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January 31, 2006

Fiction and truth
Posted by Patrick at 08:37 AM *

Echoing Maureen Dowd, Arianna Huffington is exercised over the fact that James Frey’s memoir A Million Little Pieces, now comprehensively exposed as fraudulent baloney, is still listed by the New York Times on their nonfiction paperback bestseller list.

I posted a comment on Huffington’s own site, but it doesn’t seem to be showing up so I’ll repeat myself here. This is a silly argument because calling a book “nonfiction” has never meant any kind of certification that its contents are true. Edgar Cayce books are “nonfiction.” Immanuel Velikovsky is “nonfiction.” Self-published tracts about how bees from Venus are attacking Your Child’s Brain are “nonfiction.” All of these are packs of lies. They’re also not fiction, which is to say, narratives put forth under the rubric of “I’m now going to tell you a story which I made up.” Yes, there are books which fall into a gray area. (Into which category would you put Avram Davidson’s Adventures in Unhistory? You have five minutes. Show your work.) A Million Little Pieces isn’t one of those books, any more than this particular pack of lies.

What’s more, as an editor devoted to the value of good fiction, I wouldn’t want the Times, or anyone else, to start using “fiction” as a dumping-ground for works of nonfiction which have proved to be full of lies. There’s a good discussion to be had of whether respectable book publishers should make a greater effort to ensure the basic truthfulness, or at least truthful intention, of work published as “nonfiction.” But using “fiction” as a synonym for “lying” isn’t the way to go.

Comments on Fiction and truth:
#1 ::: A. J. Luxton ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2006, 09:18 AM:

Agreed absolutely. The sort of thing I write is already in competition with flashy crap novels, after all. And if you took all the flashy incorrect or unverified books out of the nonfiction section and chucked them into the fiction section, there'd be a lot more physics textbooks on the nonfiction bestseller list.

I tell a tale of sleepy non-sequiturs, I see. Time to get to bed before the sun turns me to dust and ashes, har har. Brain.

#2 ::: Jo Walton ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2006, 09:40 AM:

What's more depressing about it being on the Non Fiction Bestsellers after being exposed as lies is the "best selling" part -- people in large numbers are continuing to buy it.

#3 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2006, 10:02 AM:

Something being a pack of lies does not make it non-fiction. Look at the garbage that comes out of the Assministration. Fiction is a lie, but we get in with the understanding that it is supposed to be a lie.

#4 ::: Kip Manley ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2006, 10:18 AM:

The true outrage being it ever made on one of those lists at all in the first place (even before the hue and cry).

#5 ::: Sean Bosker ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2006, 10:34 AM:

I don't think that labeling it as fiction is wrong. It was written as a novel, it was intended to be fiction, and it was presented as such, and it was the editor and publisher who called it non-fiction as a marketing ploy. It was as you have suggested, bad fiction, and the only thing that they thought would make it work would be to relabel it as non-fiction and sell it based on that.

The last time I can think of something similar achieving this degree of success was Dianetics. I don't expect everything in a non-fiction book to be utterly true, but I don't find the designation between the two to be utterly arbitrary as I think you are suggesting.

#6 ::: Michael Hall ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2006, 10:41 AM:

I'd propose we add a new category, then.

Maybe "voyeur porn" or "truthy" or even "moneymaking disgraces," which would serve a similar function to the proposed ".xxx" TLD, acting as both magnet and warning, depending on your reading habits.

#7 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2006, 10:44 AM:

In which category should The Da Vinci Code go?

#8 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2006, 10:46 AM:

Thanks for putting words to something I've been thinking since I heard right-wingers grumbling about Farenheit 9/11's status as a documentary.

#9 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2006, 11:20 AM:

A question I had to ask when sorting books for a library sale: are the biographies/autobiographies of politicians fiction or non-fiction?

#10 ::: sean bosker ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2006, 11:23 AM:

It's so postmodern that the meaning of "non-fiction" as a genre classification is being debated. I'm not saying it shouldn't be debated, it's just that I've always hated postmodernism, what little of it I could understand, and now I'm beginning to feel like they were right.

#11 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2006, 11:32 AM:

"I don't expect everything in a non-fiction book to be utterly true, but I don't find the designation between the two to be utterly arbitrary as I think you are suggesting."

Sean, can you tell me where I said the distinction was "arbitrary"? In any way?

#12 ::: Tara Liloia ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2006, 11:38 AM:

I was always under the impression that authors were given a lot of artistic license in their own memoirs. You were given the benefit of the doubt, as long as you didn't say something like, "I was married to Grace Kelly and played bass for Sleater-Kinney."

#13 ::: will shetterly ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2006, 11:42 AM:

Fiction: prose that the author claims is false.

Non-fiction: prose that the author claims is true.

So long as Frey says he thinks he wrote a memoir, it should be in non-fiction. Ditto for Streiber's life with aliens.

#14 ::: Aconite ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2006, 11:45 AM:

Sean Bosker: It was written as a novel, it was intended to be fiction, and it was presented as such, and it was the editor and publisher who called it non-fiction as a marketing ploy.

As I understand it, Frey first made the rounds with it as a novel and had it rejected everywhere. He then sent it around as a memoir and got it published. His agent and publisher didn't take a book submitted to them as fiction and call it nonfiction; Frey presented it as nonfiction.

#15 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2006, 11:55 AM:

Will Shetterly has it right.

People tying themselves in knots over this are doing so because they don't grasp that "nonfiction" and "non-fictional" don't mean the same thing.

#16 ::: Clark E Myers ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2006, 12:41 PM:

Seems to me the NYT covered the issue perfectly by long ago April 21, 2003 noting the false ring in its signed editorial opinion. Quite agree that looking to the NYT to impose its own judgement on the best seller lists - as opposed to the signed reviews - is to simultaneously ask the impossible and the unwise.

Little problem: This story is supposed to be all true. It is supposed to be a scorchingly honest account of how its author sunk to unimaginable depths,....
April 21, 2003
BOOKS OF THE TIMES; Cry and You Cry Alone? Not if You Write About It
By JANET MASLIN
A MILLION LITTLE PIECES
By James Frey
383 pages. Nan A. Talese/Doubleday. $22.95.

I'd quite agree that looking to the NYT to impose its own judgement on the best seller lists - as opposed to the signed reviews - is to simultaneously ask the impossible and the unwise.

I'd be interested in opinions on the way Slate http://www.slate.com/id/2135069/?nav=fo is piling on Nan Talese for defending the accuracy long after she knew or should have known otherwise. ....Talese had reason to believe Frey hadn't told the truth in his memoir well before that. We know this because Deborah Caulfield Rybak published a piece in the Minneapolis Star Tribune way back in July 2003 that not only flagged other likely fabrications in the book, but solicited comment on those likely fabrications from …[ellipsis in original] Nan Talese......
Timothy Noah writes "Chatterbox" for Slate

Any thoughts on the obligation of the editor and publisher? Especially as the distance from imprint name to business owner grows?

#17 ::: bryan ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2006, 12:50 PM:

I would like to see a category: lies.

#18 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2006, 12:56 PM:

The problem, bryan, is who will decide if something is a lie. Some people do believe all those books about wishy-washy Hillary being the Devil's Bra-burning Lesbian Bride.

#19 ::: Madeleine Robins ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2006, 12:59 PM:

It seems perfectly clear to me: fiction is made-up-stuff told to entertain and (perhaps, if you're lucky) turn up some actual truths; non-fiction is non-made-up, although it may be the personal truth of memoir (my mother would doubtless have a different take on my upbringing than I would, for instance). Lies, as you point out, are lies. Perhaps the Times should start a separate category for bestsellers in that category?

I note with some amusement, that Amazon's list of statistically improbable phrases in A Charge to Keep includes "school property taxes, reading initiative, education commissioner." As the parent of two kids in public schools...

#20 ::: Lesley K ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2006, 01:06 PM:

Just thought you all would like to know that this is currently a subject of hot discussion among American public librarians. It seems to re-surface every decade or so (well-known previous examples: Forrest Carter's THE EDUCATION OF LITTLE TREE and Beverly Sparks's GO ASK ALICE) and never seems to get resolved. Personally, whenever I do a library tour for students, I ask them to tell me the difference between "fiction" and "non-fiction". Some bright spark always eventually offers that "non-fiction is true; fiction isn't." I then offer counter-examples (e.g., political opinions, mythology in NF, barely retouched historical biographies in Fiction). I then point to the poetry and essays and foreign-language literature in the NF section. I add the fact that every book in the "Fiction section" does in fact have a "Dewey number (mostly 813.54)." When they are all stumped and give up, I conclude: "Fiction, for the purposes of the public library, consists of those books the librarians think people are looking for when they ask us: 'Where's the fiction section?'"

#21 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2006, 01:10 PM:

You've got Sparks at your library, Lesley? Anyone of them wears Seventies glasses and carries a clock-shaped Clank in her hair?

#22 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2006, 01:31 PM:

Sean, non-fiction isn't a genre, it's just a blanket term for everything that doesn't fit in the category of "fiction". A phone book, a book about how to program a computer, a cookbook, a book of photos of Paris -- all of these are non-fiction, but they have very little in common other than that.

What's postmodern about any of this?

#23 ::: James ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2006, 02:33 PM:

Are Robinson Crusoe, Journal of the Plague Year, and Moll Flanders non-fiction then?

It seems to me that they only difference between them and Mr. Frey's work is that they are older and better-written.

#24 ::: James ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2006, 02:34 PM:

Addendum: difference in terms of categorization, that is. They are obviously all substantively different on other grounds.

#25 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2006, 02:46 PM:

While I'd agree that some works do not qualify as "fiction", there are some that do, in my opinion, qualify for the label "horror", as in some guy writing about some boogeyman who's gonna get you in your sleep if you vote Democrat next election, etc, etc. It seems to be one of those unending sequels really.

sigh.

#26 ::: Michael Weholt ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2006, 02:57 PM:

Then, of course, you have (if we may spill over into the question of fiction and non-fiction films) title cards like this one at the beginning of "Fargo":

"This is a true story. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred."

On the DVD William Macy tells the story of asking the Coen brothers to tell him more about the actual crime upon which the movie was based. They told him there wasn't any actual crime like that and that they just made up the part about it being true. Macy says he told them "You can't do that!" Their response was "Why not?"

I guess after the movie opened to much acclaim, some enterprising reporter discovered the title card was B.S. The Coen brothers responded with a press release that they were shocked, shocked that they had fallen victim to somebody's ruse, and they promised heads would roll.

Of course, all of that is perfectly true, but I just made it up. :)

#27 ::: theophylact ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2006, 03:11 PM:

Defining nonfiction is tricky. The authors of Why Cats Paint are presenting as true something that their readers should recognize clearly isn't; but calling it fiction wouldn't be right. For one thing, fiction is narrative.

#28 ::: will shetterly ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2006, 03:23 PM:

James, literature includes fiction and non-fiction, perhaps because of examples like those.

Theophylact, it doesn't matter whether the author believes something is true. I would argue that L. Ron Hubbard and Joseph Smith were lying their asses off. What matters is the presentation.

The nice thing about "non-fiction" is that defining it is easy: It's anything that isn't fiction.

Defining fiction is what's tricky. When an author adds a foreword to a fantastic story claiming it was told by someone who has since gone on, is that story non-fiction? Depends on whether the author asks the publisher to present it as fiction or non-fiction.

#29 ::: Neil Rest ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2006, 03:56 PM:

I propose a friendly amendment: There's non-fiction, fiction, and delusion. It seems to me, for instance, that von Danikan is a liar while Velikovsky is a nut. This does not make one more "true" than the other, but preserves the important distinction between "I think so," and "Maybe I can gull another sucker."

BTW, when Whitley Streiber's bad sf came out, Thomas Disch was writing theater reviews for The Nation, so they gave it to him to review. If you have the good fortune to be able to find a copy, read it sitting down, without any beverage in your hand.

#30 ::: Brooke C. ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2006, 04:05 PM:

Well, Defoe's books were usually published as the memoirs of their title characters (I love the bit at the beginning of Moll Flanders where the author/"editor" deplores all these sensational romances being published nowadays, and doubts anyone will believe the plain and truthful tale he's about to present. Very much like those movie title cards, only snarkier!), whereas Frey was claiming these experiences as his own. Not that it really makes that much difference, from an ethical or descriptive standpoint, as far as fiction/nonfiction. Still.

#31 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2006, 04:11 PM:

Brooke... Are you saying that people actually believed that those 'memoirs' were truly true and that the readers didn't see that for the storytelling device that it was? Strange. Did anybody believe that the narrator of A Princess of Mars was for real when he said he was only recounted what John Carter had told him?

#32 ::: Bruce Arthurs ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2006, 04:18 PM:

A non-factual narrative presented and promoted as factual?

Isn't that usually just called...

...bullshit?

#33 ::: James ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2006, 04:38 PM:

Serge:

They were, indeed, passed off as true, and some people, at least, accepted them as true. There was some scandal when the Journal of the Plague Year's fictional nature became more generally known (of course, the narrator there is anonymous). Kenner refers to them as "counterfeited" memoirs.

The works were all published before the novel had been established, and what we would think of as prose fiction tended to mean prose romances (mediaeval plus the Arcadia and a few other more recent examples). Prose satires might mimic romance or non-fictional forms (the slightly later Gulliver's Travels is slightly different from Defoe, since it overtly seems to pass itself off as memoirs but was intended by the author and publisher to be read as satire from the outset). Defoe is didactic but not satiric.

Defoe went to some pains to maximize the verisimilitude of his work (RC is based on a real sailor's experiences -- Alexander Selkirk -- and MF is based on a recognizable "real life" type).

The question I asked was a bit of a trick question: they antedate our modern ways of dividing up literature, and in the period "fiction" would simply have made "a thing made up". There was no market for realistic prose fiction as such (that would have to wait for Richardson and Fielding). By C17 usage, they were fictions; by today's usage, which has added the technical genre meaning to the word, they are fictions but not "fiction".

#34 ::: John Scalzi ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2006, 04:40 PM:

While not arguing Patrick's general point, in Frey's particular case, he maintained for a long while that the memoir was true, but of course it wasn't. It was also first pitched as a novel before it was sold as a memoir. I think there's a pretty good evidence chain for it being re-listed as fiction, in the roman a clef style.

#35 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2006, 04:45 PM:

Brooke: I think that was a trope at the time. The "publisher's note" at the beginning of Les Liaisons dangereuses is a case in point.

#36 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2006, 04:48 PM:

re my previous comment: I am an idiot who forgot what century Defoe is from. But it makes the Laclos preface funnier.

#37 ::: fidelio ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2006, 04:51 PM:

The forward/disclaimer that something is a true story is an old device in fiction*; sometimes it really does mean that a narrative is a fictionalized account of actual events, and sometimes it's there to add artistic verisimilitude to the purely fictional story. Robinson Crusoe is not an exact account of the experiences of Alexander Selkirk; it is inspired by them. It is a fiction with truth behind it; its pretence of being an entirely truthful account is a literary device.

