In Defense of Fiction

by Alafair Burke

Professor Burke goes back into the classroom this week, marking the start of my tenth school year during which I have balanced two professional lives – one as a legal academic, one as a crime fiction author.  I probably spend more time and handwringing than I should pondering how these two lives fit together.  One attempt to explain the coupling follows, in a short piece I wrote recently as a guest blogger for the wonderful Powell’s Books.  Professor Burke thought y’all might enjoy it:

I went to a Book Blogger Conference at this year’s Book Expo of America convention.  One vocal blogger (is there any other kind?) let me know that she only reads memoirs and “other non-fiction” because she is interested in “issues” and “needed books to matter.”

I let her assumption about the accuracy of memoirs slide.  As a law professor who writes not merely fiction, but genre novels to boot, I was far more concerned about making the case that fiction – even low-brow, beach-book crime fiction – can  “matter.”

For my day job, I write law review articles – hundreds of pages with still more hundreds of footnotes.  Law review articles are supposed to be meticulously researched and relentlessly thorough probes of important and novel legal issues.  They are intended to “matter.”  

It is hard to know whether an individual piece of legal scholarship has impact, but one measure is its frequency of citation by courts or other legal scholars.  To give you an idea of the numbers, Cass Sunstein, the most cited legal scholar in the country and now Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, was cited in eight judicial opinions and 927 law review articles in the past year.  Yours truly has been cited in three judicial opinions and 208 law review articles – in her entire career.

In contrast, a modest print run for a novel with a major publisher is 35,000 copies.  In short, more people read Michael Connelly than Cass Sunstein.

Of course, it’s not just the size of the audience that “matters.”  I happen to be interested in the criminal justice system, which is undeniably shaped by public perception.  And those perceptions are shaped in America not by law review articles or other works of non-fiction, but by popular culture. 

In a world where a major cable news network allows Nancy Grace to preach fear six nights a week to an audience of more than 1.3 million, entertainment may be a sane commentator’s best hope of shaping public views about our criminal justice system.

I have written law review articles about the unseen, unreviewable effects of prosecutorial discretion, but I have certainly had more impact on the popular conception of a prosecutor’s role by showing Portland Deputy District Attorney Samantha Kincaid employ – both for good and bad ends – nearly limitless charging and plea bargaining authority.

I have written about the problem of wrongful convictions, but my writing has surely shaped public opinion more through fictional (but realistic) depictions of high-pressure interrogations, flawed eyewitness identification procedures, overreliance on questionable informant testimony, and police investigations shaped by tunnel vision.

As a writer, I believe in showing, not telling.  My job is to spin a good yarn, not lecture.  But I nevertheless believe that, as a lawyer who cares about equity and accuracy in the criminal justice system, I can defend the genre in which I write.  Books can entertain and yet nevertheless educate.

I’d love to hear from you in the comments.  Have you have learned something surprising from a so-called “beach book”?  When has an entertaining book also “mattered”?



27 thoughts on “In Defense of Fiction

  1. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Alafair

    Your comments were off for some reason – just nipped in and switched em on for you.

    I think crime novels give us a wonderful opportunity to make social comment. We've just had a lot of civil unrest here in the UK, and there are so many stories in this that would come across so much better as fiction … Hmm, maybe I'll start making notes.

    And that is a great, perfectly timed picture of Nancy Grace, btw ;-]

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  2. Sarah W

    If nothing else, every book — non-fiction, fiction, high- or low-brow — is a reflection of the time in which it was written. Tone, attitude, theme, judgements, character flaws, deliberate mentions of geography and landmarks to anchor a time period in the past . . .

    Ahem, sorry.

    I'm currently reading *21 Balloons* (by William Pene du Bois) to my older daughter. I was reminded last night that this was the book that first explained rarity value to me when I was her age. The story features a fabulous diamond mine, but if its owners took a whole shipload of gems to sell in a country, diamonds would become common there and the price would plumment. "Your diamonds would be worth no more than a hold full of broken glass." The owners had to sell them slowly to preserve their value.

    Seems obvious, but to an eight-year old? The light bulb over my kid's head was a joy to see.

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  3. JD Rhoades

    "those perceptions are shaped in America not by law review articles or other works of non-fiction, but by popular culture."

    Don't I know it. I'm constantly telling clients expecting a sixty-minute resolution (with a sudden dramatic twist near the end) that "it'snot like on TV."

    Do not even get me started on Nancy Grace. She's a stone in my path, one of those people Satan put on Earth to sow doubt in my soul about my devotion to the first Amendment.

