You know those “Based on a True Story” blurbs on a novel’s cover? I must confess I rather loathe them.
Then again, whenever I get asked how much of myself is there in my novel/play/short story, I want to ask back: does it matter? I never do it, though – and after the first few discomfited times, I’ve learnt to answer that no writer’s an island, and so on. Still, I am curious: does it matter so much? Why? What changes in a reader of viewer’s perception of the story I tell, if they know that a scene or a character or a bit of dialogue is based on some childhood memory – or nothing in particular?
And yet, it must matter – and a whole lot, or Based on a True Story wouldn’t be such a long-lived and widely exploited marketing strategy…
So perhaps I’ve chosen the wrong calling in life, but I can’t help thinking there must be something skewed in seeking reality in fiction – whether on the page or the stage. I mean, what’s happened with the suspension of disbelief? Isn’t the very root of fiction an unspoken agreement about lies told with grace and efficacy?
But no – they want to know what is real in it. And if you say “Not much,” in Italy at least they’re likely to regard you with suspicion. Of course it must be real, if you wrote it. Of course you must be telling your own story after all. Of course you must be opening your heart and pouring the contents on the page. Because, if you don’t, then you are a liar and a cheat.
Real – mind you. Not true. That truth and reality are not the same doesn’t seem to occur to this kind of reader. Think of Emilio Salgari, the Nineteenth Century Italian writer of sea adventures. All his life, he signed himself as Captain Salgari, of Italy’s merchant navy… Actually, he was nothing of the sort, though he very much wished to be, and once even fought a duel against a disbelieving journalist. But, whatever Salgari’s own reasons for boasting a fake naval rank, his publishers kept backing the notion – because, when told by a sea-captain, his exotic tales of tall ships and derring-do, seemed more… real. In fact, they were scrupulously researched when it came to geography, and the product of the author’s imagination for everything else. This made them as true as can be – but real? Not so much. And in the end, this was one of several things that drove poor Salgari to suicide.
Does the fact that he was not really a sea-captain change anything in his books? Not at all. They could never – even the collections of contemporary sea-tales – carry one of those blurbs that read Based on a True Story… But then what the blurbs actually mean is Based on a Real Story. And they imply that the fiction based on “reality” is in some way better. Isn’t it a strange criterion to select, like or judge a piece of fiction?.