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From Phyllida's Desk

Perception and Reality

Since my last post, (Seeing Blue) I've been thinking more and more about perception in a larger sense. By “perception,” I mean the way the act of seeing, or more precisely, reading, determines the way in which we understand a work of fiction.

“The camera doesn't lie,” we often hear, especially after being confronted with yet another candid snapshot of one's “self” looking like a star-nosed mole having a bad hair day.

But do we really look as bad, all the time, as these dreadful photographs attest? (For you photogenic people out there, please disregard the rest of this post—and P.S.: I hate you.)

My theory as to why so many basically decent-looking people can't get a snapshot that looks human or at least alive is that the camera does indeed lie. It lies by omission, just as our perception (our sight) lies by commission. That is, the camera catches us at one fraction of a second. If our personality is the least bit animated, we tend to make expressions as we talk, even as we try to hold a smile and stay still for the camera. We blink, roll our eyes, sneer, breathe, lick our lips, flare our nostrils, raise our eyebrows. Other people see this ongoing filmstrip and perceive it as an uninterrupted whole, the way those little flip-books can appear to be a stick figure walking, not just a series of stick figures drawn in slightly different positions.

The camera only records that one position: the squinting eyes, the too-wide smile exposing the gums and the bad tooth in the back, the wrinkled forehead. Our human audience sees the entirety; like all animals, our brains translate what our eyes perceive into images that make sense to us. “That's Ann telling a funny story,” my friends and coworkers say to themselves (I hope), not, “Weird. How did a broken marionette that needs a new paint job get its strings caught in the ceiling fan?” This ability to turn perceptions into stories or identities is why, even when technology can sometimes allow congenitally blind people to “see,” they really can't. “Seeing” is more than receiving images on the retina. It's a complex mental process of translation that is learned beginning at birth.

What does this have to do with reading? When we read a story, or watch a movie or TV show, we are applying this same process of translation to the words we take in or images we see. And because we are individuals, we all create different translations of the same images. Further, because we have all learned different “facts” in our lives, have different values or different ideas of right and wrong, we use different equations in our translation formulas. It's the reason no two people will produce the exact same translation of a book or poem from one language into another, even though they live in the same era and the same culture.

Works set in the past are judged by “accuracy.” I put this term in quotation marks, because it seems the height of absurdity. It's the past. How can any of us living now know what was “accurate” then? Of course we know that there were no aircraft in the Napoleonic Wars and that the ancient Greeks didn't have guns. But what about clothes, diet, language, sexual customs? Until well into the twentieth century, most historical novels and almost all movies ignored these subtler points of accuracy. And yet we all have a sense of what “feels” right. Most of us have experienced that strange disconnect of seeing medieval ladies and western pioneer women with perfect 1940s hairdos. One of my mother's favorite silly moments occurs in the 1935 film The Crusades, when Loretta Young as Berengaria tells Henry Wilcoxon as Richard the Lionhearted (on their wedding night) “You just gotta save Christianity, Richard. You just gotta.”

The problem is, we may sometimes, as Alessandra Stanley says in her review of the new HBO show Boardwalk Empire, set in the 1920s, let the facts get in the way of a good story. “Sometimes exactitude verges on pedanticism,” she writes. “Perhaps because the people who adapted the book didn’t live in those times or grow up around people who did, they lack the confidence to improvise.” The writers who created that 1930s Berengaria improvised a bit too far, at least for my mom. But sticking only to the known facts of any historical period can take us too far in the other direction, leading to the one-dimensional supporting characters Stanley complains about.

Naturally I'm going to relate these musings to my own writing. One of the notable pieces of improvisation I did for my first novel, Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander, was having a historical figure, John Church, perform same-sex marriages between four of the main characters at the country estate of the hero's soon-to-be husband. Church, a dissenting minister, was notorious for performing “molly weddings” at molly houses (the gay bars/bathhouses of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries). A number of readers objected: while it was a “fact” that Church had performed these marriages at gay clubs, there was no evidence whatever that he had done so at a gentleman's home. It was also a “fact” that these weddings were closer to bathhouse orgies than serious commitment ceremonies. In other words, my ending set piece, these two very upper class bisexual men, already married to women, now marrying their male lovers, was “inaccurate.” It was “wrong.”

This is where my translation formula differs from theirs, and also reveals what is, for me, a most profound and meaningful principle of fiction writing. Following Stanley, I call it the value of improvisation. For the historian, the ending of my novel is indeed “wrong.” Reviewers are constantly gnashing their teeth over nonfiction writers' using “he might have” and “it is possible that” and “let us imagine” in serious works of history and biography. But Phyllida is not history or anything close. It is a work of high artifice, a Regency romance and stylized comedy, accurately described by the reviewer “Steam Kitty” on Amazon as an “X-rated Georgette Heyer.” And for this, as for all fiction, I see the “facts,” even assuming we know what they are, to be the starting blocks for the race, not the finish line.

If we know that men married each other, or pretended to, in molly houses in London in 1810, how delicious to extrapolate from this fact and imagine a pair of wedding ceremonies, serious and loving, using that glorious language of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, held in the chapel of an old English country manor, between four Regency gentlemen. If we “know” that the molly-house weddings were closer to backroom orgies (and here, I respectfully submit, we can't really “know,” but can only close our eyes, lie back and think of England—or of bathhouse orgies witnessed or described), then what is so wrong, in a work of fiction, about imagining our hero, wealthy and aristocratic and accustomed to having his own way, arranging for real ceremonies in a private home?

Anyone old enough (like me) to remember the freewheeling days of the pre-AIDS gay (sub)culture of the 1970s—I don't mean reading about it or seeing the documentary Gay Sex in the 70s, excellent as it is—but really living it as I did (or as close as a woman could get), will remember that for those men, backroom orgies had a sacred element. For many of these beautiful, ultimately doomed young men, promiscuous, anonymous and dangerous sex was a religion, a celebration of the release from centuries of oppression, persecution and death. If the 1810 molly weddings were “really” orgies, so much the better for my novel. Those weddings, between my hero and his lover, and between two of his friends, would take on the same flavor of sacred and profane, of love and sex, seriousness and satire, that informed all same-sex activity when it was necessarily an outlaw culture.

If we perceive a story only in terms of facts, we are not really seeing the story. When we think back to the earliest stories, the myths and fairy tales of preliterate times, they contain almost no facts. They happen “once upon a time,” in places like “east of the sun and west of the moon.” Today, we want to know exact dates and settings, with as many facts as it takes to recreate this fictional reality. We also allow for “fantasy” fiction, in which a set of made up “facts” defines a different world, not the “real” one—but we judge the success of these stories by how well the writer creates this world: by the facts.

The best works of fiction find a balance. Most of us have heard the advice about research, that a writer should put only a tiny fraction of what she learns into the story itself. Regurgitated facts are not a story; imagination and improvisation are what enchant us, make us forget all about what's “real,” and only want to know, “What happened next?”
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