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  4. Alafair Burke

    JD and Zoe, Nancy Grace's on-air success is one of those facts that makes me realize I really just don't understand people. (And thanks Zoe for fixing the comments thing)

    Sarah, That must be wonderful to see your children figuring out life through literature.

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  5. MJ

    UGH. I'm a lawyer, I have a long list of publications, a Law Rev piece coming out whenever the school gets its act together (it has been a while….), and edit a state bar practice area journal.

    I would be very, very surprised if anyone actually read anything I've ever written, or that state bar journal (God knows as editor I can barely stand to read the submissions – guess I've been in this line of work for too long….).

    People actually DO read what interests them, and matters to them. I'd rather have a long list of novels than a long list of professional publications…..

    Forgive any excessive cynicism here, but it is Monday and I'm feeling honest (all of the hoops we jump through to look impressive on our websites and marketing materials – do any of them truly matter, etc etc etc.).

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  6. Sylvia

    Aye, aye, aye. Books that matter? I've written articles in the past on why people use online communities and social media but I'll let it apply to books as well. It all boils down to three things – to give or receive support; to give or receive information; entertainment.

    I prefer to read fiction. Often I find it does give me support – it shows me a situation or lives from a different perspective. I always get information – whether it's about a location, a technique, a disease, a… you name it. And, I'm always entertained.

    I can't say I'm always entertained with non-fiction.

    My husband on the other hand has a horrible time reading fiction "Why don't they just come out and tell me what's going on!" He doesn't understand the show aspect and letting the story unfold because he is so used to reading non-fiction.

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  7. Rob Browne

    You asked: When has an entertaining book also “mattered”?

    Every single time I've read one. Let's face it, without fiction, music, art, etc., we are nothing. And these things will always matter much more than the mundane bullshit we find elsewhere. Even the worst "beach book" is an act of generosity, someone sharing a story they felt compelled to share, and if we get even a moment's pleasure out of it, that author's sharing has, on an emotional level at least, done the world more good than a thousand legal briefs ever will.

    I don't think we have anything to defend as authors. People who dismiss ANY kind of fiction are dullards, as far as I'm concerned.

    I recently did a Q & A over at reddit.com, and one of the commenters said something along the lines of "What the hell do you think you're doing? Writing fiction is writing lies. Why do you feel the need to spread more lies in the world when you could be doing something so much more productive?"

    People who think like this are in need of an enema.

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  8. Alafair Burke

    MJ, During my second year as a law professor, one of my academic colleagues came to my office to say "kudos" (his word, not mine) for getting cited in a footnote by some muckety muck academic. Little did he know that I was just getting my early reviews for my first novel, and was far more excited about them!

    Rob, That attitude is pretty much why I wrote this blog post.

    Louise, Great minds, etc.

    Sylvia, My husband also has a hard time with fiction. He reads my books and has sampled books by good (and extremely talented) friends, but still hasn't gotten hooked. I must be doing something wrong!!

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  9. Rae

    Argh. One of the issues that most quickly gets my goat is the fiction v. non-fiction debate.

    I just read a really interesting non-fiction book about Voltaire, wherein it was abundantly clear that the author had a very specific axe to grind. I’m sure his facts were correct, and the book was obviously well-researched, but you have to wonder whether his opinions skewed the way he presented Voltaire’s life and history. Conversely, one of my all time favorite crime fiction novels, “City of Shadows” was written by a noted historian who presented an excellent and accurate portrait of pre-WWII Berlin. Which book ‘mattered’ more? I’d submit they mattered equally; and that the reader has an obligation (to himself if to no one else) to read with a critical eye regarding the presentation of ‘facts’ in any type of writing, whether it’s the New York Times or a Barbara Cartland bodice-ripper.

    Someone once said (much more gracefully than I can) regarding Walter Mosley, that his crime fiction novels were a setting for an important discussion of race relations in America. How can that not ‘matter’?

    The best fiction is not only entertainment; it provides us with the opportunity to examine our prejudices and points of view within the context of the story being told. To me, that’s every bit as important as a recitation of facts.

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  10. Eika

    Right now, I probably owe a lot of my understanding on abortion issues, stock markets, unions, collective bargaining, and drug abuse to fiction. It's really rather amazing how often these things come up in YA; well, everything but stock markets, anyway. Stock Markets were a rather specialized case, but I loved that book when I was a kid.

    -Alaina

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  11. Judy Wirzberger

    How long the list: Uncle Tom's Cabin; all writings by Samuel L. Clemens (including short stories), Dickens (ah the history), Michener, Dr. Seuss, movies and books about Viet Nam, Lescroat's San Francisco, and without apologies The Help.