What we have in the case of Frey and his agent and editor is a case of bllshttng, and as someone raised in the American frontier tradition of improving a story so it is more entertaining, effective (for various values of effective), or what have you, I feel we're not out of line in saying it's capable of competing at the world-class level**. However, since it came into print dressed as nonfiction, it remains in that marketing category until it's reissued with the claim that it's fiction.

*see Sir Walter Scott, and lots of others as well.

**As we say here at the South "I am something of a bllshttr myself, but I like to watch a professional at work, so I'll just sit back and let you have at it."

#38 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2006, 04:58 PM:

Thanks, James. Very interesting.

On the overall subject of BS or delusion... There's this TV show called medium that I watch, in spite of the original episode saying that this is inspired by a real person. Thank goodness that they very seldom bring up that canard anymore because the show is fun. (The middle kid makes me think of what my wife must have been at that age, based on what I was told about her sordid past.) I can thus enjoy it wihout feeling I'm subsidizing crap.

I must confess I was briefly tempted to read The Da Vinci Code in spite of all this, with the intention of approaching it as a work of fiction. But some reviews said that it's not even well written BS. So I passed.

#39 ::: Scott ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2006, 05:39 PM:

Wow... did I really plain-as-day miss when the DaVinci Code was presented as non-fiction? I remember some bits about Brown claiming he researched stuff... but Neal Stephenson does a lot of research too, but that doesn't make The Baroque Cycle non-fiction (I hope).

Fiction which refers to true things (that really happened, or really exist, or really work) is still fiction. Though, I admit, I really am actually capable of having blocked and forgotten the pitch of DVC as non-fiction. Am I missing the point? Is there some other reason DVC is relevant to this discussion?
A more interesting question would be something like Flatterland which is really a book about math, but presented in narrative.

#40 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2006, 05:44 PM:

You mean, Scott, that The Da Vinci Code is not supposed to be a fictionalized rendition of something that has been claimed as true? In that case, I apologize for my comments. But that means that I misunderstood everything I read about it and I'm not that far gone yet. I hope.

#41 ::: will shetterly ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2006, 06:15 PM:

The didact in me maintains that believing and not believing what you claim as true should stay subsets of non-fiction; declaring the latter to be bullshit isn't much use, because we decide for ourselves what's bullshit. Ariana Huffington and Co. may want to recategorize Frey, but their success would open the door to Republicans wanting lefty work in fiction, Catholics wanting Baigent and Leigh in fiction, and so on.

The artist in me says all writers try to make their writing as true as it can be on its own terms. It's just a shame that some of them don't realize that when we speak of truth, we want metaphorical and literal truth to be the same, or to be acknowledged as different.

#42 ::: Jeff R. ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2006, 06:17 PM:

Another interesting border-case would be George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman series, which, though clearly fictional, maintain straight-faced a conceit of non-fictionality in the forwards and footnotes...

(Even though the Fraser of the forward 'claims' them to be actual memoirs, we are obligated to ignore that claim in sorting the works, are we not...)

#43 ::: Scott ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2006, 06:37 PM:

Serge: I haven't followed DVC carefully. But it was not my understanding that his protagonist was believed to be a real person... or that cardinal guy who dies in the first chapter was a real person.

It was my very limited understanding that Brown was intentionally and unambiguously writing a piece of fiction (imaginary characters, imaginary plot). Then Brown claimed (though possibly in bad faith) that the discoveries that those fictional characters make are factual (an action which does not change that the book was fictional). Though in the real world they had been discovered by other people in other situations. (For what it's worth, even if he does claim that they're real, they're mostly not.)

But let me disclaim again... I haven't payed much attention to DVC marketting and media. So, if Brown claimed that all of the people in the book were real people and that those things really happened, I am utterly and entirely mistaken.

#44 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2006, 06:44 PM:

Jeff R: there are other authors working in that tradition, although perhaps none with such thoroughness as Fraser; Laurie King's Holmes&Russell series comes to mind.

#45 ::: Juli Thompson ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2006, 06:48 PM:

An even more interesting case would be George MacDonald Frasier's McAuslan novels. They are essentially true stories. He changed the names, and ran two soldiers together into McAuslan, but all the incidents happened. He ended up having a very interesting conversation with the colonel of his regiment about it, years later.

#46 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2006, 07:00 PM:

My apologies, Scott. I didn't mean that DVC's characters were supposed to be based on real people. I was refering to the premises of the Code itself, that there is a Secret Order, that kind of stuff. Again, my apologies.

Anyway, my original point was that I was tempted to read it as a work of fiction thru and thru, but my understanding was that it wasn't particularly well written. But that was one reviewer's opinion.

#47 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2006, 07:02 PM:

Besides Flashman, there is Elisabeth Peters's Amelia Peabody mysteries, which are supposed to be real - as a literary device.

#48 ::: Rebecca ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2006, 07:03 PM:

I found Teresa's comment on Huffington's article. Couldn't figure out how to link to it directly, but it was there: under January 31st, 2006, 8:35am.

And I concur on the idea that we don't need any sort of "lies" section, or any change to the system as-is. Borders already puts all the political stuff in sociology, and I, therefore, have a more interesting time trying to find the real sociology books (not that I then buy them there anyway, but big-box stores can be good for browsing and then ordering at small, friendly, local outfits).

My roommate and I are both wondering what annoyed Oprah so much about this that she down-dressed Frey on live TV. This little tidbit can't be all there is to the story.

#49 ::: cd ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2006, 07:19 PM:

Into which category would you put Avram Davidson’s Adventures in Unhistory?

Into the "I MUST OWN THIS" category. Alas, the cost...

#50 ::: NelC ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2006, 07:42 PM:

The author asserting that what follows is totally, completely, utterly true, honest-injun, is such a common trope that when Arthur Golden wrote in the intro to Memoirs of a Geisha that it was a true story, I took it for granted that this was verisimilitude, so I was totally surprised when his subject later sued him for breach of confidentiality--

-- I just now suddenly thought that I ought to check on the facts of this, and it turned out I was half-wrong. The intro to Memoirs is written as by a fictional character, so it is added verisimilitude. But it later emerged that Golden had interviewed a famous retired geisha, Mineko Iwasaki, as part of his research, and ended up basing the story substantially on her life, except for some of the nasty stuff he made up, causing Iwasaki to lose much face in Gion. I hope she's getting some of the movie money as part of the settlement.

Eh, if you're going to be inspired by someone to write a piece of fiction, but lack the imagination to create a new story (the opposite of Frey's case, I guess), then you should have the good sense to treat it as a biography and check that it isn't socially embarassing.

#51 ::: Keith Kisser ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2006, 07:52 PM:

For some reason we have a Browsing Section in the academic art library where I work, which has the latest New York Times bestsellers on it. I'll eventually have to decide what to do with Mr. Frey's little book, since tossing it sideways out the back door isn't an option (strict no weeding policy. It sucks major Dewey).

on the plus side, I soon will get to catalog our school's collection f comics, all 7500 titles, including Spider-man #1. It's a trade off for the Nicki Hilton biography and the Portuguese exhibition catalogues.

#52 ::: will shetterly ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2006, 08:15 PM:

Serge, Dan Brown and Baigent & Leigh are relevant here. While I pay as little attention as possible to Brown, I've gathered that he read Holy Blood, Holy Grail, believed it was true or truish because it was published as non-fiction, and wrote his remarkably badly written novel. Then Baigent & Leigh sued him because the only good things in his book are theirs. But Baigent and Leigh are in a bit of a trap, because they can't say they ran with an old hoax because it looked like a fun way for writers to make beaucoup bucks.

Maybe this will help to clarify the nature of non-fiction. It's like "not guilty," which doesn't mean you're innocent; it only means you're not declared guilty. Non-fiction is "not fiction", which doesn't mean it's true; it only means it's not declared fiction.

#53 ::: Kevin Reid ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2006, 08:17 PM:
Another interesting border-case would be George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman series, which, though clearly fictional, maintain straight-faced a conceit of non-fictionality in the forwards and footnotes...

The Lensman books do some of this too: all of the books have footnotes (some of which refer to the other books), and Children of the Lens begins and ends with a note from a character to the reader.

(At least, the editions I have do.)

I have the feeling there are other books which have footnotes in a similar style that I've read, but aren't coming to mind. I do like such things.

#54 ::: candle ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2006, 08:35 PM:

I don't think it's really a problematic category, but the "fiction jokily presenting itself as non-fiction" trope is way older than Defoe, and goes back at least as far as Lucian's True History. And possibly to Apuleius' Golden Ass, too, which Augustine certainly understood to be autobiography rather than fiction (and which led in part to Apuleius' reputation as a wonder-worker to rival Christ - the man transformed himself into a donkey, for goodness' sake, what more do you want?[*]).

It may even go back to Plato, depending on what you make of his Socrates.

[*] The other reason for Apuleius' reputation as a magician was his genuine trial for using magic, which accusation he pretty firmly refuted.

#55 ::: Henry ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2006, 08:36 PM:

A bit of a side issue - but if I was asked to categorize Adventures in Unhistory, I'd say that it falls into the category of books that I covet shamelessly, but can't afford given the ridiculous prices ($800+) that people are asking for it. Wessels mentioned a couple of years ago that Tor was thinking of reissuing it - is this still on the cards?

#56 ::: S. Ben Melhuish ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2006, 08:38 PM:

I'm reminded of one of the bits in the glossary of Le Guin's Always Coming Home, where it discussed the difference between "fact" and "fiction", and how it isn't so black and white for the people in the book. (It's out on loan, so I can't quote it right now.) For example, "propaganda" is hard to place on a fact/fiction axis, but was far off to one side of the peoples' "map" of such things.

#57 ::: Robert L ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2006, 08:40 PM:

Yo, bro, don't be hatin' on Edgar Cayce.

#58 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2006, 08:41 PM:

Forget "Fargo", think "Blair Witch Project".

quoting some IMDB trivia about the movie:

When promoting the film, the producers claimed it was real footage. Some people still believe it.

So, when Blair Witch first came out, was it "Fiction" or "non-fiction"?

James Frey is just a symptom of a larger marketing scheme, which is an outcome of some interesting human psychology: the suspension of disbelief can be enhanced by telling people you're telling them the truth.

There was a movie I saw with a friend a number of years ago. I can't remember the movie, but it was something like a blair witch project or something, where it was at least the people and technology were in line with reality, the only thing the audience had to swallow was a ghost or monster or something. Anyway, the thing I remember when we walked out, was that I asked my friend what he thought, and he said:

"If it's true, it was pretty scary. If it isn't true, it was pretty lame."

And that line has always rung for me whenever the fiction/nonfiction boundary gets blurry.

#59 ::: mythago ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2006, 08:43 PM:

And of course the V.C. Andrews novels, which as I recall were initially marketed as a true story.

#60 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2006, 08:46 PM:

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell has footnotes, which are as well written as the text.

#61 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2006, 09:13 PM:

Also quoting IMDB trivia for "Blair Witch Project":

This film was in the Guinness Book Of World Records for "Top Budget:Box Office Ratio" (for a mainstream feature film). The film cost $22,000 to make and made back $240.5 million, a ratio of $1 spent for every $10,931 made.

#62 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2006, 09:14 PM:

cd: We are reissuing Avram Davidson's Adventures in Unhistory this coming December; that's why it sprang to my mind.

Will Shetterly writes:

"Maybe this will help to clarify the nature of non-fiction. It's like 'not guilty,' which doesn't mean you're innocent; it only means you're not declared guilty. Non-fiction is 'not fiction', which doesn't mean it's true; it only means it's not declared fiction."
That's exactly right, and it renders 4/5 of the definitional pilpul in this conversation moot.

Something there is about arguments over the precise borders between categories, that's just catnip to people like us. Chip Delany helped wean me off that a few years ago, when he observed that endless arguments about edge cases leave us with less understanding of the center, rather than more.

#63 ::: Bob Oldendorf ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2006, 10:02 PM:

That's good news on the Avram Davidson front: put me down for a copy. (I missed it the first time only because -in those distant pre-Amazon days - I was too busy changing diapers to get myself to a real bookstore.)

#64 ::: Keith Kisser ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2006, 10:44 PM:

I think some people are mistaking verisimilitude for non fiction.

Here's the part where Frey screwed up: he didn't play by allegorical autobiography rules. He didn't have conversations with God, or pretend that reality was conspiring against him. He simply passed off his bad novel as a loser's memoir. And people bought it, because they believed he was really screwed up. Turns out they were right, just not in the way they thought they were.

Which points a finger at an ugly truth: the book reading public would rather read sloppy prose about some loser, so long as they think it's true because it makes them feel better about themselves.

#65 ::: Sean Bosker ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2006, 11:26 PM:

Sean, can you tell me where I said the distinction was "arbitrary"? In any way?

No, I can't. In retrospect, I can see that I misinterpreted your OP. I thought I might be on shaky ground, which is why I qualified my post with "I think." When you posted other non-fiction that was lies, I took this to mean you were saying that non-fiction is another kind of fiction.

Avram, my point was that when we get to a point where it becomes difficult to decide what is non-fiction and what is not, we start having to parse things based on intention and unverified claims, political opinion, all the subjective shades of meaning that the post modernists seem to spend a lot of time on. That said, as soon as I use the word 'post modern' I'm in over my head.

#66 ::: Margaret Organ-Kean ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2006, 12:29 AM:

P J Evans asked:

"A question I had to ask when sorting books for a library sale: are the biographies/autobiographies of politicians fiction or non-fiction?"

I simply can't help it; don't hold it against me.

They're classified as fantasy.

#67 ::: Jim Meadows ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2006, 12:47 AM:

This has been a discussion about books presented as non-fiction, that turn out to be untrue.
Are there any cases of books presented as fiction, that turned out be true? I don't mean historical novels, but books recounting actual events, but concealing them in the guise of being made up.

#68 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2006, 12:59 AM:

They're classified as fantasy.

So now I'm imagining Profiles in Courage as ghosted by the other T. H. White, in which John Quincy Adams learns about the responsibilites of the people's servants by being turned into a badger by the Masonic wizard Benjamin Franklin.

One should be careful. Anthologists are listening.

#69 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2006, 01:06 AM:

See, and I was imagining Profiles in Courage as ghosted by the other other Ted White, in which the Federalist Papers wind up being run off on the Tuckahoe Street Gestetner while Ben Franklin scores a couple of...Never mind. Nothing to see here, nothing at all.

#70 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2006, 02:11 AM:

Endless arguments about edge cases leave us with less understanding of the center, rather than more.

That "clunk" you're hearing in the background is a piece of my brain settling into its proper place. Thank you, Patrick.

#71 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2006, 03:12 AM:

I think one has to draw the distinction between the story-telling device used in so much fiction, where the story is presented as a telling of true events, and how the work is marketed.

Which American TV cop show was presented as true stories, which had the tagline "Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent"? There's certainly a lot of true stories they could have used.

And wasn't there a Hollywood movie that used Dillinger's escape from jail, which modified the story to make it more plausible? Dillinger, allegedly, carved his fake gun out of a bar of soap. The movie character used a piece of wood.

