Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Netflix history: chill out, it's television drama

(The CBC National News, also confused about fiction and nonfiction)

British journo Simon Jenkins is again furious that the television series "The Crown" is behaving as if it were a drama or something.

The royal family can look after themselves, and usually do. I am less sure of history, and especially contemporary history. The validity of “true story” docu-dramas can only lie in their veracity. We have to believe they are true, or why are we wasting our time?

Spoiler alert. We don't have to believe they are true. We have to believe they are fiction. Because they are. "The Crown" is a drama, the imaginative creation of its writer (Piers) Peter Morgan, its directors, and its actors. They are not documenting reality. They are creating a story and putting all their efforts to making it feel true. That's what fiction is: an imagined reality.

Evidence-based documentarians, including journalists and historians, need to stop complaining that fictions are "untrue", and start insisting on the difference between fiction and nonfiction.  Fiction is the genre that creates imaginary realities, and if it does so well, it succeeds. Nonfiction is the one that explores what's true and what's not, by presenting evidence and arguments for (and against) what's likely true -- arguments a reader can engage with and assess. Nonfiction isn't simply truth, for truth ain't that easy to find. But it's a search for truth. Imagining possible truths -- that's fiction's strong suit. 

"The Crown" is either a triumph of the imagination, or it isn't. And if it is, it's time well wasted, as they say. But squabbling about whether it is true or not demeans the truth itself.

If I may quote myself from the last time I read Simon Jenkins indulging in the same confusion:

Jenkins needs to reread Robert Bolt's "A Man for All Seasons" along with Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall. One is a great play in which Thomas More is a hero and Thomas Cromwell is the darkest of villains, and the other is a great novel in which Thomas Cromwell is a hero and Thomas More the darkest of villains. They cannot both be true, and we should not expect either of them to be. But they can both be literature.

Jenkins, however, doubles down, holding up Wolf Hall as the model of true fiction.

Most novelists go to great lengths to verify their version of events, as Hilary Mantel does. 

Umm, no. Hilary Mantel goes to great lengths to make her version of events feel true.  Which it is why it's a terrific novel. 





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