The Grift of Fiction

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From Writer Unblocked:

Permit me a moment of apostasy.

I realize it might seem perverse to pursue this topic in light of Jim Dempsey’s far more sanguine post from just this past Tuesday (“How Books Can Change Lives”), but for some time, I’ve had the uneasy feeling that the merits of storytelling have been oversold. The use of the mercantile metaphor is deliberate. In any ever-increasing number of realms, the “craft of narrative” is being used to justify the unjustifiable—the dishonest, the trivial, the crass, the sanctimonious, the unnecessary, and all manner of other dubious ends.

Tell the story has become the hallmark of the hustle. Give the folks a convincing, compelling tale and they’re yours, facts be damned.

We’re even told that facts are meaningless outside a narrative—an approach that turns scientific theory into a kind of fable.

. . . .

It concerned the three-part HBO miniseries about the 1986 nuclear disaster at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. In that post I noted that the series showrunner, Craig Mazin, suffered many of the same concerns I did.

For the sake of simplicity, let me just repeat here a portion of what I wrote then:

[W]hat I found particularly fascinating was [Mazin’s] discussion of how narrative cannot help but distort what it seeks to portray, and what that means when you’re telling a story based on real events. Does a ripping yarn really absolve the writer’s responsibility to the truth?

It turns out he thought about this long and hard before and during his writing of the script for Chernobyl—especially because he likens humanity’s plight right now given the climate crisis to the technicians working at the reactor.

“Right now, like it or not, we’re unfortunately those guys in the control room going, ‘Well, the one thing we don’t have to worry about is this thing blowing up.’ That’s us, on this planet, right now.

He takes particular note of the use of narrative in advertising—commercials don’t sell products, they sell stories—and notes that “politics is weaponized narrative,” to the point where:

“Everything is a narrative. And we’re suffering. We’re kind of drowning in narrative poison”

He therefore became obsessed with recognizing where he made deliberate choices that distorted the known truth for the sake of dramatic effect—so much so that he decided to create a podcast to accompany the miniseries to point out the distortions and to provide the factual record to the best of his ability.

“The last thing I ever wanted to say to people was, ‘Now that you’ve watched this, you know the truth.’ No, you don’t. You know some of the truth, and you know some of the stuff that’s been dramatized.

“And ideally, through this, we start to maybe find a new way to present things to people where we’re not so worried as artists that people are going to question whether or not we, quote-unquote, ‘got it right.’ We can’t get it right; we can only get it sort of right. That’s the best we can do.

But if we can share everything else, including things that challenge or undermine the narrative we presented — because we are dealing with an imperfect process that boils two years down into five hours — then I think they will appreciate what we do more, not less.”

This issue once again came to the forefront of my thinking as I was watching Oppenheimer, an utterly impressive film that nonetheless also plays fast and loose with certain facts. (For example, concerning the worry that the nuclear explosion might trigger a chain reaction that ignited the atmosphere, causing the end of the world. It’s a key dramatic theme in the film; unfortunately it appears the concern was dismissed almost immediately.) This isn’t the only distortion of the facts in the film, per a nuclear historian, though it also got a great deal right. The director, Christopher Nolan, apparently does not share Mazin’s qualms about misrepresenting reality, for as far as I know he’s said nothing about the matter.

Link to the rest at Writer Unblocked