Found this piece from July 2022 by Cory Doctorow, where he talks about an author who was apparently a protege of Philip K. Dick’s who I never heard of – Tim Powers.
In it, he brings up an oft-repeated trope regarding “dangerous” fictions, a pet topic of mine:
“The Powers method is the conspiracist’s method. The difference is, Powers knows he’s making it up, and doesn’t pretend otherwise when he presents it to us. […]
The difference between the Powers method and Qanon, then, is knowing when you’re making stuff up and not getting high on your own supply. Powers certainly knows the difference, which is why he’s a literary treasure and a creative genius and not one of history’s great monsters.”
First of all, I would argue that all writers – by necessity – must get “high on their own supply” in order to create (semi) coherent imaginal worlds and bring them to fruition for others to enjoy. Looking sternly at you here, Tolkien. In fact, perhaps the writers who get highest on their own supply are in some cases the best…
Second, no one arguing in favor of this all of nothing position (fiction must be fiction must be fiction) seems to have taken into account the unreliable narrator phenomenon in fiction.
Wikipedia calls it a narrator whose credibility is compromised:
“Sometimes the narrator’s unreliability is made immediately evident. For instance, a story may open with the narrator making a plainly false or delusional claim or admitting to being severely mentally ill, or the story itself may have a frame in which the narrator appears as a character, with clues to the character’s unreliability. A more dramatic use of the device delays the revelation until near the story’s end. In some cases, the reader discovers that in the foregoing narrative, the narrator had concealed or greatly misrepresented vital pieces of information. Such a twist ending forces readers to reconsider their point of view and experience of the story. In some cases the narrator’s unreliability is never fully revealed but only hinted at, leaving readers to wonder how much the narrator should be trusted and how the story should be interpreted.”
My point is that the un/reliability of the “narrator” can extend all the way out through to the writer themself. (And what if the reader turns out to be unreliable?)
Can we ever really know for certain if a writer “believed” that thing x that they wrote was wholly fictional, wholly non-fictional, or some weird blend of the two? Do we need to ask writers to make a map of which elements of a story are which? Isn’t that in some sense giving them more power than they deserve?
Moreover, if the author is an unreliable narrator (and to some extent every subjective human viewpoint is always an unreliable narrator to some degree), how can we ever trust them to disclose to us responsibly whether or not they are indeed unreliable? Short answer is: we can’t. Not really.
This is one of those “turtles all the way down” arguments, in which (absent other compelling secondary evidence) it may be difficult or sometimes impossible to strike ground truth.
All of this boils down for me to the underlying argument of whether one must label fictional works as fiction, and if not doing so is somehow “dangerous.”
The Onion’s Amicus Brief earlier this year why parody and satire should not be required to be overtly labelled – because if robs these millennia-old art forms of their structural efficacy, their punch as it were.
Wikipedia’s Fiction entry’s history section is sadly quite scant about the details. A couple of other sources point to more specifically the 12th century in Europe (though likely it goes back farther). One source whose credibility I have no concept of states:
“In the Middle Ages, books were perceived as exclusive and authoritative. People automatically assumed that whatever was written in a book had to be true,” says Professor Lars Boje…
It’s an interesting idea, that structurally the phenomenon of the book was so rare and complex that by virtue of its existence alone, it was conceived of as containing truth.
Up until the High Middle Ages in the 12th century, books were surrounded by grave seriousness.
The average person only ever saw books in church, where the priest read from the Bible. Because of this, the written word was generally associated with truth.”
That article alludes to an invisible “fiction contract” between writer and reader, which didn’t emerge as a defined genre distinction until perhaps the 19th century. They do posit a transition point through in the 12th, but don’t back it up by any evidence therein of a “fiction contract.”
“The first straightforward work of fiction was written in the 1170s by the Frenchman Chrétien de Troyes. The book, a story about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, became immensely popular.”
HistoryToday.com – another site whose credibility I cannot account for – seems to agree with pinpointing that genre of Arthurian romance as being linked to the rise of fiction, though pushes it back a few years to 1155, with Wace’s translation of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain. The whole piece is an excellent read, so I won’t rehash it here, but quote:
“This is the literary paradigm which gives us the novel: access to the unknowable inner lives of others, moving through a world in which their interior experience is as significant as their exterior action.”
They suggest that fiction – in some form like we might recognize it today – had precursor conditions culturally that had to be met before it could arise, namely that the inner lives of people mattered as much as their outward action.
“It need hardly be said that the society which believes such things, which accedes to – and celebrates – the notion that the inner lives of others are a matter of significance, is a profoundly different society from one that does not. There is an immediately ethical dimension to these developments: once literature is engaged in the (necessarily fictional) representation of interior, individuated selves, who interact with other interior, individuated selves, then moral agency appears in a new light. It is only in the extension of narrative into the unknowable – the minds of others – that a culture engages with the moral responsibility of one individual toward another, rather than with each individual’s separate (and identical) responsibilities to God, or to a king.”
