True Fiction

I've been thinking about fiction versus reality, recently. It's Leonard Cohen's fault. I was listening to his songs while working, and the song Everybody Knows caused a random firing of neurons that led to fiction and reality.

For those who haven't heard the song - it is about a lot of things that "everybody knows" which just ain't so. In case you miss the point he drives it home with everybody knows that you've been faithful, give or take a night or two.

For now we'll leave alone things that are narrativium (Terry Pratchett's word for the force that binds his Discworld... and all stories) - like all the problems getting fixed at the last minute; like the brave little guy always winning; like our sympathy for the plucky comic relief character. We'll leave those alone because, frankly, my life seems to obey these rules. Also because then we get into art imitating life imitating art. But MOST of all because I hate the feeling that I might just be someone's fictional character.

Instead, let's get into facts of life, history, society that everybody knows and which are, on their face, so totally absurd that you wonder how so many people could believe them. And then you realize they are the background of ALMOST every novel published in the second half of the twentieth century.

What am I talking about? Oh, for instance, if I'm EVER on another panel with a bunch of under thirty female authors and the subject has anything to do with women or history I'm bringing War and Peace, so I have something on hand to demonstrate the difference between reality and literature. Because every one of these women - bless their dizzy little hearts - will unfailingly bring up the six thousand years during which men have oppressed women. Apparently, my gender has been kept in slavery to such an extent that they weren't allowed to do anything and when they did it anyway, the vast conspiracy of all the males in the world hid it from history. And then, these super villains magically got defeated by a bit of shoulder-to-shoulder and self-empowerment. (Because it would be that easy to defeat people that powerful.)

Usually I counter this by pointing out that the men I live with - all three of them - can't agree on whose socks are whose, much less on a vast conspiracy involving doctoring history books, blackening the name of female religions, associating goddesses with unpleasant things, etc etc etc ad nauseum. They look at me, round eyed and then go on as though I hadn't said anything (which is why I need War and Peace. The iron-cover edition.)

Even right now I can see some of you going "but..."

Yeah, right. Women WERE oppressed, right enough. By a collective conspiracy of males? Oh, h*ll no. By biology. When you spend most of your life incubating new life and caring for infants and - in the conditions of the time - are likely to die of it, yeah, you're probably not going to be a great thinker or warrior. Not to mean there weren't some. More thinkers than warriors, mind, and those either religious or noble and almost unfailingly either celibate or delegating the business of raising the children to other women.

Look, kids, men were oppressed too. By their biology - a friend tells me men don't get PMS, they're just like that all the time - by the fact that their muscles and larger size made them logical hunters and warriors. They took most of the risks and the skeleton of any ice-age hunter tells you how much pain they endured. Oh, yeah, medieval skeletons aren't much better. Life was brutish, short and nasty for everyone, right? Plus, they sort of had to assume their wives' kids were theirs. There was no DNA test. So, sometimes they went a little overboard in making sure that momma wasn't slipping a different one in. (And if you think THAT didn't happen - ah! Genealogy is a joke because NO ONE can know what their great great great grandmama did with the peddler behind the kitchen door while great great grandpapa was out felling the wild boar.
Think about that - at least women knew the kids they were looking after were their own. Men... well, it required a leap of faith. They might be slaving away, and getting all beat up or dying to defend someone else's progeny. All on their wife's word.)

What never happened outside books is the gigantic conspiracy of males, the "we must keep her down", the "well, we have to erase memories of the wonderful matriarchy by making the goddess into an evil demon in our religion", the "yeah, this woman beat our pants, so we'll erase her from history books."

To begin with, this idea is absurd on its face. No. Hear me out. How CAN today's college educated, smart women not realize both the vastness of the world and how UNCONNECTED AND TRIBAL it was even a hundred years ago, let alone six thousand?

