A few days ago, I was browsing Facebook when I came across a headline of a shared article. It read ‘I Inherited My Brother’s Laptop After His Suicide, What I Found On It Made Me Glad He Did It.’ A real attention-grabbing headline I’m sure you’ll agree, and though not published on a broadsheet newspaper, it seemed to me to be written in that first person long-read, style seen on websites such as The Guardian which turn a real-life story into a sort of literary fiction. I read right until the shocking, repulsive end of the article until I realised it wasn’t an article at all, but a short story.
It helped that I had never been on the website Thought Catalog, which I now understand is a short story and ideas site, but until I read the Facebook comments I still didn’t quite understand what I’d read was fiction, though I thought the sensationalism of the ending was horrendous. The comments on Facebook, along with the ones that appear underneath the story itself, are a mixed bunch, but have an overwhelming feeling that people feel cheated. People like to know where the lines between reality and fiction exist, and when it’s unclear, then people get agitated.
I understand the problem people have with the headline – it uses a shocking, sensationalist headline as a way of drawing in punters who would not normally use social media as an outlet to source new short stories. But using headlines and writing styles such as this to attract readers is by no means a new thing.
Take Orson Welles’ famous radio adaptation of The War of The Worlds by H. G. Wells, for example. Those who tuned into the broadcast mid-way through were thrown into panic as they’d missed the disclaimer at the beginning of the story, which stated that the news bulletin style was actually fiction. It created quite a media storm, but it also was the springboard for Welles’ prolific career.
It can be difficult to know where the lines between fact and fiction lie, but both newspaper and fictional writing rely on one thing – capturing the reader’s attention. There is no point in chronicling even real life events if there is no one to read them, so literary techniques are needed in every form of writing to ensure that at least the gist of any piece is communicated effectively.
And as Mark Twain once said, ‘There’s no wonder fact is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.’ Fiction has to make sense because we are consumed by a desire to order everything in this chaotic universe in which we live. But the truth is, we can’t always stack away real life stories neatly on the shelf. And that’s where fiction comes in.
You can read the short story in question, by Maggie Meyers, here.
Coming soon – Metafiction and the Blurring of Reality