Write Stuff – All’s Fair in Love and Fiction

All might be fair in love and war, but is it fair in fiction? Certain officials in the Philippines don’t think so, especially not when it comes to Dan Brown’s latest thriller, Inferno, which paints an unflattering picture of Manila. But does fiction have an obligation to mimic reality?

The fuss over Inferno has to do with Brown’s portrayal of Manila, the Philippine capital, as a place of corruption, poverty, filth, and a thriving sex trade. One of the book’s characters, Sienna, describes it as a city of ?six-hour traffic jams, suffocating pollution [and] horrifying sex trade.? She characterizes her experience as having ?run through the gates of hell.?

Francis Tolentino, Metro Manila’s chairman, hasn’t taken Dan Brown’s artistic licence too well. As the Guardian reports, Tolentino wrote an open letter to Brown, expressing his disappointment at the best-selling author’s ?inaccurate portrayal of our beloved metropolis.? Specifically, Tolentino objects to Brown’s use of Manila ?as a venue and source of a character’s breakdown and trauma, much more her disillusionment in humanity.?

There are actually a couple of different aspects to Tolentino’s complaint. One, an author’s fictional portrayal of a real city; and two, the fact that the author used that city as a key part of a character’s breakdown. On both counts, Tolentino has missed the mark by a mile. Or, more accurately, by about three thousand years.

Even before the first recorded legend, The Epic of Gilgamesh, poets and playwrights have been making up stories about the world. Some of those tales stick close to facts and some are pure fiction. But all of them have to take place somewhere, whether It’s the river Styx in the underworld or Mount Olympus high in the heavens.

Eventually, though, things would get pretty boring if those were the only two settings writers used. Sure, there’s always outer space and the USS Enterprise, but not every modern author wants to write science fiction. So most writers spin tales around what they know?real places right here on earth. Which means that for centuries, just about every metropolis and backwater you can think of has been used as the setting for a book.

Fair enough, but should authors be allowed to portray, say, Salt Lake City, Utah, as a den of iniquity? Of course they should. Fiction exists for many reasons. It’s a way of explaining the world, of exploring that world, of entertaining us, of making us think. For all those reasons and more, fiction blends fantasy and reality in myriad ways. Unlike journalism or memoir, fiction’s under no obligation to stick to the facts.

Just as Mario Puzo was free to set the crime and corruption of The Godfather in New York and Manhattan (among other places), so John Ball could place In the Heat of the Night, a novel about hatred and racism, in small-town Mississippi.

Even more interesting, those plots and settings could just as easily have been reversed. Good, evil, and the spectrum in between exist everywhere. Fictional characters find redemption in prisons while others hide their crimes behind the respectability of a church.

In the case of Manila and Inferno, perhaps what has Tolentino so upset is that Dan Brown comes uncomfortably close to the truth in this particular piece of fiction. In a city of close to 13 million inhabitants, almost half of them?43 per cent?live in slums. Crime, poverty, and a devastating sex trade are, indeed, rampant, and this article in the Independent Business Times has both videos and statistics on the issues.

So instead of protesting Dan Brown’s fictional tale, Mr. Tolentino might want to take a closer look at those statistics. Because the facts about his city make for some interesting reading, too.

S.D. Livingston is the author of several books, including the new suspense novel Kings of Providence. Visit her website for information on her writing (and for more musings on the literary world!).