Can you trust what you read in fiction?
Of course, fiction is not real. Stories, be they in books or on screen, are fabrications. But to draw us in, they have to have some believability. They have to have some kind of truth.
I found myself thinking about this recently, after I’d finished reading Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code (for me, one of those ‘must read at some point, if only to decide what I think of it’ books.) It reminded me of a couple of other books. The first was something that I’m not going to identify here, as I have very few positive things to say about it. The second was the late Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, which I read years ago and keep on meaning to re-read.
These three books are connected by the fact that they all deal with topics that could be considered religious conspiracy theories. They all use biblical passages and other quotes to back up some fairly far-out ideas.
I’m not well-read in this area, and I have not done any of my own research into any of the ideas in these books. Some of them sound vaguely plausible, and others sound far too extreme. But in reading (and thinking about) these books, I started to see a pattern in which theories I found more believable.
The book I had downloaded years ago was okay, but nothing special. There were plenty of sections that could have benefited from an edit, and I was often pulled out of the story by the writing—not necessarily bad, just not that good. And the theories came across as unresearched, as if the author had made up the ideas himself, then used a few quotes in an attempt to give them some validity.
The Dan Brown book was well-structured and, while I wasn’t drawn in to the writing or the characters, the story rattled along at a good pace. There were loads of details, not only on the wild theories but also on places and historical events. And the book came across as well researched. If the ideas were off-the-wall, it at least felt as if the author had run them past others with more knowledge. In short, I trusted the ‘facts’ in this book far more than in the first one.
And then there was the literary Foucault’s Pendulum. Eco is undoubtedly intelligent. Even though the book is tongue-in-cheek, and reads as if Eco is having fun with all his ideas, the ‘facts’ come across as far more believable, even the throwaway ones.
So what do we have here?
- A poorly written and poorly edited book, and the ‘facts’ come across as highly questionable.
- A book by a mainstream, popular author, clearly edited, and the arguments come across as well-researched.
- A book by a literary and intellectual author, and I trust the research it contains almost without question, even if I don’t agree with the conclusions.
I’ll repeat again that I have very little knowledge of religious conspiracies and such like, and have no easy way of telling which theories are from reliable or semi-reliable sources and which are obvious fabrications. Yet even knowing this, I instinctively trust those ‘facts’ that come from someone with a more scholarly demeanour. I instinctively trust someone who appears as an authority.
I think this is part of our nature. If someone talks or writes well, then we are more likely to take their words at face value. If they appear educated, we automatically assume they have done their research. If they tell their tale with skill, we are more likely to be drawn in and accept it as a possible truth.
Conversely, we are less likely to trust a story told by someone who shows deficiencies in their use of language. If they do not understand how to use speech marks or commas, we are predisposed to dismiss their thoughts as poorly conceived. If their story does not flow well, we are more tempted to believe they are making it up as they go.
It’s why news reporters are generally well-spoken. It’s why so many ‘entertainment’ and ‘reality’ shows on TV still use teams of script-writers and editors. It’s why voice-overs on documentaries are done by those who enunciate clearly. If it were some geezer talkin’ common, like, we’d fink he were makin’ it all up, ‘cos he don’t understand nuffink, yeah?
Of course, once you realise this, it’s easy to question everyone—especially those who talk or write well. So maybe that poorly written book with the wild theories is closer to the truth, and Umberto Eco is simply having a clever laugh at the gullible masses. Maybe we should trust those who come across as less skilled or less intelligent, because they can’t lie as subtly or be as creative with their words.
Or maybe I should simply read these books as fictions, stop trying to analyse them, and enjoy the stories.
Yet stories, to draw us in, have to be believable. They have to be written or told in a way that makes us trust that they might be possible. If they fail to convince, they have failed as stories.
It’s the aim of all story-tellers, be they authors, after-dinner speakers, politicians or comedians, to have others believe that their tales could be true, no matter how ridiculous they are.
So, can you trust what you read in fiction?
Maybe that’s the wrong question to ask. After all, a good story does not have to be true. It only has to be believable.