Fictional stories feature imaginary events and characters, whom writers often assert are nothing more than “purely coincidental” resemblances “to real persons, living or dead” in a generic disclaimer designed to avert defamation lawsuits. (Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater began with the brilliant parody, “All persons, living and dead, are purely coincidental, and should not be construed.”)
Is it acceptable for authors of novels and screenplays to write whatever they want, no matter how inaccurate and unrealistic?
Most recently, this issue came into the spotlight as a result of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, a movie that African American Studies professor Jelani Cobb claims “plays fast and loose with history,” by, for example, downplaying the prevalence and significance of slave resistance. In his piece that appeared yesterday in The New Yorker, Cobb argues that “there are risks implicit in doing this with a film about slavery.” He also raises an interesting criticism of Tarantino’s previous work, Inglourious Basterds (sic), which Russians see “not as a revenge fantasy but as an attempt to further whitewash their role in Hitler’s demise.”
I am unfamiliar with these movies (and with three small children, I can’t remember the last time I went to a movie theater), but similar criticisms apply to the inaccurate portrayals of history and current reality in novels, such as those that misapply the law (even if I otherwise liked the book), gloss over the seriousness of domestic violence, or sugarcoat medical diagnoses.
In defense of these works, people argue, in essence, that it’s all fiction, to which Cobb replies: while fiction is not reality, the “entire appeal of the former is its capacity to shed light on how we understand the latter.”
I agree, and I hope that a book that distorts the truth would do so in a way that makes it clear that it is more fiction than reality. For example, no one would believe that such farcical tales as Forrest Gump or The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared are accurate portrayals of history. In other cases, it may not be so obvious, meaning that those works could actually dumb down its readers.