I think what hit the people in this Frey case was the selling of the book. You can tell your fiction in an autobiographical mode, you can build a pretence of reality, you can lie your head off to the reader, but you can't lie to the customer.

And the non-fiction label isn't really sensitive enough to tell a customer anything. It puts Cornelius Ryan in with Elizabeth David. There is at least some common art linking Dan Brown and Terry Pratchett; the art of telling a story. You can make some useful comparisons. But how do you compare Knuth to Boethius?

#72 ::: Todd Larason ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2006, 03:58 AM:

Dave, the "only the names have been changed" show would be "Dragnet".

Many many of the crimes portrayed on the various Law & Order shows are broadly based on actual events, but embellished to the breaking point: at the very least, they're all moved to New York City; plus, the writers seem to be under the impression that no white collar conspiracy could be interesting without a murder or two tacked on.

Many of the incidents in "Homicide: Life on the Streets" hewed closely to stories told in the non-fiction "Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets" by David Simon, generally more closely than the L&O stories do. This includes some of the bits that seem most over-the-top, such as the woman in the very first episode who has killed umpteen husbands and seems intent on continuing.

#73 ::: Joy ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2006, 04:28 AM:

I think a large contributing factor to the fury about Frey's book is the subject matter: recovery from substance abuse. In particular, recovery without using a 12-step, powerless-over-my-addictions framework.

For some people, in other words, it's more than "oops, I lied" on his part - it's a betrayal, and one less reason to make the effort to stay clean.

#74 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2006, 05:59 AM:

After TCM showed Rhapsody in Blue, with Robert Alda (yes, Alan's dad) as George Gershwin, we were told that pretty much everything in that biopic was made up. In other words, this was the kind of movie that should begin with the warning:

"This is a true story. Only the events have been changed."

#75 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2006, 06:03 AM:

Mike, Patrick, how many T.H.White guys (and gals) are there out there?

Has anybody ever done an anthology with the theme of what-if-famous-writer-A-had-authored-the-stories-of-famous-writer-B? Philip Jose Farmer wrote a story in the early Seventies as if Edgar Rice Burrough's Tarzan had been written by William S. Burroughs. It was, to say the least... different.

#76 ::: Alan Braggins ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2006, 07:31 AM:

> Another interesting border-case would be George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman series, which, though clearly fictional, maintain straight-faced a conceit of non-fictionality in the forwards and footnotes...

I'd always read the footnotes as Fraser's, not Flashman's, and presenting the factual background. Or am I thinking of endnotes not footnotes?

#77 ::: cd ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2006, 07:56 AM:

Patrick: oh, thankyouthankyouthankyou!

#78 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2006, 07:59 AM:

Jonathan Carroll writes about this thread's very subject - sort of - in today's column and points out "...The truth is a cruel mistress. The truth is a mistress who very often has a headache, or a previous appointment, or something that you shouldn't take in the wrong way..."

#79 ::: Sandy B. ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2006, 08:04 AM:

Forget "Fargo", think "Blair Witch Project".

I was thinking "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" myself.

#80 ::: Carrie S. ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2006, 08:15 AM:

Chip: The thing about the Holmes and Russell books that always gets me is Russell musing about how it's becoming more and more common for people to believe her husband is fictional. And I absolutely adored the bit in A Letter of Mary in which Mary runs into Lord Peter Wimsey. :) Raving fangirl, me.

Serge: One feels sorry for the Emersons, because they can't ever make a big discovery without disturbing the verisimiltude. Tetisheri's tomb is almost going too far.

#81 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2006, 08:20 AM:

True, true, Carrie, about Amelia and her mercurial hubby. But they're so much fun. By the way, when you read those books, do you do a bit of casting? I very much see Emerson played by Russell Crowe. As for Amelia, I'd see Bramwell's Jemma Redgrave. She's played that kidn of character in that era. And she definitely has Amelia's conk.

#82 ::: Cathy ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2006, 08:49 AM:

So Patrick, you might want to talk with your local library. The news in the trade press today is that Brooklyn PL just reclassed their copies as fiction.

#83 ::: Eleanor ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2006, 08:54 AM:

I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination.

Sorry, just playing around.

#84 ::: Lin Daniel ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2006, 09:01 AM:

Some years back, I was having a conversation at work in which I quoted a fictional character. When one co-worker asked who said that, I told them what character and what book. The person was absolutely appalled that I would quote a fictional character as if it was the truth. First, I realized why this person was still in data-entry after twenty years, and second, the futility of explaining the difference between "being true" and "truth" in that context. I've found more gut-wrenching truth in fiction than in non-fiction.

#85 ::: Michelle K ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2006, 09:49 AM:

"The truth is usually just an excuse for a lack of imagination."

#86 ::: Faren Miller ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2006, 10:20 AM:

Patrick: Thanks for the words of wisdom from Shetterly and Delany!

Something there is about arguments over the precise borders between categories, that's just catnip to people like us. Funny, I'm just the opposite and hate that sort of thing -- a dislike that extends to many philosophical theories (arguments), and even to the Schroediger's Cat debates in physics. Limited human concepts and conundra! Yesterday was Feb. 1 Down Under while we're only having it today, B.C. vs. A.D. is even more artificial, Orion used to be a mythological figure in the sky, etc. etc. We like our patterns crisp and clear, our borders precise, but by and large the universe refuses to cooperate. [End tangential rant]

#87 ::: Janet Croft ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2006, 10:23 AM:

Interesting discussion because I just read C.S. Lewis's _An Experiment in Criticism_. He describes a class of "unliterary" reader who is extraordinarily distrustful of anything that smacks of imagination and only demands of his reading that it be "true" -- the sort of person who reads the most luridly sensational "true-crime" books without ever questioning the reality of the events or motivations of the characters -- accepting (to paraphrase Lewis) grossly improbable psychology and incredible events as long as they "really happened" but unable to handle anything fantastic or supernatural. They want narrative and event, not style and real characters. I think there are several categories of people who are offended by Frey's admission that his book wasn't 100% true, and this is one of them -- perhaps this is the category a lot of Oprah's viewers fall into.

Alan Braggins: The thing is that Fraser, in his footnotes, maintains the illusion that Flashman is a real character, to the point of treating the book proper as a real memoir and correcting Flashman's "faulty memory" from time to time (when in actuality it was Fraser who conflated events or changed a date to improve the story -- very recursive if you stop to think about it!).

#88 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2006, 11:25 AM:

It just occurred to me that if Frey's book were true, then reading it would be a form of voyerism. And all the people who thought they were paying for a good peek found out that it was nothing more than a foggy telescope pointed at a blowup doll in lingerie posed on someone's balcony. No wonder they're ticked off.

;)

#89 ::: Carrie S. ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2006, 11:36 AM:

Serge: Russell Crowe is about as far from my mental image of Emerson as he can get and still be a reasonably handsome Caucasian adult male in good shape. :) Not tall enough, not broad enough in the shoulders, too pale, wrong color hair and eyes... He could do the attitude, but his looks are all wrong--though I guess most of it could be fixed with makeup, but also he's getting into too old for it. Emerson's less than 30 in Crocodile on the Sandbank.

I dunno if Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio can do a convincing English accent, but she would have made a fine Amelia a few years ago.

Just dear heaven don't let them cast Haley Joel Osmont as Ramses.

#90 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2006, 11:43 AM:

How about Hugh Jackman then, Carrie?

#91 ::: Lexica ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2006, 11:51 AM:

Jonathan Carroll writes about this thread's very subject - sort of - in today's column

Just to be pedantic*, Jonathan Carroll is the author of 12 books (according to his website) including Outside the Dog Museum.

Jon Carroll writes for the San Francisco Chronicle, and is the one whom Patrick referred to as "the best unsyndicated columnist in America". (Absolutely no argument from this corner.)

*Hey, what's that chorus of "One of us! One of us!" that I hear?

#92 ::: Carrie S. ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2006, 11:59 AM:

I suppose Hugh could do it, though he still doesn't have the kind of classical features I picture on Emerson.

#93 ::: Northland ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2006, 12:50 PM:

Cathy beat me to it; I was just coming here to point this tidbit from Library Journal. (The kicker, of course, comes in the last sentence: "Not that the book has actually been placed on the fiction shelves yet; all the copies are either out, in transit, or on the hold shelf." It's the same for all of our library's copies.)

Also, yesterday's Publisher's Lunch email newsletter pointed out that Frey is likely due to receive most of his Oprah-driven royalty windfall around March 31. They speculate that the cheque will amount to a substantial seven figures -- "for argument's sake, somewhere vaguely in the neighborhood of $3 million."

#94 ::: Kevin Reid ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2006, 02:13 PM:

I recently found out that my local library keeps Ambrose Bierce's Devil's Dictionary in the Reference room.

#95 ::: Dan Blum ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2006, 02:20 PM:

The "textile artist" link in Particles has a double-quote at the end which causes it not to work properly (it goes to a page on the same site about tattooing one's Powerbook). This is the correct link.

#96 ::: Dan Blum ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2006, 02:21 PM:

As seems inevitable in retrospect, I posted that on the wrong thread. Sorry.

#97 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2006, 02:27 PM:
"According to Dionne Mack-Harvin, BPL's Chief of Staff, 'It is important that BPL classifies books in its collection in a way that reflects the community's expectations. When BPL learned of public and publishing industry concerns of the discrepancies in James Frey's A Million Little Pieces, we felt it necessary to react in a way that would assure Brooklyn's library users that the information they want and need is easily available and accessible within a clear and truthful classification system.'"
Goodness. I think I'll go up to the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library to pull a few other books off the "non-fiction" shelves whose truthfulness they might want to examine. I may have to take a shopping cart. Or six.

Seriously dumb, folks. And seriously insulting to the practice of real fiction.

#98 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2006, 02:30 PM:

Dan: Particle fixed. Thanks.

#99 ::: bryan ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2006, 03:55 PM:

"I recently found out that my local library keeps Ambrose Bierce's Devil's Dictionary in the Reference room."

your local library in HADES! you mean...

#100 ::: Clark E Myers ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2006, 03:56 PM:

Used bookstores must have any number of examples of meeting the community's expectations - or satisfying the management's whimsey - in shelving.

A common example is putting Polly Adler's A House is not a Home in business histories and Glide Path in SF.

Remembering the exthread rejection letters for Proust (and similar) perhaps Mr. Frey lacks an understanding of the classic or the classic New Yorker - suddenly he felt very tired - story.

"I wanted the stories in the book to ebb and flow, to have dramatic arcs, to have the tension that all great stories require," Mr. Frey said, explaining the reason for the changes. "I altered events all the way through the book."

#101 ::: Kathryn Cramer ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2006, 06:31 PM:

Good rant, Patrick. I started Gary Bernstein's Jawbreaker the other night -- "the book the CIA doesn't want you to read" -- and was reduced to helpless giggles by the end of the second page. I gather from someone who appears in the book that it is just the sort of toxic waste that would get dumped into "fiction" under the circumstances you describe. Let us be very clear. "Lies" are not fiction and fiction can be more true than what is published as "non-fiction."

#102 ::: NelC ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2006, 07:57 PM:

I guess they put Glide Path in with the rest of Arthur C. Clarke's books so it won't get lonely.

#103 ::: miriam beetle ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2006, 08:06 PM:

greg, It just occurred to me that if Frey's book were true, then reading it would be a form of voyerism.

isn't reading anything that has to do with people's lives, fictional or non, something like voyuerism?

if not, is reading any & every memoir a form of voyuerism?

#104 ::: Glen Fisher ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2006, 08:12 PM:

Our Host wrote:
We are reissuing Avram Davidson's Adventures in Unhistory

Might Tor consider also bringing Diana Wynne Jones' Tough Guide to Fantasyland back into print? I'd expect there'd be demand for it, since it's one of the books that aspiring authors are regularly pointed to.

#105 ::: Glen Fisher ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2006, 08:36 PM:

The Glendale/Pasadena (CA) library has decided that Neil Gaiman's Adventures in the Dream Trade is properly shelved in the (science) fiction section, despite the fiction content filling only a dozen or so pages at the end.

And this despite their own catalog including this quote from the dust jacket: "The majority of this book is a journal--a web log--covering Febrary to September 2001."

#106 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2006, 09:10 PM:

isn't reading anything that has to do with people's lives, fictional or non, something like voyuerism?

I think that the audience empathizes with a Fiction story character, such as Ripley in Alien, to the point that we identify ourselves with Ripley, and her fate becomes ours on some level. We "know" that it isn't real going in, we know its special effects and latex molds, but we are looking to allow ourselves to get caught up in the emotional state of another character.

In fiction, the audience usually becomes the character on some level. Either separate identities, but emotionally involved, or collapsed identities. We jump when the monsters chase Ripley because they are on some level chasing us.

I think a voyeur maintains themselves emotionally separate from the subject of their viewing. They specifically do not want to empathize with them. A peeping tom, for example, doesn't submerse their identity into the person they are watching.

I don't think the people who read "A million pieces" wanted to identify with character, they wanted to spy on the author's life.

I think there is a fundamentally different mentality there.

#107 ::: Robert West ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2006, 11:09 PM:

Greg - that would seem to imply that professional historians are more akin to voyeurs than they are to fiction readers.

#108 ::: Allan Beatty ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2006, 12:11 AM:

The discussion about truth, lies, and fiction reminds me of the disagreement between Lewis and Tolkien. Lewis maintained that a good novel was a noble lie, while Tolkien replied that it was a different kind of truth.

#109 ::: will shetterly ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2006, 12:28 AM:

Allan, that may explain why I like Tolkien better than Lewis.

#110 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2006, 01:30 AM:

What Will said, precisely and exactly.

There's much to be said for Lewis, but whether you're reading his SF, his criticism, his apologetics, his fantasy, or his memoirs, you never get far from the sense that here's a very clever man who's exerting all his intelligence in order to game you.

Whereas, at the end of the day, Tolkien really didn't care what you think.

#111 ::: Barbara Gordon ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2006, 01:42 AM:

There's also Amelia Peabody's Egypt: a Compendium, published Morrow 2003, described as 'entertainingly blurs fact and fiction'. It's a history of excavation in Egypt, with the Emerson's digs reported along with all the real ones. The Amazon comments are amusing, with some people annoyed that this is not a FACTUAL book.
The casting for the Elizabeth Peters books has been discussed on the ABE books forum as well. There's a suspicion that the people responsible for The Mummy films are fans, and that Rachel Weisz and Brendan Fraser are meant to suggest Amelia and Emerson.
Ioan Gruffudd for Ramses as a young man, I think.

#112 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2006, 07:48 AM:

Barbara... I still root for Jemma Redgrave as Amelia.

#113 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2006, 07:55 AM:

Yesterday, Faren wrote: We like our patterns crisp and clear, our borders precise, but by and large the universe refuses to cooperate.

Actually, except for what goes on inside human society, I don't think that we impose our patterns and structures to the Universe, if we are Reality-based anyway, unlike you-know-who in the White House. It's more a matter of looking at what's going on in the Universe and realize that this action has this effect. If the pattern doesn't fit, it gets revised.