(Look, the reason the Europeans took so much of the world four hundred years ago wasn't their superior technology; it wasn't their superior (ah!) intelligence; and it sure as heck wasn't their superior rapaciousness or their greed (sorry, guys, no.) It was the fact that they were the first to overcome tribalism in favor of the nation state and that they had continent-wide communication and at least limited cooperation between nation states. Read stories of colonization. Time after time a tribe eliminates the European colony thinking "that's the tribe, that's all there is." Good strategy in tribal wars. Which was ALL they knew. They didn't know and they couldn't GUESS that this story would go all over Europe (broadsheets and pamphlets and later newspapers) and bring them retribution from nation states, much bigger than their little tribe or even federation of tribes. They couldn't conceptualize it.)

How could - to take one narrative that seems so widespread that everybody knows it is so without thinking - evil patriarchs replace the idyllic matriarchy in tribe after tribe after tribe ALL OVER THE WORLD, even when these tribes had no means of communication with each other? How could they all change history to hide the fact women used to be in charge? HOW? Think about it. A million little tribes, all over the world. Each with its language and its ways. Each one so suspicious of strangers that "them over the ridge" are another nation. Worse, how could this happen AFTER THE DISCOVERY OF WRITING (the DaVinci Code) and then be so thoroughly erased that only a conspiracy passing from wise person to wise person throughout the centuries knows the truth?

While we're on that, let's examine the idea of any sort of conspiracy that involves more than three people, which leaves no trace or almost no trace even centuries later. Good Lord. Have you guys ever tried to keep a secret that a group of friends knows? At best it's like playing telephone. Things come back to you that you know mean your friends have talked but not given details or given the wrong details on purpose. So you'll hear that so and so lost their aardvark, instead of their husband. At worst, the entire village, city, nation will know. Even if they sometimes pretend not to - with imperfect success. (Remember the Friends episode on "she knows I know they know but they don't know she knows.... Yeah.)

Has any of you read Roman history? Or how about the history of the Middle Ages. How many "would be conspiracies" are now plain for all to see? Heck, were plain even in their day? Even if the conspirators didn't know that everybody knew they knew? Two can keep a secret, if one of them is dead.

So how did the idea of the great conspiracy of men against women or any other great conspiracy become an everybody knows to the point that people - unthinkingly - use this as the basis of their decisions and their positions on the world?

I think - and I could be completely wrong on this - it is because fiction is more real than non-fiction. And these ideas - mind you - at one time made great and startling fiction. (No, they don't anymore. Not really. Why not? Because they're expected. They're the "easy path." Oh, you can still use conspiracies and secret societies. But do try for a little couth - I mean, look, if you bring in the Templars, credibility just went out the window. As for the conspiracy of men against women. Heavens! You might end up on the NYT bestseller list. That's how old and hackneyed the idea is.)

What do I mean fiction is more real than non-fiction? Well... I have followed in some fascination the way that false memories are created, and they are very close to the way good novels are written. The way to make someone remember - think they experienced - something that just ain't so, is that you weave reality and fiction, things they know are so and have experienced (the wind on your face, the tight throat that comes with crying, the description of a sunset) with the things of imagination. If you do it well enough, people will believe they lived it. They will believe these are things they saw with their own eyes and lived in their own lives. Oh, not rationally, but where it counts, in the back brain.

No wonder educated women - and men - KNOW these things that could not withstand the most cursory examination. No wonder it becomes the substratum of belief and knowledge from which decisions are made.

So, what am I saying? That we should regulate what goes into novels? That we, writers, should examine the ideas we weave in our fiction? That readers need to think more objectively about what they read?

No, yes, yes - but...

Look, no one should regulate what goes into novels or any form of art. The idea of a censor board gives me cold sweats. It's bad enough it is being regulated, in a way, right now, by the everybody knows syndrome. Try to write a novel in which a female-dominated society is more rapacious and evil than their patriarchal counterpart and it's likely to be rejected with "but this was never so" when it truth, maybe it wasn't (there is really no evidence of ANY female dominated society. Again, see the part where women were slaves to their biology. There MIGHT have been Amazon-like groups in some tribes, but the evidence is so far not conclusive) but it's as likely as the other way around.

