by Hugh Gilmore
Many people who read a lot of books emphatically do not like reading fiction. Their reasons for this aversion vary enormously but most seem to distill down to this: they want to read a story that is “true.”
Sometimes they add the justification that they want to “learn something” from what they read. After all, since life is too short, why waste time on mere entertainment? Other readers have said things like, “I was really enjoying that book – in fact, I was halfway through it – when I learned it was a novel and not a true story. Boy, was I disappointed!”
I don’t think my brain is working well enough today to even begin to explain the complexities behind such ideas, but I do want to take some time out to enjoy the entire truth-versus-fiction phenomenon. Perhaps my interest in this issue stems from my shock this week about the Subway sandwich controversy.
Subway has been promoting a “Five-Dollar Footlong” hero sandwich successfully for a few years. Recently, however, an Australian boy, a middle-school-child, of course, got the big idea to measure the sandwich and found it was actually eleven inches long. He posted his finding on Subway’s Facebook page, asking in effect, What gives? The posting went viral, gathering millions of hits.
Many people suggested that Subway had been cheating them. One twelfth of a foot-long sandwich would be 12.5 percent of five dollars (so they should be advertising the “$4.38 eleven-incher,” but some might say that slogan is not as catchy). At least two people from New Jersey threatened to sue, seeking compensatory damages, possibly for the pain and suffering caused by their mortification at being deceived.
Subway issued a defense through their marketing and publicity departments, saying that “Footlong” was merely a catchy trade term and was never meant to refer to the actual length of the sandwich. After enduring the recent national political campaigns, I don’t think most Americans are quite ready to endure the angst of another labeling scandal. Stay posted.
You might think I’ve lost my way on this little excursion, writing about a hero scandal, but I haven’t. I now segue from Subway to Subterfuge. Yes: the Lance Armstrong hornswoggle-that-won’t-lie-down has now spread to the world of book publishing.
On Jan. 22, in Federal Court in Sacramento, according to Bloomberg News, a man named Rob Stutzman filed a formal complaint of interest to the publishing industry. (Stutzman v. Armstrong, 13-00116, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of California [Sacramento].) At issue: Stutzman claims that he never would have bought Armstrong’s book, “It’s Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life,” (2000) had he known it was not true.
Stutzman and his co-plaintiff, Jonathan Wheeler, said in their complaint about that book, and its sequel, “Every Second Counts,” (2003), that Armstrong denied all the doping rumors about himself and attributed his successes to “superior physical training, proper diet and an extraordinary spirit and drive to succeed,” among other things. Both of the California plaintiffs say they were severely disappointed when Armstrong’s books were exposed as fraudulent.
And, they say they never would have bought the books if they thought they weren’t telling the truth. In effect, they had been sold fiction when they thought they were buying memoirs.
And the plaintiffs do not just hold Armstrong responsible for this bait-and-switch. They are also suing Penguin Group (USA) Inc., publisher of “It’s Not About the Bike,” and Random House, Inc., publisher of “Every Second Counts.” They seek to represent California buyers of the books to recover unspecified damages. The spokespersons for Armstrong, Penguin and Random House made no immediate comments to the suit.
So, once again, the world has proved to be not only stranger than we imagine, but also stranger than we can imagine. Certainly some interesting questions have been raised about the difference between history/memoirs and fiction.
To begin with: Are lying and fiction the same thing? Or, turning the question around: Are fiction and lying the same thing? What if we dignify the word “fiction” by giving it upper-case treatment and calling it the literary term, “Fiction”?
Perhaps those are petty questions since the legal issue here is truth in labeling. But I’m trying to get at this idea: When do a memoir’s inaccuracies, if they do not slander another person, make the author legally liable to a lawsuit? I’m betting, along with Mark Twain, that most autobiographies of famous persons, especially heroes, are trumped up collections of exaggerations and, often, downright lies.
Armstrong’s two autobiographical books would probably be recommended to children down through the ages had they not been exposed as dishonest. As they say, however, history lies in the hands of the person holding the microphone.
In the meantime, there are those who believe that good literary fiction is “true” in a deep and significant way, truer than even the best history or biography books. “True” because it is true about life, i.e., human nature. True because it gives us “aha” moments, rather than “a-hah” or “ha-ha” moments. If you don’t agree, I suppose you could sue.
Note: Hugh Gilmore’s new twisted romance/traveling philosopher novel, “Last Night on the Gorilla Tour,” is climbing the sales charts in Kindle format on Amazon.com and will be released soon in paperback.