I don't know if that's how it is with scientists. Me, I'm just a computer programmer.

#114 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2006, 08:42 AM:

that would seem to imply that professional historians are more akin to voyeurs than they are to fiction readers.

I don't know about that. I mean, I can watch "Apollo 13" and feel fear when things fall apart badly. It's history, but I still care. I guess it would depend on the particular professional historian you wish to evaluate, but I would think that there are at least some historians who go into their line of work because they care about history and the people in it.

THe people who bought Frey's book, thinking it was true, I don't think they read it to identify with Frey. I think they bought it so they could tell themselves "at least I'm not as messed up as HIM".

Not that I was trying to imply there was a hard line between voyerism and fiction, or that one is better than the other. Most of "Alien" is fiction, where you identify with Sigorney Weaver's character Ripley. But the scene at the end where she's tramping around in her underwear, that's pure voyerism. And I'm sure while many of Frey's million readers were looking for a voyeristic experience, they no doubt found points where they identified with Frey's alternate persona, and cared about what happened to him, because they had placed themselves in his shoes.

But I think, overall, you can say that Frey's readers were, for the most part, not standing in his shoes when they read his book. And I think, you could find historians who place themselves firmly in the shoes of their subjects, and therefore, aren't really voyeurs.

#115 ::: Janet Croft ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2006, 09:26 AM:

Patrick said: Whereas, at the end of the day, Tolkien really didn't care what you think.


Patrick, I like your comment on Tolkien and I think you're right. Or if he did care, he wasn't about to try to snow you under -- he'd just tell his story without any overtly clever fireworks and let it work its way under your skin when you were ready for it. It's probably why I've grown much less comfortable with Lewis's fiction over the years. In at least some of the non-fiction, any "gaming" is a bit more out in the open.

#116 ::: Kathryn Cramer ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2006, 10:14 AM:

Might Tor consider also bringing Diana Wynne Jones' Tough Guide to Fantasyland back into print?

Perhaps there's room in the market for a Tough Guide to Trash Non-Fiction. Hmmm. That has possibilities.

#117 ::: rhandir ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2006, 11:10 AM:

Patrick Nielsen Hayden wrote:

There's much to be said for Lewis, but whether you're reading his SF, his criticism, his apologetics, his fantasy, or his memoirs, you never get far from the sense that here's a very clever man who's exerting all his intelligence in order to game you.

Good point.
Lewis usually did have a particular point he wanted to drive at (some of the Narnia books suffered from that) but if he were alive nowadays, he'd be a blogger and a pundit and we'd take him more lightly. (And argue with him in context.) The fact that most of his stuff is still in print doesn't reflect well on him.* Time hasn't sorted out the good from the meh

Someone earlier mentioned An Experiment in Criticism, which I like because it's written in a kind of provisional, "given x, then, maybe y?" kind of way.** (And also because its facinating watching an almost pre-modernist thinker plunge headlong into postmodernism. Read it for that, if nothing else.) When he's full on editorializing, you can see this tremendous oscillation between being insightful and merely being clever; for instance there's an essay on commercialism disguised as a lost chapter from Herodotus which is sometimes hilarious and sometimes, just twee.

-r.

*I call it the Heinlein Effect.
**I haven't read it in a while, so I'm not saying provisional=self-effacing. Might be, might not be.

#118 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2006, 11:30 AM:

I do agree that the truth or falsehood of books like those by, say, Diamond, de Tocqueville, von Daniken, or Velikovsky isn't relevant to whether or not they're "fiction" or "nonfiction." I'm happy with the idea that they're all nonfiction (the first two being truthful, the others being packs of lies) because they're not, well, fiction by Patrick's definition.

I'd like to suggest, though, that a fair chunk of what we consider "fiction" could be described as "Now I'm going to tell you a story about the lives of one or more people. I made this story up." (No, this isn't the totality of "fiction", but neither is it an edge case; I'd argue it's fairly central.) If I change the definition so that the second sentence is "This story is true", then it's no longer fiction -- it's reportage, or history, or memoir, or some similar nonfiction category.

The problem is that it seems like Frey's book falls right into the "Now I'm going to tell you a story about one or more people's lives" bin. Whether it's a novel (fiction) or a memoir (nonfiction) depends on whether it's true or not.

To my mind, the issue with Frey's book isn't the (wrong) idea that "not true = fiction"; it's the issue of narratives in the mode of novels which get put into into the (vast and motley) category of nonfiction solely because they're true. If it turns out that they are made up, are they still nonfiction?

(Although, having read Ariana Huffington's post, I do get the sense that her argument is more like "Wait -- this book isn't truthful, therefore it should be in the fiction list!" rather than "Hmm... this 'memoir' isn't actually a true story; shouldn't we call it a novel instead?")

#119 ::: Lenora Rose ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2006, 11:32 AM:

I believe Lewis was also the one who said that writers do not really believe in the world they're writing about; they know they're inventing it all.

Which is absolutely true on *one* level, but strikes me as mind-bogglingly wrong on several others.

#120 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2006, 12:00 PM:

Every once in a while, I'll read a review that says how manipulative this movie or that novel were. But isn't all storytelling manipulative? Maybe it's the difference between the storyteller who hopes to achieve a certain response, and another who makes DAMN sure of it by putting a kitty in a very perilous situation.

#121 ::: bryan ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2006, 12:08 PM:

Given that one might expect all biographical or even autobiographical memoirs of true events to be in some degree fictional maybe they should all be fiction.

#122 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2006, 12:57 PM:

On the other hand, I have just sold a novel about the Romans who marched to China. Incredible as it sounds, this is actually factual, to the extent that some Romans actually did do that - but my afterword, to that effect, will probably be interpreted as mere DVC-like persiflage.

Is there any way to say, "no, honestly, I really mean it"?

#123 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2006, 01:10 PM:

Dave Luckett... Congratulations.

Say... Why would your novel be dismissed as something like The Da Vinci Code? (The May/June 2004 of The Skeptical Inquirer has an interesting article about the latter, in case you're interested.)

#124 ::: cmk ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2006, 01:36 PM:

Is there any way to say, "no, honestly, I really mean it"??

A reference to the historical publication where you learned about it might serve, at least for those readers who thought it worth checking to verify that the reference is genuine.

#125 ::: Lenora Rose ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2006, 02:11 PM:

Dave Luckett - A Bibliography of books that really exist usually does it. Also, a note on where, if you did, you diverged from real history ("The basic facts are true, but Character X is more of an amalgamation of several real people", or "However, they happened three years earlier than i cited, because then I could combine the story with {Parallel event}" type comments) in the Afterword.

#126 ::: Joseph Eros ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2006, 02:25 PM:

I can't think of any avowed fiction that later turned out to be factual, although I've heard that in France between WWI and WWII there was a lively political cottage industry in combing the "fiction" of politically active people for thinly disguised stories too juicy to tell openly.

The case of the novel _Primary Colors_ seems like an interesting example to me: the main reason it was published anonymously seems to have been to encourage the idea that a Clinton administration insider had written it. This (mistaken) impression certainly didn't hurt sales. The book was avowedly fiction, but the publisher was willing to imply that it was fiction based on otherwise unavailable fact.

On Fraser's _Flashman_, a 1969 New York Times article listed 10 American reviewers who had taken the first volume as an actual memoir--although not necessarily a particularly accurate one: "Can it all be believed? Probably not", as one review put it.

#127 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2006, 02:32 PM:

But isn't all storytelling manipulative?

It is all manipulative in the fact that story telling gets the reader to feel emotions that are not real. You're afraid of non-existent aliens eating a non-existent Ripley. So, you are manipulated to feel something that isn't reality based. But that's the contract between reader and author: make me feel something different. So, it may be "manipulative" with manufacturing emotions, but that's what the reader is paying you for.

It becomes manipulative on a much bigger level when the author breaks the contract with the reader. Saying "This is true" when it isn't, is manipulative. Even fiction, on some level, must first enter an honest transactual level. The publisher gives honest advertisement as to the context of the story, the cover represents the story, etc, and the reader decides whether to pay for the promised experience.

To say "this is true" when it isn't, on the notion that it will make the reader experience something they wanted to experience, is at its heart, a con.

"Blair Witch Project" was manipulative, presenting itself as a true story, as the actual footage from three students who dissappeared, when it was completely fiction.

"Lord of the Rings" was an honest conjuring of emotions. The author delivered what the reader expected, without the pretense that it was true.


#128 ::: Xopher (Christopher Hatton) ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2006, 02:59 PM:

Also, Serge, consider the partially parallel case of calling something "seamy." Well, there are seams in almost all clothing.

But in a "seamy" garment, they SHOW.

I like to be manipulated subtly. Adding a kitten isn't subtle. It's insulting.

#129 ::: Adam Teter ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2006, 03:01 PM:

This conversation reminds me of Alfred Appel, Jr.'s introduction to his Annotated Lolita. He spends a paragraph or two attempting to reassure the reader that he is not, in fact, Nabokov's creation. I don't blame him for worrying about that.

#130 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2006, 03:32 PM:

"Seamy", Xopher? Did I misspell something with embarassing results? Reminds me of the time one of our users gave me his project's specs, which I promptly sent back to him for correction before anybody else saw them. Misspelling the word 'public' the way he did wouldn't have gone well with the team's feminine elements.

But I digress.

As for my comments about authorial manipulations, I had dropped the part where I wanted to say that all storytelling is manipulation, yes, but that the good storytellers are less obvious about it. So, no kitty? What about Sparky the Wonderpup?

#131 ::: Dirty Davey ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2006, 03:57 PM:

Two instances of works of fiction that are largely true.

First, the just-released (in the behind-the-times USA) Arthur and George by Julian Barnes, which is a based on true historical events involving Arthur Conan Doyle and George Edalji. It is a novel, but much of what is presented is based on accurate historical fact.

Second, Nicholson Baker's A Box of Matches, which reads as the reflections of a fictional character waking early every morning to write. In fact, many of the thoughts and ideas are Baker's, and he did--as the book describes--get up early many mornings in a row, light a fire, and write what became the core of the book. At a reading I attended, though, Baker argued that one untrue word was enough to make a book fictional, and he preferred writing it as a novel to holding ever word he wrote to that standard.

#132 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2006, 04:11 PM:

On the subject of kitties in jeopardy: I'd say it depends entirely on the kitties. The ones in The Book of Night with Moon were in mortal danger all the way through, and I didn't feel manipulated at all. (I did cry at the end, but that's just because I'm all sappy.)

#133 ::: Ian Myles Slater ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2006, 04:14 PM:

Dave Luckett's novel sounds fascinating.

I assume that he is referring to the proposed identification of both Rome (Li-qian) and Romans in Chinese records, and of a settlement in China of Roman soldiers who escaped from Parthian captivity. They may have formed a unit in the Chinese border army, and employed their traditional tactics, like the testudo ("tortoise" shield wall), with some success.

This latter interpretation of an episode in Han Dynasty histories was originally offered by Homer H. Dubs in the 1950s, in conjunction with his interepretation of place names, and has been taken up by others since.

The idea was the subject of news stories in the Western press in 2000, including the supposed site of the Roman settlement at Zhelaizhai on the edge of the Gobi Desert, complete with descriptions of its "western looking" residents. (I have a scan of an article from the August 24 "Los Angeles Times").

Dubs may have been wrong; but he was a very reputable scholar, and the basic idea has some credibility; even if other explanations have been proposed.

On the other hand, judging from the news coverage only, an argument from the appearance of the present-day inhabitants doesn't impress me as very strong. Particularly given the number and variety of groups attested on the western frontiers of China over the last twenty centuries.

Some people will probably refuse to believe anything in the novel (on the "I didn't learn about it in school, so it can't be true" theory). And some people will probably mistake it for an original document ("It says so right here in print"). There is probably nothing an author can do about this, except refuse to play on credulity by claiming more than the evidence supports.

I would hope that a bibliographic afterword would be included, for those who want to check the background for themselves -- except that a lot of the material on the main issue probably won't be all that readily available, and what there is may be very hard to interpret without some effort.

#134 ::: Karl T. ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2006, 04:24 PM:

Speaking of Romans far from home, I have a "what's the name of this book?" request:

I recall reading about a legion/garrison of Roman soldiers who travelled through a gate of some sort to a place far away (I don't recall whether it was to another planet or just the far side of the world). The story revolves around personnel problems within the legion, with special emphasis on its commander. They save a tribal cheftain from poisoning by hemlock and have various other adventures. I'm pretty sure the book's fairly well known.

Help? Thanks very much in advance.

#135 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2006, 04:50 PM:

That sounds familiar, Karl. I think I once read a review of a book where the historical Crassus (as opposed to the one of Spartacus fame) leads his troops thru some mist and are never seen again.

There is David Drake's Birds of Prey, about a Roman and some German Barbarians who have to work together to defeat an alien invasion's beachhead.

#136 ::: clew ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2006, 05:03 PM:

Isn't any roman à clef truth in masquerade; hoping to be taken, and if possible, taken as fiction?

#137 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2006, 05:38 PM:

That's ringing a bell, Karl, but I can't quite place it. (Other than as the main plot of the book I daydreamed about writing in high school...) It may have been done more than once by different authors. Might Andre Norton might have written one such, as part of the Witch World universe?

#138 ::: OG ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2006, 05:41 PM:

Transplanted Roman legions, off the top of my head: Janissaries (Pournelle) and The Misplaced Legion (Turtledove). It's been too long since I've read either one for me to have retained many details, though.

Serge: I believe the Crassus book would be Drake's Ranks of Bronze.

#139 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2006, 05:47 PM:

Ranks of Bronze, OG? I went to the cursed Amazon.com and, while the book is listed, there's no synopsis to confirm it.

What was that book by Sprague de Camp where a man travels back in time and tries to keep the Roman Empire from collapsing. (Good luck!)

#140 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2006, 05:49 PM:

Lest Darkness Fall

#141 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2006, 05:54 PM:

Thanks, PJ... I think that de Camp's book was made into a movie about 10 years ago under the title Normanicus, but I'm not sure it was ever released.

#142 ::: A. J. Luxton ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2006, 06:29 PM:

More general comments on the subject:

When we say "fiction" or "nonfiction", we are partially referring to content and partially referring to style.

Style probably makes up more of that equation than we think it does -- but we don't notice this, because it's invisible.

Thinking back to the last memoirs I've read, I don't see that any of them would work as fiction, particularly, at all. A memoir is not generally written with attention to the same qualities of structure that a novel is.

This isn't to say that they're written badly. The average novel wouldn't make a good memoir either. Even those novels written within a framework of retelling personal history would usually not work as memoir. Why not? I'm thinking about some of my favorite novels written under this notion (from The Hobbit to Diana Wynne Jones' Deep Secret) and concluding that the voice is not natural to a memoir.

People don't notice the people around them nearly as clearly as novelists notice the people in their books. A memoir usually gives us interactions through a personal perspective, skips over much of what constitutes a "plot" in the fictional frame because these plots do not really exist as such, and leaves out the various minor characters most of the time -- it doesn't much matter who was there and what they were saying/doing, unless they played a role in the outcome of the scene. A memoir does inner scene-setting instead of outer scene-setting.

