Constructing Reality

Benjamin Rosenbaum writes directly about the Amina Arraf hoax. Chally Kacelnik writes more indirectly about James Tiptree Jr. The comparison is instructive.

I’m a little surprised that I haven’t seen more fabulists writing about “Amina”. From a political standpoint, I certainly understand not wanting to give Tom MacMaster more airtime. From the standpoint of being part of a community of professional consensual hoaxsters, however, I think it’s an interesting case study in both the creating of an alternate reality and the consequences of duping your readers without their consent.

Sometimes when I’m reading anthologies, I get a few pages into each story and then I ask myself why I care about the characters and what they’re doing and what happens to them. The answer, almost always, is that I care because I go in wanting to care. I start out credulous. I’d rather go into every story wanting and hoping to buy in than skeptically hanging back and waiting to see whether it convinces me of its worth. Wanting to believe is, I think, a necessary quality in a spec fic reader. It is less desirable when one is reading political blogs, but probably not less common. We are raised from the cradle to believe what we read, to trust that writers are telling us the truth. More than that, we want to care. MacMaster made it very easy for us to care as he carefully invented a world that was just dangerous enough–but not too dangerous–for his plucky heroine.

Credulity only failed when her pluck and luck ran out. Perhaps, as lifelong readers, somewhere deep inside we understood where that story arc was leading; every sympathy-thief I’ve ever seen has been unmasked not when their readers stopped caring but when their readers cared too much. And après ça, le déluge of outrage and pain. We were told to believe, and we believed, and then it turned out we were believing lies! Where does that leave us? What is real, anymore? How can we know or trust anything at all?

I will go out on a limb and say that fans of a certain variety of speculative fiction–slipstream, interstitial fiction, magical realism, and the like–are perhaps better equipped than most to weather these moments when everything abruptly turns 90 degrees from what we thought was true. We have often visited these places where reality is uncertain (or is it? sometimes even the uncertainty is uncertain) and we’ve found ways to be comfortable there. We have exercised the readerly muscles that let us simultaneously accept and doubt what the author is telling us. Does that mean we’re less likely to be taken in by skilled hoaxsters? Probably not. But in the aftermath, we are in a peculiar way on familiar ground. We’re used to rugs being pulled out from under us. Where others are easily bruised, we have calluses. It still hurts, but we know this pain and we know it ebbs, and we know that eventually we can move on to the next story and the next potentially unreliable narrator.

There is a choice here, of course. I choose to be credulous. I choose to set aside my cynicism and sarcasm (when I can). I understand that this means coping with disappointment and betrayal from time to time. Others may make different choices. I mostly wanted to note that for those who continue along the path of frequent belief and occasional pain, reading fiction that centers on uncertainty can help to bolster us against those days when we are so rudely, shockingly reminded of how uncertain reality is, and how much we risk for the joy and privilege of believing what we read.

(A tip of the hat to Aishwarya S. for the link to Chally’s piece, which in turn led to Ben’s piece.)

5 thoughts on “Constructing Reality

  1. Liz

    I love your description of fiction writers as professional consensual hoaxsters!

    I’ve also been thinking about how “we want to believe”. Maybe part of it is that passionate readers have the imagination necessary to fill in possible backstories. And spec fic culture has so much support around shifting those backstories and frames of reference, the gaps in the text. The moment of doubt is familiar – and then of welcoming that dislocation rather than turning away. So I’ve also been feeling around the edges of your conclusion — we might be hoax-magnets but we are also excellent hoax-debunkers.

    That could be, though, partly that that’s what I see because that’s what I know, and somewhere an online community of people who talk about collecting dolls or have persistent toenail fungus problems is having this same conversation about why it makes sense that they have mad skills.

    But I think there’s something to the spec fic theory!

  2. Mark Pritchard

    If I understand correctly, you’re saying that readers of sci-fi and other genre fiction are no more or less likely to be taken in by a Nigerian 409 scheme, but when we are, we are like to be less upset by it. It might even be fun for us! Jolly good, Nigerian scammer! You got me that time!

    1. Rose Fox Post author

      I think anyone who can read has an excellent chance of not being taken in by a 409 scam. A dedicated five-year-long hoax is something else entirely.

  3. Paul Riddell

    I could bring up the number of people who still want to argue about whether or not the original Abdul Alhazred Necronomicon exists, but I have a perfect example of “caring too much”. Many moons back, my wife and I had a mutual friend who tended to go a bit overboard when she discovered she’d been duped by fiction. Specifically, she’d picked up a new hardcover copy of William Goldman’s The Princess Bride, and told us that it was a placeholder until she could get a copy of the original S. Morganstern edition. When I asked her “You do know that it doesn’t exist, right?”, she blew up on me. Of course it existed. Goldman only put out the expurgated version, and when she bought her copy of the original, she was going to show us.

    Thankfully, at this point, Google existed, and a quick search found multiple sites that confirmed that “S. Morganstern” was nothing but a literary invention. Our friend’s response to this was to throw the book at me, yelling “Keep it! I don’t want it any more!” and storming out of my apartment. If I remember correctly, she didn’t talk to me for nearly six months. Even better, she was sufficiently unhinged by this discovery that she was talking about suing the publisher for letting readers believe “complete lies!”

    Now, in retrospect, I feel that the publisher and I got off easy. I can only imagine her response after reading Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream.

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