Writing Fiction in an Age of Alternative Facts

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One of the reasons people read fiction — and this goes double, it seems to me, for genre fiction — is to escape. It’s to go into another world and forget, if only for a brief period of time, the realities of life we’d prefer avoiding — be it rising political unrest, climate change, a creeping deadline, or even just the dishes in the sink.

I once spent an entire summer in a fictional environment: I was pretty seriously depressed and didn’t want anything to do with my current reality, so I went through — in order — the entire Dick Francis opus. I’d finish one book and immediately pick up the next. Along with time and some therapy, those books, those alternative lives, got me through my problems with my own.

There’s nothing wrong with writing and reading good escapist literature. We need to be entertained, and stories can take us anywhere: they’re the magic carpet of the mind. This is especially true of mystery fiction — it’s not only far from our own lives, but often far from reality as well. Most murders, after all, are not committed in genteel circumstances by Colonel Mustard, in the library, with the knife.

And I wonder, sometimes, if playing the fiction card relieves us — readers and writers alike — from the storyteller’s responsibility, the obligation to observe and reflect a culture, a society, a time. I wonder if it doesn’t allow our characters and storylines to be just as avoidant of reality as we are.

The real question we need to be asking ourselves, the only question that really matters this year and probably for years to come, is what is the fiction writer’s responsibility in an age of “alternative facts?” In many ways, real life has taken over our genre: since the rise of “alternative facts,” what does the label “fiction” even mean? If the White House sells us fiction as a stand-in for reality, then perhaps we should be clear in our stories about the other truths — the ones that actually exist. We need to write fiction, but have it be true in a more essential way.

I’ve always believed the saying that “if you can write the stories for a society, it doesn’t matter who writes the laws.” Régimes come and go; stories endure. That’s at once a tremendous gift and a terrible mandate: the ability — and responsibility — to create something meaningful, something that will enrich and even perhaps change the lives of others.

I write that, and then I turn to the projects currently on my desk, and I feel some shame. While I do have a novel coming out in May that deals with the machinations of a medieval court (which in fact ring presciently true to the present), the next two books on my projects list for 2019 are part of a mystery series that, while arguably entertaining, is probably not going to change the world. I’m not saying the series doesn’t take on important issues (most of my novels could be subtitled Things Jeannette’s Been Obsessing About Lately), but they often feel like too little, too late. I’m responding to a runaway political system and a planet in crisis, both of which have moved on dramatically between the time I write and the time the novel goes to press. So even as I create truths via fiction to counter “alternative facts,” I’m always going to be dealing with a moving target.

Is that an excuse not to try? Of course not. And perhaps it will prod me — proud all of us — into going just a little deeper, questioning just a little more, and engaging just a little more thoughtfully — while, of course, keeping the whole enterprise entertaining enough that people will actually want to read the damned book!

Jeannette de Beauvoir’s most recent novel in the Sydney Riles series is The Deadliest Blessing, taking place during Provincetown’s Portuguese Festival. She lives and works in a small seaside cottage with her cat Beckett and thousands of books, most of them stored electronically.

Bestselling novelist of mystery and historical fiction. Writer, editor, & business storyteller at jeannettedebeauvoir.com.

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