In a novel, if you say, "I was in a bar in New York that morning, getting drunk," you're setting up for some more words about the bar, the people there, New York itself -- you're setting the scene.

In a memoir, if you say "I was in a bar in New York that morning, getting drunk," you're setting up for some more stuff about getting drunk, or about the terrible or amazing thing that happened to you on the day that you started off in a bar in New York, getting drunk.

If you set things up this way in a novel, the bar needs to have its own significance. In a memoir, it is simply being true-to-life.

Similarly, in a memoir, if you start off with "I was in a bar in New York that morning, getting drunk," and then start in on what's going on with the guy playing the piano, and the bartender giving you a look, and the weird little sounds you're hearing overhead, and all the verisimilitude stuff, your audience will get impatient with you. Of COURSE you were in a bar, now get to the point.

A good memoir is bad fiction. A good piece of fiction is a bad memoir.

It's like if
you hacked up your internet postings
and tried to sell them
as poems. The market
will not bear
what looks like careless art.

And that, I think, is much of what's making people angry about Frey. He wrote a piece of *bad* fiction, and sold it as memoir because it was less glaringly bad at meeting memoir standards than it was at meeting fiction standards.

#143 ::: Robert L ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2006, 07:59 PM:

Karl T.: Might this be one of Eric Flint's recent novels?

#144 ::: Clark E Myers ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2006, 10:04 PM:

Quoting Mr. Drake at some length because it seems a propos:
RANKS OF BRONZE arose from two bits of knowledge I ran into while I was an undergraduate. I don't know which came first, but I wouldn't have written the story--and the later novel--without both occurring.

I read all of Horace then for the first time. In an Ode he bewails the disgrace of Roman soldiers captured in Parthia taking foreign wives and being lost forever to their fatherland. At about the same time I read that, I learned in my Chinese history course that when China expanded westward during the Former Han Dynasty, Chinese troops in the neighborhood of modern Nepal met and defeated mercenaries equipped in what appears to be Roman fashion. It's possible that the troops were prisoners whom the Parthians captured at Carrhae in 56 BC and sold eastward as military slaves (like the Mamelukes of a later day).

I found Horace's lament very moving and speculation about the Roman prisoners being sold as a fighting force fascinating. The ideas bounced around in my head until in 1975 I wrote a very tight little story, Ranks of Bronze,[later expanded to a novel] in which the purchasers weren't Nepalese but rather star-travellers and the Romans' alien wives were very alien.
....
Frequently people have suggested that I do a sequel to Ranks. (Jim Baen most often.) I wrote the book as a story of growing up, a Bildungsroman. At the end of the novel, the viewpoint character has become a man and there's no story to continue from that point. That's my opinion.

Jim kept asking. Finally he suggested that I edit a shared universe anthology based on Ranks, and in a moment of weakness I agreed. The story I wrote for the anthology involves wholly different characters from the novel, but both Eric Flint and Steve Stirling continued my original characters. The folks who wanted a direct sequel will get their wish.

--Dave Drake

#145 ::: Clark E Myers ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2006, 10:10 PM:

And quoting Andre Norton:
STAR RANGERS
PROLOGUE
There is an old legend concerning a Roman Emperor, who, to show his power, singled out the Tribune of a loyal legion and commanded that he march his men across Asia to the end of the world. And so a thousand men vanished into the hinterland of the largest continent, to be swallowed up forever. On some unknown battlefield the last handful of survivors must have formed a square which was overwhelmed by a barbarian charge. And their eagle may have stood lonely and tarnished in a horsehide tent for a generation thereafter. But it may be guessed, by those who know of the pride of these men in their corps and tradition, that they did march east as long as one still remained on his feet.

In 8054 A.D. history repeated itself—as it always does.

#146 ::: Clark E Myers ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2006, 10:25 PM:

What's particularly making some people angry with Frey and with Ms. Winfrey is the esteem many people have for the 4th Step - a process of taking a searching and fearless moral inventory - and for the 5th Step - sharing the results with a higher power and with another person.

These people often have a strong regard for truth and honesty. Indeed such people, particularly in a sponsorship relationship will have just about zero tolerance for what they consider fraud and dishonesty - often expressed as don't bullshit a bullshitter.

For people who consider honesty part of recovery Mr. Frey not only denigrates 12 step programs in his book, he also, in the opinion of many, disqualifies any claims of recovery by his dishonesty.

#147 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2006, 10:55 PM:

I was referring to Dubs, of course. Nigel Sitwell treats the story as factual, as do several other secondary sources I consulted. I read Dubs, and I think his evidence is enough to say that Romans captured after Carrhae (53 BCE) were sent to the eastern borders of the Parthian empire as mercenaries. (That would be as far north and east as modern Samarkand, though Parthian control in central Asia was only intermittent.) But when Surena, the Parthian general who had taken their surrender, was treacherously murdered by the Great King (for being too successful, and hence a threat), the Romans apparently marched east again, were captured again (by the Hue-Shi) and ended up on the western margins of the Han Empire during one of the periods when the latter controlled the Tarim Basin trade routes. Here they seem to have been taken into Chinese service.

It's an astonishing thought that retired legionaries might have ended their days as citizens of the Han Empire.

#148 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: February 03, 2006, 01:21 AM:

Clive Cussler, of all people, has been known to throw early Romans into places in the New World in the prologues of his Dirk Pitt books.

I think it's an excuse for him to get on his hobbyhorse about diffusion.

#149 ::: A.R.Yngve ::: (view all by) ::: February 03, 2006, 03:28 AM:

If this were the 1980s, someone would re-label Frey's book as "postmodern non-fiction."
Or how about "Post-Authentic"?
;-P

Remember, All Writers Are Liars...

#150 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: February 03, 2006, 05:19 AM:

"Blair Witch Project" was manipulative, presenting itself as a true story, as the actual footage from three students who dissappeared, when it was completely fiction.

Why is this any more manipulative than, say, the Flashman books? There's no attempt to genuinely fool the viewer; it's just the film equivalent of the old "found a mysterious manuscript" fantasy/horror technique.

It's more effective in the film, because the visual and acting technique gives it a seeming verisimilitude that a print version lacks, and because it's more radical in film--we're used to seeing a lot of overt direction to remind us, however unconsciously, that we're watching a performance. But coming up with a much more direct way to tell a horror story is the good kind of manipulation, not the bad kind.

#151 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: February 03, 2006, 07:30 AM:

Similarly, in a memoir, if you start off with "I was in a bar in New York that morning, getting drunk," and then start in on what's going on with the guy playing the piano, and the bartender giving you a look, and the weird little sounds you're hearing overhead, and all the verisimilitude stuff, your audience will get impatient with you. Of COURSE you were in a bar, now get to the point.

These are good points; on the other hand, there are species of nonfiction where that sort of scene-setting "verisimilitude stuff" is part of the appeal -- reportage, for example, or travel writing. (Or nature writing, if the "scene" is in the wilderness.)

(There are, as well, types of fiction where that sort of scene-setting would be a distraction from the story. I can certainly imagine stories where "I was in a bar in New York that morning, getting drunk" is all the scene-setting one needs -- the point is what happens next, what sudden realization the narrator has, who walks in to confront her, etc.)

#152 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: February 03, 2006, 10:11 AM:

Why is this any more manipulative than, say, the Flashman books? There's no attempt to genuinely fool the viewer

Quoting IMDB regarding "Blair Witch Project":

When promoting the film, the producers claimed it was real footage. Some people still believe it.

Before the film was released, the three main actors were listed as "missing, presumed dead" on the IMDb.

The filmmakers placed flyers around Cannes for the film festival that were "Missing" posters, stating that the cast was missing.

So, I believe Blair Witch made "genuine attempts" to fool its paying customers into believing they were buying something true. I would put it on par with a carnival scam sewing animal parts together and selling tickets claiming its real.

But that's just me.

#153 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: February 03, 2006, 10:42 AM:

Here's what the San Francisco Chronicle has to say about creative non-fiction.

#154 ::: A. J. Luxton ::: (view all by) ::: February 03, 2006, 11:11 AM:

Greg London:

I'd say the difference between what the Blair Witch folks did and what James Frey did is like the difference between pulling an April Fool's prank on someone and tricking them into a situation where they lose their money or dignity.

Yes, it's a very fuzzy territory. I'm not sure how to articulate the distinction -- that's a "let me get back to you when I have the words" -- but I know, firmly, that I love 'prank media', 'immersive fiction', whatever you can call it: the broad category that includes Blair Witch, The Onion, certain live-action Call of Cthulhu roleplaying games, and Landover Baptist. I know equally that I dislike lies, and James Frey's thing definitely falls under the heading of "lies".

Oh -- here's an example of something that falls on the borderline for me: the Bonsai Kitten website. It's rather disturbing, so I'll let readers google it as they wish. Yes, it's a hoax/joke. I can't find myself objecting to it morally, because it is quite obviously a joke to anyone who pays attention. But I really don't like it.

I think the reason that I love Landover Baptist and live-action Cthulhu and dislike Bonsai Kitten and James Frey is ultimately taste. It's one thing to frighten or confuse -- I don't mind in the least being pixy-led -- and another entirely to activate the part of the brain that reacts to death, injury, the loss of dignity. This offends me in the same way that the use of the word "terrorist" (and, say, fifty years ago, "communist") by propagandists offends me. A put-on should not be a visceral affront, and a visceral affront should not be a put-on. Do not press those buttons unless you want me to do something.

Or, to paraphrase an earlier poster: if you want the trust of your readers, don't put a kitten in danger. At least not without a really good reason.

#155 ::: A.R.Yngve ::: (view all by) ::: February 03, 2006, 12:04 PM:

The "Kitten Rule" makes sense.

I suppose it could have been worse... what if James Frey had turned out to be more criminal than his book suggested? (For instance, how would Oprah have spun it if her Special Guest had been revealed as a rapist? Or a child molester? Or a serial killer?)

She'll do more thorough background checks of her prospective guests from now on, that's for sure...

#156 ::: OG ::: (view all by) ::: February 03, 2006, 01:07 PM:

Serge:

Again, a fuzzy memory, but Ranks and its sequal (Foreign Legions?) are the only books my memory is tossing up when queried for "Crassus". It may be more an association with "Crassus' lost legions" than the man himself.

I forgot to check with my co-bookhoarder last night. I'll try to remember tomight.

Robert L:

The Eric Flint books you're thinking of are probably the Belisarius books with David Drake. Fun in their own rights, but no travelling through gates for the Romans. Some of them are available at the Baen Free Library, if Karl wanted to check them against his memory.

#157 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: February 03, 2006, 01:08 PM:

I remember the "Blair Witch" publicity. I consider myself pretty gullible--I've been conned by street grifters, I bought the "true story" line in Fargo hook, line and sinker, and I voted for Nader in 2000--but it never occurred to me that the real-footage claims were anything but playing it with a straight face, Orson Welles-style. It's a question of tone, not to mention the fact that if you have real deaths to investigate you don't put up posters at Cannes, you call the police.

But the carnival example doesn't bother me that much, either. Again, it's more an agreement to pretend than an actual swindle. I think life would be more boring without a little hokum.

Yikes, now I have "Blairwitch, Blairwitch, Blair, Blair, WITCH!" (to the tune of "Square Pegs" by the Waitresses) stuck in my head again.

#158 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: February 03, 2006, 01:18 PM:

Fuzzy memories, OG? I know about those.

#159 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: February 03, 2006, 01:20 PM:

Gripe:

The mere fact that kids and/or parents have to GO OUT OF THEIR WAY to get a programming environment set up on their home machine is a huge problem.

The goal should not be to get tykes geared up for the job market; it should be to introduce themselves to the *basic notion that they can program a computer.* A whole generation of kids is growing up without the opportunity to tinker on their own.

There should be a icon right on the desktop called KIDS' COMPUTER CONTROL CENTRAL!, leading to a menu where they could select a language and then access a walled-off workspace where they can read and write files and muck around without effecting the computer's settings.

#160 ::: Karl T. ::: (view all by) ::: February 03, 2006, 01:46 PM:

Thanks to everyone who responded. The book I was thinking of was in fact part of a series by Harry Turtledove. But some of the other suggestions look intriguing enough that I may add to my to-be-read pile.

#161 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: February 03, 2006, 01:52 PM:

I think you can install a complete programming environment for Perl on your Windows PC by installing a single tarball from ActiveState, for free.

download

Alternately, if you have Linux, I believe you get perl with the standard installation.

#162 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: February 03, 2006, 02:04 PM:

I think the Blair Witch folks specifically intended to hornswaggle their customers. This is different than intending to hornswaggle their audience. An audience expects to be manipulated. But a customer does not.

The Blair Witch folks telling everyone that the movie is made of actual footage from students who really disappeared is little different than a mechanic replacing a perfectly good waterpump because the customer doesn't know any better.

I don't mind paying a mechanic to fix my car, and I don't even mind fixing something that is borderline broken, but I do not expect to pay someone for their services only to have them charge me for something I didn't want.


#163 ::: Lisa Goldstein ::: (view all by) ::: February 03, 2006, 02:06 PM:

And the long arm of coincidence reaches out again. I was shelving books at the library where I work when I came across a book called "History Play" in the biography section. "History Play" is a sort of alternate reality novel that postulates that Christopher Marlowe didn't die at 29 but escaped England for the continent, where he went on to write the plays attributed to Shakespeare. It looks a lot like a biography (intentionally, of course), and, oddly, it doesn't have any Library of Congress cataloging data yet, but it's definitely fiction. For a while I toyed with the idea of leaving it where it was (you have to admire the author's audacity, if nothing else), but then I remembered some pretty awful puns from the book and I began to worry about all the people who would read it and actually believe it. So I showed it to the head librarian, and we checked the catalog, and we found out that all the copies in the Oakland system were shelved under biography. And, naturally, discussions of Frey's book ensued.

#164 ::: Sandy B. ::: (view all by) ::: February 03, 2006, 04:06 PM:

I recall reading about a legion/garrison of Roman soldiers who travelled through a gate of some sort to a place far away (I don't recall whether it was to another planet or just the far side of the world). The story revolves around personnel problems within the legion, with special emphasis on its commander. They save a tribal cheftain from poisoning by hemlock and have various other adventures. I'm pretty sure the book's fairly well known.

I think I read a couple of these. If I'm thinking of the same ones, they had a spectacularly cliche'd portrayal of homosexuality. . . as in, "there's a pretty-boy legionnaire, who likes giving his wife the ol' dinosaur sodomy, and there's *one* Greek in the legion, and they end up together. The Legion has to decide whether to give them the traditional horrible punishment and doesn't. Yay. "

#165 ::: Mary Dell ::: (view all by) ::: February 03, 2006, 04:26 PM:

Tangentially, what's with the strangely girly cover of Frey's sequel? Is it to attract fans of Valley of the Dolls?

#166 ::: tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: February 03, 2006, 04:58 PM:

The Blair Witch folks telling everyone that the movie is made of actual footage from students who really disappeared is little different than a mechanic replacing a perfectly good waterpump because the customer doesn't know any better.

