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Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Wait...That Was Fiction?

E.L. Doctorow's novel The Book of Daniel caused an onslaught of discussions on ethics, such as Ron Hansen's essay here: http://www.scu.edu/ethics/publications/submitted/fiction.html   At issue is whether fiction can cause harm or be libelous when it is too close to a real person's life.  Doctorow has also raised scholarly eyebrows by inventing some of the documents he uses in his books, which he defends by pointing out that the "fiction" part of the term "historical fiction" gives him the right to invent anything he wants.

Fiction can be confusingly factual.  No surprise, then, that it can also work the other way.  I was reminded of this recently in the form of a rejection letter.  I'd written a sentimental, nostalgic essay, remembrances of my grandfather's love of the sea.  Having done careful market research, I sent it to a magazine that specializes in just such touching tidbits.  Frankly, I was feeling like a shoo-in, and it's probably my hubris that got me.  The editor made me wait for four months before replying, "This magazine does not accept fiction."

But it wasn't...but I used the words "essay" and "personal experience" in my cover letter...but...but...

Well, never mind.  I submitted the essay elsewhere and it found a good home.  I was tempted to say that the lesson here is "Avoid writing non-fiction so vivid that it sounds like you're spinning a yarn."  But, in truth, I believe that's exactly what the world needs more of.

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