Should we, as writers, examine the ideas that go into fiction? Uh... yeah. Indeedy. Never mind that some ideas that make great fiction make no sense in real life, (It's a million to one chance. That means it's a sure thing!) at least as a writer TRY to rise above everybody knows. TRY for original ideas and ideas that make sense. The great patriarchal conspiracy, all joking aside, no longer thrills anyone. Dan Brown might have milked the last of it.

Other things that no longer thrill anyone and which have become part of everybody knows with very little basis in fact: the idea the oppressed rise up against their oppressors (in fact, the "oppressed" usually rise up when the oppression lightens. All the great revolutions were bourgeois ones. The only other revolutions are actually action from outside); the idea that intellectuals are naturally allied to the workers (this is a Marxist chestnut that has made its way into fiction and from it into popular belief. In fact, we egg heads, with few exceptions, are puzzled by manual workers - I might be one of the exceptions, but just because I LIKE manual work); the idea that women are more caring and peaceful than men - no, seriously. I think this must have come from the fact that most women writers way back were spinsters or nuns. Look, I went to an all girls' school. It was sort of like hell without the flames. (Except that one time we short circuited the electrical board in the attic to get out of English class. But I think the statue of limitation has gone out on that one.) Women are as sneaky and underhanded as their male counterparts and, btw, they can get very physical too. So, please, no more planets where there are only women so it's peaceful (no matter how much it allows male writers and editors to enjoy a bit of vicarious and guilt free tribadism.)

It is not my business to tell anyone what he should write. It is my business to tell my colleagues the main problem I have with most books nowadays is that they bore me to tears. Now, I might not be representative of most people. Some people clearly read to have their biases confirmed. But not all. I'm convinced there's a large group of people like me out there. And that large group is woefully underserved.

Yes, readers should be thinking about what authors wrote and examining it for plausibility. But if storytellers are doing their job, then readers won't - perhaps can't - do so.

So it comes back to writers again. I won't ask you to use your powers for good. Instead, I'll ask you to do something more difficult. I'll ask you to think and to find ways to make your readers think.

It will be more fun. And it just might bring about a better future in which everybody knows is at least a little closer to reality and people aren't making decisions based on false memory syndrome.

Crossposted at because my agent says I must have a blog where I blog everyday and my husband was so proud of thinking of that blog name. Also because I was envious of M. Simon for being able to write "crossposted at powerandcontrol." So, now I have my very own crossposted at footnote. Yeah!

NOTE: This post was bumped by Eric to keep it at the top of the blog all day.

posted by Sarah on 11.11.10 at 08:51 PM


Great stuff!!!!!!!!!!!!

Women's liberation? The washing machine. Invented and produced by men - well some women may have worked in the factories esp. at the later stages of development.

And that is just one bit.

Poor women in the rougher parts of the world are surely oppressed. From lack of electricity and washer/dryers.

And it is Simon Ohm's Law. Not Sherri Ohm's Law.

Now I'm not begrudging you ladies this stuff. I'm happy to do my part to see that your laptops could charge while you are flying (if you can get past the TSA bastards these days). But seriously. My work was about liberating every one.

Women if they want to be pagan about it should say prayers to Whirlpool and Frigidaire. And those ladies in the South? Carrier.

And Sarah - beautiful. Thanks!

M. Simon   ·  November 11, 2010 5:51 PM

I blame Robert Graves. He reinterpreted Greek myths according to his "Triple Goddess" theory -- and because he was literary genius, his fictional version had a lot more power than the truth.