Turns out Spinal Tap's not a real band, either. What a rip-off!

#167 ::: A.R.Yngve ::: (view all by) ::: February 03, 2006, 05:42 PM:

I dunno... Spinal Tap has performed music before an audience, it's documented in the movie, so you COULD say that the band SORT OF existed for the purpose of the film...???
:-S

#168 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: February 03, 2006, 07:30 PM:

A.J. Luxton, never read Bujold's Cetaganda.

#169 ::: Jon Meltzer ::: (view all by) ::: February 03, 2006, 08:00 PM:

Spinal Tap has had international tours. On their last one they even had the Folksmen opening.

#170 ::: A. J. Luxton ::: (view all by) ::: February 04, 2006, 03:48 AM:

Marilee: I'm curious, why not?

#171 ::: A.R.Yngve ::: (view all by) ::: February 04, 2006, 05:24 AM:

So a "fake" band like Spinal Tap becomes real by playing like a band.

In that spirit, let's make a Gedankenexperiment: a writer stages a series of elaborate events in his life, and then writes about them as "true life experiences."

For example, he can hire people dressed as cops to pretend to chase him, or fake an attempt on his life. Suddenly his boring life has become an action-packed drama ripe for exploiting!

Comedian Andy Kaufman did something similar with his public stunts.

#172 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: February 04, 2006, 05:41 AM:

A.J. Luxton: I suspect that Marilee is thinking of a brief scene in Cetaganda where something really bad happens to a kitten.

#173 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: February 04, 2006, 06:56 AM:

Kittens in danger? You want to get to my wife, put a dog in danger. She told me about seeing 1982's version of The Thing in a theater. Remember the scene where the 'dog' is brought into the base with the other sled dogs then starts turning into a nasty thing that does nasty things to the other canines? Well, that got her leaving the theater right there and then.

Last week, Turner Classic Movies showed Japanese animation film Pom Poko, about shape-shifting racoon-dogs. She became curious about the real racoon-dogs, which live in Japan and really are dogs, not racoons. So she did some web surfing and was having a good time. Until she came to a site showing what is done to them after they are caught for their fur... and while they're still alive...

It took her days to stop crying every time she'd look at one of our own canines.

#174 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: February 04, 2006, 02:50 PM:

Clark: I think you absolutely nailed why I thought of Andre Norton in this connection, so you can scratch my guess on the novel. That's probably where I learned the factoid about Roman legions sent to march east, too.

Dave: When Googling to try to confirm/disprove my dim memories, I found a Norton + Susan Schwartz co-written novel called Empire of Eagles about a Roman legion in China. This didn't exist when I was binging on Norton as a teen. Just so you're aware (you probably were already) that it's "been done".

Serge: 1) Tanuki are really in the dog family? I had no idea. 2) Oh man, I'd better be careful if I go googling for info. Tanuki are supposed to be awesome magic creatures, how can they mistreat them?

#175 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: February 04, 2006, 03:11 PM:

Back to the original thread subject....

As to Blair Witch: I don't see how the 'Missing' posters in Cannes could play other than as obviously fun low-budget marketing hoopla. I mean, if college students actually disappear in the woods in Pennsylvania (or wherever it was supposed to take place), would anybody seriously put up posters trying to locate them on a different continent? Ditto for all the stuff on the website, which I remember as being very well-done in building the backstory, but completely implausible if intended to be believed. Film canisters found under the foundations of an 18th century house...

Blair Witch just took a bunch of cinema narrative conventions applied to one genre (documentary and faux-documentary) and brought them into a different genre (horror), together with playing the Internet marketing angle very skillfully.

There will always be people who get confused if you simply say "The following is a true story" but I still think it's legitimate for an author to use that for content that is clearly fiction in its context.

By that token, I view Bonsai Kitten is legit (very twisted humor, but I like that) and Frey is clearly not. I mean the guy is still trying to claim he just "remembered wrong".

#176 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: February 04, 2006, 03:14 PM:

BTW, I forgot to say: Congratulations on the sale, Dave!

#177 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: February 04, 2006, 04:26 PM:

Clifton... Yes, the Tanuki are canines. And yes, be careful if you google for information about them. When Sue saw those pictures of what was done to them by hunters, she asked how anyone could do this to a dog. I pointed out the things that humans do to their own kind, so one shouldn't be surprised at their torturing dogs.

This reminds me of the Dann & Dozois anthology Dog Tales. I liked the stories, but I told Sue to stay away from it. You see, a recurring theme was humans breaking their word on the deal between them and dogs.

#178 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: February 04, 2006, 08:01 PM:

A.J., David is right. I know people who can't even think of Cetaganda without crying.

I'm the local crazy old cat woman, but I can read that scene without too much trouble, probably because I can separate a lot of fiction from reality.

#179 ::: A. J. Luxton ::: (view all by) ::: February 04, 2006, 08:49 PM:

Marilee, I can too; the knowledge that a book is fiction generally makes this handy little disclaimer run around in my head, saying, "Do not activate the fight-or-flight response; these events have been arranged by the nice boys in the prop department, and oh yeah, that just looks like a kitten." And it's not that I pay attention to it constantly, but that under circumstances where I would normally start yelling/weeping/running for my life/petitioning congress, I calmly accept that there is no need.

And I suppose that's got a lot to do with the big deal in the first place. The readers of James Frey's 'memoir' had a lot of emotions brought up, and thought their emotions had a close connection and potential bearing on a real situation, when this wasn't the case. As I read in an analysis somewhere -- I don't remember whether it was TSG, or somewhere else -- the character represented as James Frey is the perfect prodigal son, or "project" lover: the effect was to make readers want to save him. And they felt gypped to find out that they'd been pouring emotional energy at a fictional construction without knowing it.

#180 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: February 04, 2006, 10:00 PM:

Oh, I know it's been done. Alfred Duggan did it around 1955, and there have been others, as you cite. Nobody's done it like this, though, if I do say so myself, which is not to say that it's any good, of course. This is about the sheer guts required to get there.

And thanks to all for the kind regards. I hope to see it in print this year.

#181 ::: Kathryn Cramer ::: (view all by) ::: February 05, 2006, 07:32 AM:

Um. Patrick. Teresa. I don't mean to put you on the spot. But in the context of this conversation, I have to wonder why you approaved the sidebar ad for 911TrueStory.com.

#182 ::: Daniel Abraham ::: (view all by) ::: February 05, 2006, 09:40 AM:

When I was in college, I took a course in "Creative Non-fiction" with Richard Currey. He defined creative non-fiction by sayin' "you don't make all of it up." Reading this thread, I kept thinking of him.

In the end, though, I think I have to throw in with Patrick's comment from Mr. Delany. Edge cases probably aren't the most illuminating things to argue about in a case like this. If Frey wants to slap "A Novel" on his memoir and call it fiction, then by all means. Until then, it's some flavor of creative non-fiction to me. Maybe meta-memoir: "Drug addicts often fail to self-report accurately! Who'd have guessed?"

#183 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: February 05, 2006, 10:13 AM:

Kathryn --

I most emphatically can't speak for Patrick or Teresa, but that add leads to somebody raising real questions.

There may be innocuous answers for those questions, but those have not been advanced yet.

It's really, really unlikely that two skyscrapers will, if struck in a semi-random way, fall down in just the same way. One, ok, maybe; very unlikely, but perhaps. Two, when the aircraft angle of entry and height on the building were obviously different? That's getting into serious headscratcher territory.

Throw in Building 7 and seismograph records and there is emphatically something that needs explaining. Throw in that the relevant air traffic control records are reported destroyed and that having an investigating commission was actively resisted, consistently starved of funding and records access, and did produce a report with some gaping holes and it stinks to the throne of God.

#184 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: February 05, 2006, 11:23 AM:

Add in Charles Pellegrini's Ghosts of Vesuvius, which is about things like collapsing plumes and gets into 9/11, with some very interesting eyewitness accounts - I got the impression that if explosives other than jet fuel were involved, it was very much non-obvious.

#185 ::: Bob Oldendorf ::: (view all by) ::: February 05, 2006, 12:16 PM:

Graydon: they were identical buildings - identical failure modes don't surprise me.

The failure of Building 7 IS a bit of a head-scratcher, though.

And I'm still wondering how there wasn't a single scrap left of whatever hit the Pentagon - even though they recovered enough passenger DNA to identify every single passenger on board. (After a fire that consumed an entire jetliner, right down to the brake pads and turbine blades.)

"Gaping holes," indeed.

#186 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: February 05, 2006, 01:56 PM:

Bob --

Roughly identical failure modes in the presence of identical or nearly identical events, sure.

But the events weren't; they were in very different places relative to the height of the buildings, and the aircraft didn't hit at identical angles or orientations relative to the buildings.

To have them both do the freefall straight down thing, something actually difficult to deliberately arrange, out of coincidental response to dissimilar damage, is an exceptional event and requires exceptional explanation.

#187 ::: Kathryn Cramer ::: (view all by) ::: February 05, 2006, 02:22 PM:

I am put off by the incautious use of the phrase "controlled demolition" in the first few lines of the page.

#188 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: February 05, 2006, 02:43 PM:

"controlled demolition"...

Reminds me of the time I went to see Scorcese's Age of Innocence. That's when I realized that coming attractions aren't always tailored to a movie's expected audience. How else to explain being inflicted an ad for Demolition Man with Stallone & Snipes? I remember that people boo'ed the ad.

#189 ::: NelC ::: (view all by) ::: February 05, 2006, 08:09 PM:

Graydon, it wasn't the collisions that caused the buildings to fall, not directly. It was the fires caused by the burning planes weakening the structure. The angle of the crashes has little to no relevence, and which floor was burning would only affect the timing of the collapse. The fires were nearly identical events.

#190 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: February 05, 2006, 11:34 PM:

Pellegrino (wrong the first time) pointed out that having a tower hit by a plane was actually included in the design process ... they didn't plan for a nearly-full load of jet fuel, or for the actual heat involved (which they may not have known, considering that the construction was finished in 1973; it wouldn't have been possible to do a decent simulation of the situation then). And there were a few people in the buildings who survived the collapse, but how is, well, something else. Random chance in where they were, mostly.

#191 ::: Clark E Myers ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2006, 01:47 AM:

For my money too much random when haphazard might be the better word. Semi-random just doesn't mean anything to me; might it mean something like elements have a weighted chance of selection? Please explain.

I don't know about survival from the actual collapse - riding it down and living - but I do know a lot of survivors are because of people like Richard Rescorla whose own death was as far from random as possible - and there were others of equal merit if not equal repute.

Cites too please from Bob Oldendorf on the total consumption of the Pentagon missile including not just brake pads but rotors and turbine blades?

Contemporary news reports quote everybody from military to congresscritters as having seen bits and pieces e.g.: One of the aircraft's engines somehow ricocheted out of the building and arched into the Pentagon's mall parking area between the main building and the new loading dock facility, said Charles H. Krohn, the Army's deputy chief of public affairs.
"Pentagon Attack Hits Navy Hard," by David A. Fulghum, Aviation Week & Space Technology, 9/17/01
Folks can dispute this forever like the magic bullet of the JFK assasination but I'll figure the assigned causes of the WTC were sufficient given that it happened.

Perfectly willing to accept that any memoirs of 9/11 are imperfect - tales from the Flatiron Building always excepted.

#192 ::: Per C. Jorgensen ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2006, 02:32 AM:

I remember reading about an Australian author under the name of Helen Demidenko who had written about WWII and the Holocaust in the Ukraine from a Ukrainian point of view. Her novel The Hand That Signed The Paper won two prestigious Australian awards, but the controversy arose when it was discovered that all her European ancestors were English. She had, however, appeared in public with dyed hair and a Slavic peasant blouse, and spoke as of her experience as a Ukrainian-Australian. Of course, it could be viewed as an extreme form of authorial publicity stunt or self-promotion. Some critics and readers did, however, feel hoaxed.

#193 ::: Jonathan Shaw ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2006, 05:34 AM:

Helen Darville (H Demidenko's real name) not only posed as Ukrainian, the whiff of plagiarism hangs very heavily over the novel as well, and it managed to do a pretty good impression of unreconstructed anti-Semitism. She has been in the sin bin ever since the fraud was exposed, though as far as I know no one ever took her to task in front of the cameras Oprah-style. She's gone off and become a lawyer and occasionally resurfaces with a range of self exculpatory arguments. As far as I've read of what she's written, she seems to have very little insight into why people are a little cross with her.

#194 ::: Carrie S. ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2006, 09:22 AM:

Anyone here ever read For Want of a Nail? It's a straight-faced economic history of the American Colonies after the failure of the Revolution.

I confess I have not managed to finish it myself, mostly because it is a straight-faced economic history, and as such hits all my "Bored now" buttons.

I'm also trying to track down CSA, the "South Won the War of Northern Agression" documentary. Both of these are basically SF presented as nonfiction.

(Fun game via the authors of GURPS Infinite Worlds: "Put on your best snooty History Channel documentary voice and say something like, 'In retrospect, German victory in 1918 seems inevitable.'")

#195 ::: Kathryn Cramer ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2006, 11:22 AM:

My posting of Robert Young Pelton's piece on John Walker Lindh on RYP's behalf, refuting the Lindh family's protestations of their son's innocence brought me a small rash of 9/11 "controlled demolition" trolls. Why a "scientific paper" by a BYU professor needs a troll enforcer squad is a mystery to me.

(I've had to ban a couple of people; one guy twice.)

#196 ::: Kathryn Cramer ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2006, 11:25 AM:

(I haven't tried to penetrate the mystery deep enough to figure out why an article about Lindh would seem relevant to them to structural issues having to do with the WTC. I have more interesting conspiracies with which to occupy my brain space.)

#197 ::: Stefan Kapusniak ::: (view all by) ::: February 07, 2006, 02:38 PM:

For me, the most interesting parts of For Want of a Nail are the deeply weird bits where the alt.historian, who generally convinces you he's telling the alt.history to you pretty straight as far as history goes, starts wandering off into a line of bull about a particular period that seems almost certainly there as the official cover-up of monsterous atrocities of certain alt.governments of the alt.timeline.

So ends up as a straight-faced history of stuff that didn't happen, which also lies to you about what the stuff that didn't happen actually was. Yay for unreliable turtles all the way down!

#198 ::: Bob Oldendorf ::: (view all by) ::: February 07, 2006, 04:17 PM:

Clark E. Myers: Cites too please from Bob Oldendorf on the total consumption of the Pentagon missile including not just brake pads but rotors and turbine blades?

Clark: I hadn't seen the AW&ST report. Here in NY, 9/11 news was biased heavily toward WTC coverage. Relying on the popular press at the time, I thought it was noteworthy that, while I had seen pictures of jetliner scraps on the sidewalks of Manhattan, I never saw anything similar from either the Pentagon or from the Pennsylvania crash. And the few pictures I did see of the Pentagon damage really did look remarkably small to be a 757. (I never claimed that it was a missile.)

