criminal and fugitive, and indeed this is a vital part of its mass appeal.

As a highly successful home-grown true fake, Shantaram joins The Bride Stripped Bare, True History of the Kelly Gang, Schindler’s List and, going back a bit, Picnic at Hanging Rock. Internationally, The Da Vinci Code has won countless converts to its version of history even though the book is clearly labelled a novel and carries the standard disclaimer as to imaginary characters and situations, etc. Despite all this, the argument over authenticity continues to swirl around The Da Vinci Code. On his web site, Dan Brown maintains that the book is a work of fiction, but also thinks the scholarly debate over the religious implications of the book is ‘wonderful’.

Brown’s alternative account of two millennia of ecclesiastical history is an object lesson in the power of fiction to capture readers’ imaginations, and to that extent The Da Vinci Code follows a well-established pattern in the construction of the modern thriller. It is not just the conspiracy plot that is characteristic here, but the effort to make the story seem plausible, at least in the heat of the actual reading of the text.

It is not just thrillers, or for that matter science fiction, that can alter our perception of reality. The classic Australian example is Picnic at Hanging Rock, a historical novel that purports to recount the events leading up to the disappearance of a group of schoolgirls near Mount Macedon, Victoria, in 1900.

Picnic at Hanging Rock has sold millions of copies since publication in 1967. It is commonplace to assume that the story has some basis in fact, but it seems there is none. Writers who’ve combed the archives looking for traces of a real-life event have had no luck in finding one, yet tourists and literary pilgrims flock to the area convinced that the book speaks true. One literary detective, Yvonne Rousseau, claimed that Picnic at Hanging Rock is an elaborate code, beginning with the revelation that the names of the four lost girls all began with anagrams of the same four letters.

Author Joan Lindsay encouraged speculation in her carefully worded ‘disclaimer’:

Whether Picnic at Hanging Rock is fact or fiction, my readers must decide for themselves. As the fateful picnic took place in the year nineteen hundred, and all the characters who appear in the book are long since dead, it hardly seems important.

It seems that the author herself did want to believe in the story. In a recent ABC interview, actress Ann-Louise Lambert, who played Miranda in Peter Weir’s film adaptation, recalled wandering through the bush near the set in full costume and suddenly encountering Joan Lindsay herself. ‘And she came up to me and just threw her arms around me immediately. And she said directly into my ear, “Oh, Miranda. It’s been so long.” And she was very emotional. And it felt very ... like a very powerful, very true thing, you know, that she was feeling. She was remembering somebody or something that was true.’

Another Australian author who adeptly straddles the line between fact and fiction is Peter Carey. In Jack Maggs and My Life as a Fake, Carey breathes ‘life’ into fictional characters, while in True History of the Kelly Gang he fictionalises the biography of a real person.

Ned Kelly’s sexuality is a matter of conjecture, yet Carey invents a daughter to whom Kelly has written letters supposedly preserved by the State Library of Victoria, the actual depository for the Jerilderie Letter, armour and other important Kelly artefacts. Carey’s Ned is a recognisably modern heterosexual family man, a sort of SNAG precursor, and not quite the psychological enigma that history has left us with.
Carey’s Booker Prize for True History repeated the success of Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s List, a novel that similarly made no secret of its basis in fact, but was still accepted by the judging panel as having qualified for a prestigious and lucrative fiction prize.

Such was Keneally’s success that one English critic was moved to lament that ‘there will now never be a simple factual account of Oskar Schindler’, a backhanded compliment to the novelist’s ability to pick up a story and make it his own. Meanwhile, the story behind the story—Keneally’s 1980 encounter with Holocaust survivor Leopold Pfefferberg in the latter’s Beverley Hills luggage store—has a life of its own in publishing legend.

The entertainment industry as a whole makes constant siren-like appeals to our credulity. ‘Based on a true story’ is a common tag line in movies and the assertion of authenticity is considered a strong selling point. The publicity for the film Rabbit-Proof Fence went a step further than most, stating without qualification that the movie was ‘A true story’. No feature film by definition can be true in the same way that a documentary might claim to be, no matter how faithful the film-makers are to the events depicted. It cannot be the events and characters themselves, but rather a representation of them in cinematic form, with all the effects, music, acting and the other tricks of the trade.

A reverse hoax could easily be arranged. Merely making the author’s identity a secret, for instance, can stimulate the reader’s imagination. Nikki Gemmell’s The Bride Stripped Bare is fiction, but the circumstances in which it came into existence fuelled speculation as to the quotient of truth in the story.

Gemmell herself claimed to want to remain anonymous in order to write more candidly about the secret sex life of a married woman, as she is. Her subsequent denial that the book is an autobiography begs the question as to why she sought anonymity in the first place. Certainly she was not reticent about discussing how shy she felt when writing the book.

By dissolving the usual distinction between fact and fiction, have authors and publishers discovered a powerful new marketing tool for their books, or is it a case of going back to the future, as so often happens in cultural history? Are we that much more sophisticated than the readers who wept over Little Nell?

Cynics might wonder whether the real fiction here is the book itself or the hype that surrounds it. What we read in a novel may be just a made-up story, but we should never underestimate the power that writers have to seduce us.

Once we consent to our disbelief being suspended, we may be no longer in complete control of our imaginations, much less our emotions. Perhaps this is especially true of the novel that claims not to deceive. 

Simon Caterson is a Melbourne freelance writer.


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