Cambias   ·  November 11, 2010 5:59 PM

M. Simon,

There is also the pill and other forms of reliable contraception. It did more for female equality than all the shoulder-to-shoulder in the world. Yeah, we can still have many kids if we choose -- well, I couldn't, curse biology, it only ran to two -- but it's IF WE CHOOSE. The fact that women believe it's the eeevile males who "enslaved" them and all the "shoulder to shoulder" stuff that "freed" them means they think they need to keep up the agitating and demonizing of males, which serves no purpose except make everyone miserable. And yeah the "everybody knows" SO gets to me.

Sarah   ·  November 11, 2010 8:56 PM

Actually, there are a lot of people like that. And I haven't even mentioned the fictionalized truth of a lot of books that are supposedly non-fiction. We won't EVEN go there.

But I do think the PURVEYORS of this stuff should at least think about it, right? Or maybe I'm insane.

Cambias   ·  November 11, 2010 8:59 PM

In addition to contraceptives (or perhaps more accurately, in conjunction with) many women who not have been able to get pregnant, now can, if they choose to.

Donna B.   ·  November 11, 2010 9:14 PM

Quite so, good Sarah!
Regarding males and females, the big biological difference in traditional jobs is upper-body strength. Consider: you must fight someone with X amount of training and Y amount of experience. Which do you pick: the opponent with male-adult average upper-body strength or the one with average female? Easy. A local example: there was a feminist karate group here led by a woman with years of experience. Upon coming home and encountering a burglar, she used her skills on him and was released from the hospital three months later. He never was caught.
Regarding fiction, yes indeed. Even sf, to be anything but a yawn, requires emotional plausibility, including that of non-humans. As the legendary editor, John Campbell, put it, "Write me a story about a being that thinks as good as a man, but not like a man."

Bleepless   ·  November 11, 2010 9:32 PM

HEY! Who's using my name?

Cambias   ·  November 12, 2010 8:55 AM

Well, I write about the 19th century American frontier where - for a number of different reasons which I hint at within my books - women had quite a lot of quiet authority, power, even. It gives scope for a lot of adventure, knowing how many frontier women exerted control over their lives and businesses. Victorian standards of propriety were just not that all-powerful when it came to stifling the lives of women. Quite a few of them flipped propriety the bird and went out and had interesting lives and a heck of a lot of fun, too.

Sgt. Mom   ·  November 12, 2010 9:49 AM

Sgt Mom,

If you read Victorian biographies you quickly come to realize that. In Our Bones Are Scattered for instance, the wife of one of the commanders of the British had been sort of married to two men, back and forth.

And heck, I grew up in a village where sexism, yeah, was alive and well for various reasons (Most of it was enforced by the older women, not really the men, btw) and yet women had a great deal of power in the family and the village.

Sarah   ·  November 12, 2010 9:15 PM


Sorry. That was me. I meant to write Cambias at the top of my answer, but I am on sinus meds and er... things got a little confused.

That was supposed to be my answer to you. I actually noticed it, and thought I'd corrected it. Clearly I was more confused than I thought.

Sarah   ·  November 12, 2010 9:16 PM


Yeah, our first son was a miracle of science after six years of trying. Our second son was a miracle too, as we didn't try, didn't do any treatment, and I found out when I was six months gone (for some reason I'd LOST weight while pregnant with the younger one.)
We're fairly sure he's a miracle too. We're waiting to find out WHOSE. So far so good -- fingers crossed.

Sarah   ·  November 12, 2010 9:18 PM

Oh, yes, Sarah - there were lots of outriders and rebels against stifling conformity, even at the height of the Victorian Age. (And Lady Wheeler was part Indian, too, which made it ... interesting.) One of my favorite 19h century Texas women was Lizzie Johnson, who was a schoolteacher, and bookkeeper ... and wrote for Frank Leslie's Weekly ... and owned land and cattle, and made trail drives to the Kansas railheads ... in competition with her husband. Whom she married when she was 39, after signing a pre-nup to protect her own holdings. I think of her as the anti-Lily Bart.

Sgt. Mom   ·  November 13, 2010 8:32 AM

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