Now that I poke around the various 9/11conspiracy sites and the debunking sites, I HAVE run across photos of jetliner debris at the Pentagon.

Mostly I was making the point that, if we're talking about conspiracy-inspiring 9/11 oddities, the collapse of the Twin Towers doesn't strike me as being at the top of the list.

#199 ::: Julie L. ::: (view all by) ::: February 07, 2006, 04:28 PM:

For that matter, didn't Jerzy Kosinski initially promote The Painted Bird as autobiography? The person who made me read it certainly thought it had been. Shortly thereafter, both of us were very startled by a new Kosinski biography, or at least the part of its review that said that TPB was almost entirely fiction except for the parts Kossinki had plagiarized from other people's real-life experiences. At least IIRC, which may be all the disclaimer anyone needs these days.

#200 ::: Clark E Myers ::: (view all by) ::: February 07, 2006, 04:55 PM:

Apologies for being unclear; I had no intent to place the term missile in anyone's post or imply any particular usage by anyone but myself.

I used the term missile as a generic specifically to include inter alia airplanes, aircraft and also all other possibilities (not intended to mean either guided or ballistic or cruise but to embrace all such possibilities including thrown by the Hulk or King Kong) in an effort arguendo to avoid prejudging the nature of the missile which of course was the airplane as reported.

I am pretty sure there was no IED at the Pentagon. As a practical matter I doubt very much that there were any charges at the WTC on that day or any previous weakening or any other interference with any building.

For my money given they happened the airplane impact and after effects are sufficient.

If I wanted to argue for conspiracy I'd say the payoff by public money was intended to deprive the plaintiff's bar of an opportunity to investigate and bring their results in front of a jury. Any succession of jury trials for damages would I'm sure have included all sorts of incorrect notions but might have exposed something - and that regardless of the reality.

#201 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: February 07, 2006, 05:31 PM:

a tower hit by a plane was actually included in the design process

I recall (however poor human memory is) that they designed it for a crash by the biggest plane in existence at the time, which was not a 747, but something quite a bit smaller. but human memory being what it is, that's about as reliable as an eyewitness account of a second shooter on the grassy knoll. All to be taken with a bovine salt lick.

#202 ::: candle ::: (view all by) ::: February 07, 2006, 05:40 PM:

Slightly off-topic, for which apologies:

Oh, I know it's been done. Alfred Duggan did it around 1955, and there have been others, as you cite. Nobody's done it like this, though, if I do say so myself, which is not to say that it's any good, of course. This is about the sheer guts required to get there.

I once described a plan for a novel which was greeted with the response "It's been done." I'm amazed I thought of the right reply (as Dave does here) in saying "Yes, but not by me."

(I am ruling irrelevant here the fact that it still hasn't been done by me.)

Good luck with it, Dave.

#203 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: February 07, 2006, 05:45 PM:

[History Channel narrator voice:]

Wenn ist das Nunstuck git ein Slotermeyer? Ja! Beierhund das Oder die Flipperwald gesput! But by this stage of the war, Ludendorff had become convinced that there was a goblin living in his hat, who could only be placated by dressing in a bat suit and humming Strauss waltzes. Meanwhile, the news from the Eastern Front was bad; German troops had failed to conquer Irkutsk, from which Hindenburg* had hoped to achieve Anschluss with the grinning whale in the sailor hat.

[James Burke interrupts]

At this point, history was about to take a divergent route. Some suggest that, after four years of war, it had simply gotten lost; others, that it was trying to sneak off for a hot weekend in Paris with a couple of Great Men on Horses. And what has all this to do with Edison's early work on the talking light bulb.

[Peter Woodward arrives, leading several blokes with assorted medieval bashing bits, and we go to a promo for Alternate Antiques Roadshow, featuring the typewriter the Emperor Claudius used for his memoirs.]

*Insert gasbag joke here.

#204 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: February 07, 2006, 05:59 PM:

FWIW, from Wiki:
The Boeing 747, commonly called the Jumbo Jet, is one of the most recognizable modern airliners and is the largest airliner currently in airline service. First flown commercially in 1970, it held the size record for more than 35 years ....

It's just possible they talked to Boeing before designing the WTC.

I remember seeing the one they flew into the San Jose airport for an airshow in 1970 (flight crew and minimum fuel for a 20-minute flight in). The top of the tail was at control-tower-window level for the tower they had then. Big bird! (I still haven't flown in one.)

#205 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: February 07, 2006, 06:03 PM:

Big bird!

After 12 hours in business class, it gets really, really, really small.

#206 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: February 07, 2006, 06:10 PM:

found it

page 6: "the impact of a Boeing 707 flying at 600 mph, possibly crashing into the 80th floor,
was analyzed during the design of the WTC towers in February/March 1964, the effect of the
subsequent fires was not considered. Building codes do not require building designs to
consider aircraft impact."

I also heard that they were talking about requiring all buildings over a certain height to have their metal structures coated with the same stuff they use to coat the steel in battleships. If a fuel tank or magazine catches fire, this stuff is supposed to insulate the metal and prevent it from weakening. hm, sounds like a cheap version of aerogel.

#207 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: February 07, 2006, 06:23 PM:

From that same link, page 29 explains why WTC7 may have collapsed:

"two 6,000 gallon tanks supplying the 5th floor generators through a pressurized
piping system were always kept full for emergencies and were full that day."

12,000 gallons of fuel was on the 5th floor, and may have caught fire.

#208 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: February 07, 2006, 06:48 PM:

Meanwhile, back at crap fantasy pretending to be history . . .

Look up Anatoly Fomenko's History: Fiction or Science? Ran across this in a full-page ad in New Scientist; the drooling US Amazon reviews are mostly repeats by a handful of Europeans (not necessarily sock puppets), who don't actually offer any proof for the author's, uh, interesting version of history, but, hey, understanding that there's a conspiracy is better than actually knowing squat, right?

The central thesis is that pretty much everything accepted as history was invented about 1500. I'm not terribly sure why, but Fomenko seems to have a notion that the "real" history of Christianity has been obfuscated by various Bad People.

For instance, the Christ was born in AD 1053 and crucified 33 years later, in Rome.

And the "Old" Testament is newer than the New one, and describes stuff that happened in what we benighted louts call the Middle Ages.

Riiiiight. I would say "and Oi'm the Queen o' Sheba," but for all I know I might be. It seems to be grounded in the "a big enough lie explains everything" excuse; if you can actually buy into the idea that Jesus was around during the various Norman enterprises,* then there is probably nothing you wouldn't take for a quarter.

There are two volumes of the "New Chronology" out in English; there are apparently seven in the original Russian, though apparently the first one has the Hot Stuff, and the rest is the author insisting that he's right. Oh, and he used computers. So it must be true. (He is a mathematician, apparently of some distinction. There's more than one thing I could say about that, and no, I have nothing against mathematicians.)

If you collect this sort of thing, you might want to pony up your $25; on the other hidden hand, there will probably be a pool of used copies before you can say "Charles Fort."

*And did those feet/In not particularly ancient times/Oh, forget it.

#209 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: February 07, 2006, 07:02 PM:

Speaking of Christ, Mike, have you ever seen The Silver Chalice? Jack Palance as Simon Magus is quite a sight, especially when he puts on those red tights before jumping off that tower because he's convinced that HE is the Messiah and so can fly. Which he can't.

#210 ::: Bob Oldendorf ::: (view all by) ::: February 07, 2006, 08:45 PM:

John M. Ford: featuring the typewriter the Emperor Claudius used for his memoirs

Why just yesterday, the Attorney General of the United States was telling about how, in his time-line, George Washington used to regularly eavesdrop on Americans' electronic communications.

#211 ::: Will Entrekin ::: (view all by) ::: February 07, 2006, 09:49 PM:

For what it's worth, re: 9/11 and ""two 6,000 gallon tanks supplying the 5th floor generators through a pressurized piping system were always kept full for emergencies and were full that day.""...

I was on the Hoboken Ferry when Building 7 collapsed. We all were watching that dust cloud, and I'd wager we all saw that building fall. There was no flash or discharge of any sort: it just to kind of waver a bit, around the edges, and then it fell pretty much straight down, just like the other two had.
I will say, however, given the instances of controlled demolition I've seen (admittedly, mostly on television), it didn't look like that. I don't know if I can adequately explain the difference, or why it didn't; I think part of it is that I've always seen controlled demolition happen almost in stages. Like, a bit collapses here, a bit there, etc.; it didn't happen like that. Just uniformly down.

#212 ::: Epacris ::: (view all by) ::: February 08, 2006, 03:32 AM:

Whoa! I had not seen that bit about tanks of emergency fuel being kept in the buildings before. I wonder how common that is, particularly in "temperate" climates where you can freeze to death. (I know some tall buildings in Australia have water tanks up high for several reasons. No idea about fuel.)

The first step on from that is my remembrance that fires after earthquakes tend to cause more death & destruction than the earthquake itself. Does anyone know what the building codes are like in places like San Francisco & other earthquake-prone areas?

#213 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: February 08, 2006, 08:06 AM:

Not much about truth, but definitely about fiction, today's column by Jon Carroll begins thus:

Novelist Lucy Ellmann reviewing "The Thin Place" by Kathryn Davis in the New York Times Book Review: "To its credit, this is not a novel that depends on plot. ... What little drama there is seems contrived; most of the time nothing happens except insights and insect bites."

It took me a few moments to realize what Ellman was saying: a novel should not depend on plot.

Carroll's opinion about that?

To its credit, this is not a novel that depends on characters. There is no one to root for. There is no one to be afraid for. There is no one at all. There is not a man who has a scar that he got in a nameless war, there is not a young orphan come to the city to seek his fortune, there is not a woman of a certain age who finds love under the Umbrian sun. There are no murderers, thieves, tyrants, vamps, private eyes, saucer people from Planet X, compulsive masturbators, preachers, coal miners or cowboys. Joan of Arc is not involved.

#214 ::: Carrie S. ::: (view all by) ::: February 08, 2006, 09:53 AM:

John Ford: I think Fomenko's idea is that we hadn't any history before ~1000AD, so we took all the stuff that happened since then, duplicated it with some slight changes, and pasted it on the front.

He's very big in magazines like Nexus, which features serious letters-to-the-editor expressing the writer's concern that the H5N1 vaccine will include mind-controlling (and possibly even termination!) microchips, and the idea that plate tectonic theory is wrong because it's much easier to explain the change in landmasses if the Earth is simply expanding with time...

#215 ::: Eric Sadoyama ::: (view all by) ::: February 08, 2006, 01:41 PM:

Epacris - diesel fuel tanks for emergency generators are very, very common. In most buildings they're in the basement (as New Orleans residents have learned, that's not always the best place to keep critical equipment) but it's not unreasonable to keep them on upper floors instead, depending on where you place your emergency generators.

#216 ::: candle ::: (view all by) ::: February 08, 2006, 02:56 PM:

John Ford: I think Fomenko's idea is that we hadn't any history before ~1000AD, so we took all the stuff that happened since then, duplicated it with some slight changes, and pasted it on the front.

My guess - on the basis of no research whatsoever, not even a google search - is that the ultimate aim is to rescue the Biblical date for the creation of the world. But who knows? Speaking as an ancient historian, I'd just rather people didn't declare my discipline non-existent every now and then. After all, maybe yesterday never happened!

For now, I think I'll proceed on the assumption that it did.

#217 ::: Larry Brennan ::: (view all by) ::: February 08, 2006, 03:58 PM:

Epacris: The first step on from that is my remembrance that fires after earthquakes tend to cause more death & destruction than the earthquake itself. Does anyone know what the building codes are like in places like San Francisco & other earthquake-prone areas?

I don't know anything about fuel storage in San Francisco skyscrapers, but I was in 101 California St when a small quake struck in 1999. The building has these giant accordion baffles where the tall tower portion joins with a shorter base section - man did those things move! All in all, I'm glad to have not been around for any meaningful seismic events.

#218 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: February 08, 2006, 04:05 PM:

I had to look it up. Apparently, a tractor-trailer can carry about 6 to 8 thousand gallons of fuel. So, there were basically two semi trailers full of fuel in the building. youch.

#219 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: February 08, 2006, 04:09 PM:

I'd just rather people didn't declare my discipline non-existent every now and then.

I'll add "historian" to the list that now includes evolutionary biologists, paleontologists, molecular biologists, archeologists, and philosophy, among others.

#220 ::: Shawn M Bilodeau ::: (view all by) ::: February 08, 2006, 11:36 PM:

There is not a man who has a scar that he got in a nameless war, there is not a young orphan come to the city to seek his fortune, there is not a woman of a certain age who finds love under the Umbrian sun. There are no murderers, thieves, tyrants, vamps, private eyes, saucer people from Planet X, compulsive masturbators, preachers, coal miners or cowboys. Joan of Arc is not involved.

Aw, heck... Now I want to read a story that has a man with a scar he got in a nameless war, a young orphan come to the city to seek his fortune, a woman of a certain age finding love under the Umbrian sun, murders, thieves, tyrants, vamps, private eyes, saucer people from Planet X, preachers, coal miners, cowboys, and Joan of Arc getting involved.

The compulsive masturbators can be optional -- every writer needs some degree of freedom.

#221 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: February 08, 2006, 11:41 PM:

There are no murderers, thieves, tyrants, vamps, private eyes, saucer people from Planet X, compulsive masturbators, preachers, coal miners or cowboys. Joan of Arc is not involved.

However, Chapter 22 has some dinosaur sodomy.

#222 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2006, 02:30 AM:

and the idea that plate tectonic theory is wrong because it's much easier to explain the change in landmasses if the Earth is simply expanding with time...

You mean, we don't need to go back to the Moon the hard way, because we're just gonna, like, move there anyway?

Martians beware! You're next!

#223 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2006, 05:31 AM:

There is not a man who has a scar that he got in a nameless war, there is not a young orphan come to the city to seek his fortune, there is not a woman of a certain age who finds love under the Umbrian sun. There are no murderers, thieves, tyrants, vamps, private eyes, saucer people from Planet X, compulsive masturbators, preachers, coal miners or cowboys. Joan of Arc is not involved.

This sounds like a challenge:


"I'm sitting in a bar in San Tommasso in the early morning, drinking grappa to kill the pain of the shrapnel hole in my gut from ten years ago. Three shots down and I can still hear the voice of the man I shot the night before, so I reach for his wallet to pay for another glass. Then I hear hoofbeats in the street outside, and a man in a dog collar walks in, spurs glinting under the dusk brighter than the doused acetylene light on his helmet, and one hand jiggling deep in his pocket. Coalface preacher on the make. You see it all in this town.
"Understand you're a shamus," he says, slinging his leg over a stool, and I catch the Vegan accent at the back of his voice. "I'm looking for the saucer pilot that killed my parents. I hear she's in town, chasing after a Sirian prince..."

I think that's got everything. Where the story goes from there could be tricky, as according to Carroll it has to include

buried treasure, secret adultery, pirate ships firing broadsides, sudden reversals of fortune, elderly men attacked in basement apartments, children encountering a dangerous fish, guillotines, secrets, smiting with the jawbone of an ass, poisoned apples, signs, wonders, the thing that happens behind the carnival tent after the bearded lady has gone to bed, thin spots in the ice upon which the people we care about are skating

...probably looking at three volumes, I should think.