It’s interesting also here to note that, A) the King Arthur stories did not originate with Chretien de Troyes or Geoffrey of Monmouth, and B) many people ever since still believe them to be true today to some extent.
Leaving that all aside, one might also ask regarding my own work, well isn’t this all just a convoluted apologia for the type of writing I’m doing? Absolutely, and why not articulate my purpose. You can choose to believe me or decide that I am an unreliable narrator. It’s up to you. I respect your agency, but I also want to play on both the reader’s and the author’s (myself) expectations about genres and categories. These are books which take place squarely in the hyperreal after all, the Uncanny Valley. They intentionally invite these questions, ask you to suspend your disbelief, and then cunningly deconstruct it, only to reconstruct it and smash it again later – and only if you’re listening.
Further, as artists I believe our role and purpose is to some extent to befuddle convention, and ask questions that have no easy answers. Yes, this will cause some uneasiness, especially among those accustomed to putting everything into little boxes, whose contents never bleed or across. Some people might even worry if it’s “dangerous” to believe in things that aren’t factual. Is it? I think the answer is sometimes, and it depends. But it largely depends on your agency as the reader, and what you do with it in real life.
Consider the case of this purveyor of tall tales, Randy Cramer, who claims with a straight face to have spent 17 years on the Planet Mars fighting alien threats to Earth.
He is the very definition of the unreliable narrator, whose labels of fact of fiction likely do not accord with consensus reality on many major points.
The video below is a good, if a bit annoying, take-down of many of Cramer’s claims, though unfortunately I think leans rather too heavily on deconstructing his body language, when his words alone are damning enough (btw, looks like the George Noory footage comes from an interview he did for his show Beyond Belief):
The question remains: is this an example of a “dangerous” fiction?
To understand that, I tend to think in terms of risk analysis, in which we might try to estimate:
- The specific harm(s)
- Their likelihood of occurring
- Their severity
Feinberg’s defines harm as “those states of set-back interest that are the consequence of wrongful acts or omissions by others” (Feinberg 1984)
Is saying you spent 17 years on Mars a “wrongful act or omission?” Perhaps. But as the Stanford article points out, actually defining what is or isn’t in someone’s interests is incredibly squishy.
In Cramer’s case, perhaps it is willfully and wrongfully deceptive to say the things he is saying. Do we have a moral or legal responsibility to always tell the truth? What about when that prevarication leads to financial loss in others?
In Cramer’s case, according to the second video linked above, he does seem to ask people for money – both in funding creation of a supposedly holographic bio-medical bed which can regrow limbs, and in the form of online psionics courses and one-on-one consultations.
But is it wrongful if the buyers/donators have agency, and the ability to reasonably evaluate his claims on their own?
Wikipedia’s common-language definition of fraud seems like it could apply here:
“…fraud is intentional deception to secure unfair or unlawful gain, or to deprive a victim of a legal right.”
Is Cramer a fraud? Is he a liar? I wondered here if Cramer might have a defamation case against the YouTube author referenced above, who calls him a pathological liar. But last time I checked, truth is an absolute defense against defamation claims. That is, the commonly accepted truth we agree on as a society – more or less – is that Mars is uninhabited, and there is no Secret Space program, etc. So if it went to court, it seems like the defamation claim would not have a leg to stand on.
Of course, it’s *possible* it’s all truth, and what we call consensus reality is based on a massive set of lies itself that is very different from ‘actual’ reality. But that’s not how courts work.
What if Cramer included disclaimers like you might see on tarot card boxes, or other similar novelty items, “For entertainment purposes only?” It depends what authority we’re trying to appeal to here: a court of law, the court of public opinion, or one reader’s experience of a particular work. Each of those might see the matter in a different light, depending on their viewpoint.
In my case, I include disclaimers regarding the inclusion of AI generated elements. I leave it up to the reader to try to determine A) which parts, and B) what the implications of AI content even are. Should they be trusted?
My position, and the one which I espouse throughout, is that – for now – AI is an unreliable narrator. Making it about on par with human authors in that regard. Are the fictions it produces “dangerous?” Must we label them “fictions” and point a damning finger at their non-human source?
In some ways, my books are both an indictment of and celebration of AI authorial tools, and even full-on AI authorship (which I think we’re some ways away from still). To know their dangers, we must probe them, and expose them thoughtfully. We must see them as they are – as both authors and readers – warts and all. And decide what we will do with the risks and harms they may pose, and how we can balance all that with an enduring belief and valorisation of human agency.
Because if we can’t trust people to make up their own minds about things they read, we run the real risk of one of the biggest and most dangerous fictions of all – that we would be better off relying on someone else to tell us what’s ‘safe’ and therefore good, and trust them implicitly to keep away anything deemed ‘dangerous’ by the authority in whom we have invested this awesome power.