Suspend Your Disbelief

Shop Talk |

When is it fiction… and when is it just a lie?

Promise?Last week, news sources everywhere reported that the popular blog “Gay Girl in Damascus” was not, in fact, written by a Syrian lesbian named Amina Arraf. Nor, as the blog claimed recently, had Amina been arrested by Syrian police. In fact, the blog was written by a 40-year-old American grad student, Tom MacMaster, who is living in Scotland. Amina does not exist.

According to NPR, in his apology post on the blog, MacMaster defends himself by claiming he was writing fiction:

I never expected this level of attention. While the narrative voıce may have been fictional, the facts on thıs blog are true and not mısleading as to the situation on the ground. I do not believe that I have harmed anyone — I feel that I have created an important voice for issues that I feel strongly about.

In fact, the headline of the New York Times story on the subject read, “‘Gay Girl in Damascus’ Blogger Admits to Writing Fiction Disguised as Fact.”

This story reminds me of another I saw recently, also involving an elaborate online hoax and extended correspondences with a completely made-up person. In that case, a woman believed she was in an online romance with a firefighter from Colorado—only to discover that the whole thing was an elaborate fiction made up by a Chicago woman:

When the Colorado volunteer firefighter she loved died unexpectedly of liver cancer in 2006, Paula Bonhomme tenderly re-examined his gifts to her: a rubber duck with a firefighter hat, a lock of his hair, a flattened quarter he’d stuck on the train tracks as a kid. […]

Even though they had never met, Bonhomme left an unhappy marriage in Los Angeles and was set to move to Colorado in 2006 when she learned James was dead. He hadn’t told anyone else of his diagnosis, James’ sister said, and didn’t want a memorial service. “You all have temples within you,” he wrote in a last note, “go there if you want to honor me.”

About seven months later, Bonhomme’s friends uncovered the creepy truth. James, his young son and about 20 other friends and family members Bonhomme had been communicating with for months were characters allegedly created by a woman in Chicago’s west suburbs.

The depth of the alleged deception stunned Bonhomme. Janna St. James, who lives in Batavia, had allegedly used a voice-altering device to pose as Jesse James on the phone, coordinated numerous storylines with her characters that advanced in emails and instant messages, and sent and received mail — including children’s drawings — from all over the world.

The alleged perpetrator, St. James, also takes refuge in the terms of fiction. According to the Chicago Tribune St. James’s defense included

[an] argument that she was creating fiction and therefore wasn’t liable.

“The concepts of falsity and material fact do not apply in the context of fiction,” her attorney had written, “because fiction does not purport to represent reality.”

But do these kind of hoaxes count as “fiction”? One of the key terms of fiction, it seems to me, is the reader knowing that the story is made up. Fiction is a kind of contract a reader must enter willingly: You’re going to tell me something that isn’t true, but that has meaning anyway, and I will accept your story with the knowledge that it isn’t true.

If the reader doesn’t know the story is false, he or she invariably ends up feeling deceived when the truth is revealed—because that’s exactly what happened. If it’s written down—even if you’re writing in character—it might be a fiction, but it’s not fiction. It’s just a lie.

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