#224 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2006, 05:40 AM:

Damn. On rereading, I realise I have forgotten la pucelle d'Orleans. Oh, I'll bring her in later.

#225 ::: Vicki ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2006, 08:39 AM:

Graydon: What was much discussed in the New York press, but may not have been covered outside the city, was that the reason for the large amounts of fuel being stored in 7 WTC is that Mayor Giuliani had decided that it would be absolutely brilliant to have his emergency command "bunker" in one of the upper floors of that building. And of course an emergency command/coordination center needs its own fuel supply, because you're likely to be using it in a blackout.

It's not routine to store that much flammable fuel in office buildings.

Among other things, this meant that the city government had to improvise communications and command-and-control during and right after the attacks, because they'd evacuated and then lost the intended location. (The current administration has set up a similar center in a location that is unlikely to be a target for any other reason.)

Also, when I read about how fast the buildings came down, I stopped and did the math: they literally fell down, and it's straightforward 9.8 m/s2 for the height of the towers.

#226 ::: Carrie S. ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2006, 08:44 AM:

Aw, heck... Now I want to read a story that has a man with a scar he got in a nameless war, a young orphan come to the city to seek his fortune, a woman of a certain age finding love under the Umbrian sun, murders, thieves, tyrants, vamps, private eyes, saucer people from Planet X, preachers, coal miners, cowboys, and Joan of Arc...

They fight crime!

You mean, we don't need to go back to the Moon the hard way, because we're just gonna, like, move there anyway?

Well, given that the Earth (according to this theory) has roughly doubled in radius since the Dawn of Time--yes, but it's going to take a while.

That article just about killed me. The really amusing part was the series of 40 or so little diagrams, which according to their captions showed the changing positions of landmasses in (very) roughly 5my increments, starting with as long ago as we know about and ending with a projection for 5my in the future. I say "according to their captions" because all 30 of them were fairly faint line art, jammed into the bottom 40% of a page, and the largest one was about the diameter of a nickel so you couldn't actually make out any detail. It was just the capstone on the absurdity.

#227 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2006, 09:04 AM:
Damn. On rereading, I realise I have forgotten la pucelle d'Orleans. Oh, I'll bring her in later.

Joan raised her head from the table, fixed me with a bloodshot eye, and asked, "Who the hell is this schmuck?" She said it in French.

"Relax, sweetie." I tossed back the whisky. "He's a paying customer."

#228 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2006, 10:10 AM:

Much obliged...the bearded lady's all yours.

#229 ::: Mickle ::: (view all by) ::: February 10, 2006, 04:39 AM:

"Fiction, for the purposes of the public library, consists of those books the librarians think people are looking for when they ask us: 'Where's the fiction section?'"

Heh - that's funny. I work at one of those big box bookstores and the question we get asked all the time is "Where are your non-fiction books?" We generally just look around the store meaningfully, point to the fiction section and say "That corner over there is fiction. Everything else is non-fiction. Were you looking for anything in particular?"

The thing that bugs me about Frey isn't that I think it should be shelved elsewhere,* or that he made stuff up and said it was true, or even that a lot of people read his made-up non-fiction, it's that the people that had read it tended on and on about how it was so amazing because it really happened. Kinda like all the parents swooning over the fact that Paolini started writing Eragon when he was fifteen, a fact that didn't really surprise me once I read it.

*It's only a bookcase away from astrology in my store, so I'm not under any illusion that being in biography makes it fact

#230 ::: Dave Levin ::: (view all by) ::: February 10, 2006, 12:28 PM:

I guess I'm not sure how calling someone a "liar," "nut," or "quack" helps us gauge the validity of what the person is saying.

From reading some of Velikovsky's work, my feeling is that it has been pilloried not because it wasn't scholarly, but because it was. For him to propose that a planet, i.e., Venus, might have entered our solar system only a few thousand years ago, instead of being formed at the same time as the other planets, was (and still is) considered heresy.

Back in the 50s, prominent scientists who freely acknowledged not having read his manuscript, nonetheless invoked the interests of science in imploring MacMillan not to publish it. (I've read the text of some of this correspondence, and it can turn one's stomach.)

There were some scientists, including Einstein, who felt that Velikovsky's ideas should be given a fair hearing, but they were seldom heard. Velikovsky continues to be battered today, even though some of his predictions about our solar system have been verified by satellite data.

What I find sad is that today's creators of new paradigms don't seem to be treated with any more respect than those from thousands of years ago. Instead of their work being constructively scrutinized, they are the target of personal attacks from those who insist they're being "scientific." If this should change, I'll take it as a sign that our species has truly evolved.

#231 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: February 11, 2006, 05:22 AM:

I have read Worlds in Collision and I'll give Velikovsky one thing: he successfully put his finger on some anomalies and unresolved issues in the geology of his day.

Unfortunately for him, every single one of those anomalies has now been satisfactorily explained by the theory of plate tectonics.

As for the idea that the planet Venus spontaneously burst forth from out of Jupiter, played silly buggers with the Earth's rotation, and showered mana down upon the Israelites...no, that's not a heresy. To call it "heresy" is to impute to it intellectual respectability that it just hasn't got. It's bilge. Planets don't pop out of other planets any more than water flows uphill -- and for the same reasons. Hydrocarbons don't spontaneously turn into carbohydrates, and Venus isn't rich in hydrocarbons anyway. I could go on, but there'd be no use to it: the point is that the Universe doesn't work like that. The things Velikovsky described happening don't happen.

I recall reading a story. In my recollection it's attributed to Carl Sagan. He met an archeologist at a party, and Velikovsky happened to come up in the conversation. Sagan remarked that of course Velikovsky's physics, chemistry, and orbital mechanics were total nonsense, but he'd been impressed by his scholarly grasp of history and archeology. The archeologist replied that to the contrary, Velikovsky's history and archeology were bilge; but the archeologist had been impressed by his grasp of the physical sciences.

This story is quite possibly apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate -- but it captures a deep truth about Velikovsky's work.

#232 ::: Bruce E. Durocher II ::: (view all by) ::: February 11, 2006, 11:50 AM:

Brings to mind the little article in The New York Times where a reporter interviewed cryptographers from the NSA and Rabbis about The Bible Code. The NSA guys said the cryptography was crap but the stuff about the Talmud was sure interesting, and the Rabbis said the stuff about the Talmud was crap but the code stuff was fascinating. The reader was left to draw his own conclusions...

#233 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: February 12, 2006, 01:30 AM:

Dave Levin: Velikovsky's purpose was not to discover fact but to prove the complete accuracy of the Old Testament, particularly some of the more bizarre claims such as the sun standing still for Joshua. That makes him a nut, regardless of any facts that turned up in his work.

#234 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: February 13, 2006, 05:03 PM:

Instead of their work being constructively scrutinized, they are the target of personal attacks from those who insist they're being "scientific." If this should change, I'll take it as a sign that our species has truly evolved.

I don't think "constructive criticism" versus "personal attacks" is something decided by DNA. I think we have the mental capacity that we could give constructive criticism, but we don't all necessarily have the training of what is science.

Put another way, if you go back in a 4,000 years in a time machine, and grab the child of two humans who worship idols, sacrifice humans for good weather, and do all manner or moronic things, and bring that infant to the present and raise them by one parent with a Phd in physical science and another parent with a Phd in philosophy, I think you'll find that said infant already has the genetics needed to be scientific, rather than resort to magical thinking, to fear the rain gods, and to view natural catastrophes as omens from God.

We don't need to evolve genetically anymore than we are. We just need to teach the difference between magic and science, because a lot of people don't really know.

#235 ::: Xopher (Christopher Hatton) ::: (view all by) ::: February 13, 2006, 05:10 PM:

Greg, leaving aside the point that worshipping idols can, in fact, get you things you can't get any other way (except maybe years of therapy), I'd just like to point out that because of our language and technology, our species is capable of evolving without changing our genetics as such.

Which is pretty much what you're saying. Personally I'll think our species has evolved when everyone who reads Velikovsky laughs aloud in scorn.

#236 ::: Xopher (Christopher Hatton) ::: (view all by) ::: February 13, 2006, 05:19 PM:

Also, I'll note that 'heresy' has become a term that people use to describe something of which they approve...when they know themselves to be in the minority. The hope seems to be to associate the idea with Galileo or someone.

It never works.

#237 ::: Clark E Myers ::: (view all by) ::: February 13, 2006, 05:37 PM:

We just need to teach the difference between magic and science, because a lot of people don't really know.

I've created my own private superstitions - which makes me more sympathetic if that's the best word - the one I finally noticed was including what amounted to an obscured null operation loop in a simple program; I thought I was doing something with the operation and I thought I was doing something when I subsequently reversed it! - and I've observed people with the best of educations who had superstitions in the way they programmed home entertainment devices - typically watching every program they really really wanted to record.

Granted we don't have 2 cultures in the world we simply have a lot of half cultured people. I'd argue the best educated of us can be superstitious when rushed, in the absence of sufficient information (decision making under uncertainty) or especially outside our own expertise (famously belief in dead philosophers) - see the various gambler's fallacies or the Monte Hall/Let's Make a Deal 3 door problem for examples of such behavior.

#238 ::: Dave Levin ::: (view all by) ::: February 13, 2006, 10:46 PM:

David Goldfarb: As for the idea that the planet Venus (1) spontaneously burst forth from out of Jupiter, (2) played silly buggers with the Earth's rotation, and (3) showered mana down upon the Israelites...(4) no, that's not a heresy. (I added the numbers for ease of reference. - DHL)

No argument about (1) - Velikovsky was wrong.

Regarding (2): considering the effect of the moon on our oceans to create tides, it wouldn't surprise me if a considerably larger body (say Venus), coming within (say) a few hundred miles of Earth, and sweeping by our planet (rather than being in a circular or near-circular orbit about our planet), might shift our land masses. I'm not saying I believe it happened, but rather that I can't say it was impossible.

I'm not sure where you came up with (3). Velikovsky talked about hot rocks and gases coming to Earth, but I don't recall anything about manna.

In (4), I'm not sure why you brought those things into the discussion, since I didn't claim they were heresy. All I was saying was that the notion of Venus's entering our solar system relatively recently (which Velikovsky contended), clashed violently with the doctrine of our Solar System's planets having been created in concert billion of years ago. I feel it's no stretch calling the latter a "doctrine," because the idea has persisted for half a century despite contradicting evidence, such as the variation in the planets' chemical compositions, and Venus's retrograde rotation, i.e., that it rotates on its axis in the opposite direction of Earth and the other planets. Perhaps you could provide an explanation for how Venus's rotation came to be retrograde, which incidentally Velikovsky had predicted.

CHip: Velikovsky's purpose was not to discover fact but to prove the complete accuracy of the Old Testament, particularly some of the more bizarre claims such as the sun standing still for Joshua. That makes him a nut, regardless of any facts that turned up in his work.

You make it sound so sordid. Here's what Velikovsky actually wrote in the Preface to Worlds in Collision: "...I came upon the idea that in the days of the Exodus, as evident from many passages of the Scriptures, there occurred a great physical catastrophe, and that such an event could service in determining the time of the Exodus in Egyptian history or in establishing a synchronical scale for the histories of the peoples concerned."

Essentially, Velikovsky consulted the ancient writings of many peoples to try to reconcile their calendars, using the "great physical catastrophe" as the unifying event. Is what you find "nutty" about this, that he relied on evidence that was thousands of years old? Don't anthropology, geology and astronomy (among others) do that also?

Greg London: I don't think "constructive criticism" versus "personal attacks" is something decided by DNA. I think we have the mental capacity that we could give constructive criticism, but we don't all necessarily have the training of what is science.

What kind of training do you have in mind? We all learn the "Scientific Method" in school. The problem is that many scientists (such as those who attacked Velikovsky from 1950 to the present) seem to have forgotten the part about being prepared to have your theories blown out of the water by new data, which I think is why they couldn't stand the idea of Venus's being a new planet.

We don't need to evolve genetically anymore than we are. We just need to teach the difference between magic and science, because a lot of people don't really know.

Can you explain, if the planets all formed from the same process, why their compositions are so different, or why Venus has a retrograde rotation? Failing that, can you cite evidence for the planets having formed at the same time? If not, then doesn't the idea that the planets formed at the same time, seem more magic than science?

Xopher: Greg, leaving aside the point that worshipping idols can, in fact, get you things you can't get any other way (except maybe years of therapy), I'd just like to point out that because of our language and technology, our species is capable of evolving without changing our genetics as such.

Which is pretty much what you're saying. Personally I'll think our species has evolved when everyone who reads Velikovsky laughs aloud in scorn.

So I take it that since you feel that way about Velikovsky, that you're convinced that the planets formed at the same time, that this belief must rest on firm evidence, and that therefore you can explain Venus's retrograde rotation?

Also, I'll note that 'heresy' has become a term that people use to describe something of which they approve...when they know themselves to be in the minority. The hope seems to be to associate the idea with Galileo or someone.

I believe I made clear in what way I considered Velikovsky to be a heretic. And as I implied earlier in this post, I don't approve of everything Velikovsky claimed. There are also many claims of his of which I have yet to form an opinion.

#239 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: February 13, 2006, 11:16 PM:

Dave: Velikovsky threw together a bunch of superstitions -- not the sciences you list, which are extremely cautious about assuming (e.g.) a universal flood because flood mythology is so widespread. wrt your attempt to claim an analogy between tides and continental drift: try calculating the mass-times-distance of water that actually gets moved, versus the mass-times-distance of the continents. Then add in that the sciences you quote make it clear that continental drift is a very long, slow process; a jolt would make a very clear mark in the magnetic patterns of upwelled rocks, just as an exceptionally good or bad season shows up in a tree's rings.

#240 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: February 14, 2006, 12:35 AM:

I'm not sure where you came up with (3). Velikovsky talked about hot rocks and gases coming to Earth, but I don't recall anything about manna.

Can I conclude, then, that you haven't read Worlds in Collision? I lost my copy years ago in a fire, and for obvious reasons haven't bothered to replace it. It's right there in black and white, though -- Velikovsky asserted that Venus's atmosphere is rich in hydrocarbons, that these hydrocarbons entered Earth's atmosphere, (somehow) became carbohydrates, and were the manna from heaven.

#241 ::: Mina W ::: (view all by) ::: February 14, 2006, 03:41 AM:

Isaac Asimov wrote a memorable review of Velikovsky in which he said he wouldn't complain about the history and archaeology because those weren't his subjects, but when it came to the hydrocarbons in the comet's tail suddenly a few pages later turning into carbohydrates and falling as manna on the Israelites, that was chemistry and he had to say something about it. Hydrocarbons, (oil), do not spontaneously turn into carbohydrates (doughnuts), and anyone who says they could doesn't know what he is talking about. (paraphrased)

I just looked it up, the Asimov article was probably titled "Worlds in Confusion"

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