    I've learned more history from novels about California than from history lessons. Not only what happened, but why it happened.

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  12. Tammy Cravit

    It seems to me that genre fiction plays two important cultural roles: It provides a way for authors and readers to explore serious cultural issues in a more low-key way than a Serious Public Debate might do, and it provides a chance to escape from reality into an alternate universe where the good guys CAN win, good DOES triumph over evil, and so forth. I happen to think those are both hugely important.

    As a matter of fact, I worked on an appellate brief a while back (I'm a paralegal, among other things) in an absolutely horrendous child abuse case. (I'm far from a squeamish person, but the police/hospital photos in that case still haunt my nightmares.) During those weeks of work, when we were all questioning whether the arguments we were making would be successful, my refuge was in Alafair's "Judgment Calls", and something by Linda Fairstein. That ability to dip into a world where justice would prevail (and where a court wouldn't contemplate giving a little boy back to the father who'd very nearly burned him to death) was my touchstone.

    What's to say that's *not* a seriously important function of genre fiction?

    I also happen to think that a whole lot of lawyers would write much better if they read more fiction, but that's a whole different diatribe. *grin*

    (For the curious, in the case I mentioned, my supervising attorney represented the child, and we won handily…the Court of Appeal also quoted in its opinion from the brief that I wrote 95% of, which was an amazing feeling.)

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  13. Jenni

    Tammy – I so relate. I'm a paralegal too, and love it when my work helps win a case or bring about a great resolution.

    Alafair, one of the reasons I enjoy fiction is the escapism factor, but I also love non-fiction. I've learned so much from both. I believe there are important lessons from each genre, and I agree with Tammy that fiction sometimes presents an issue in a way that is more acceptable and discussable than a fact-laden piece might.

    Going back to my childhood, I learned from Mark Twain about America, from Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, about the French Revolution, from Agatha Christie about the lessons of human nature. Growing up overseas, I depended a lot on books to teach me about my "home" country. It's kind of funny how often some of those impressions were so badly wrong, and others hit the nail on the head. As a young child I read a lot of Nancy Drew mysteries, and had an impression that all Americans are naturally open-minded and inquisitive – sadly, this is not the case! 🙂

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  14. David Corbett

    If you want to tell the truth, write fiction.

    That's the heartfelt conviction of everyone I know who's turned from the court system — lawyer, judge, cop, PI — to writing. The Whole Truth hasn't seen the inside of a courtroom since Cain gave his brother that little love tap (I worked for the defense on that case, by the way).

    True Crime isn't the solution either. I worked on the Cotton Club murder case and the "true crime" book written about it was so hopelessly skewed to make the sociopathic snitch look credible that I threw it against a wall.

    One of the rules we had at the PI firm where I worked was: Inside the Courtroom, the Rules of Gravity No Longer Apply.

    Fiction provides a chance to tell the whole truth and reassert the rules of gravity.

    And I second Zoë's comment on the apt timing of Nancy Grace's revealing pic.

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  15. Kay

    Great post, Alafair.
    TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD
    THE HANDMAID'S TALE
    THE HELP (really)

    Dickens, Twain, Asimov, Austen, Tony Hillerman, Rex Stout, Karen Rose, Lois McMaster Bujold, Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Carl Hiassen, P. D. James, Harlan Ellison, the 'rati (past and present) and many more than I can name, have influenced how I see the world.

    Fiction matters. It holds up a mirror, shines a light in dark places, and introduces me to people and places I would not experience in nonfiction.

    I read a boat-load of nonfiction, too. It's NOT the same. Think of Gulliver's Travels, Animal Farm, F 451, 1984, and so on…… fiction matters.

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  16. Sarah

    This post reminds me of an incident I witnessed a few years ago. I worked at Borders during college and somehow got roped into manning the children's department. Two mothers came in and asked me where the nonfiction children's books were located, and I directed them to the meager section of history and science books. Later, I checked in on the women, and they complained that they couldn't find any books they thought their second graders would enjoy. I started to direct them to the picture and chapter books, and they were quick to let me know that the teachers at that school did not allow fiction in the classroom because children should "only be subjected to real life, not lies and silly stories." There have been very few times in my life that I've been more disgusted with society than I was at that moment.

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  17. Gar Haywood

    Alafair:

    Great post. And Rob said it best — how can any book be truly entertaining and NOT teach us something?

    IN COLD BLOOD was both an incredibly entertaining read and an education on how to write.

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  18. Alafair Burke

    Thank you all for the wonderful comments. I'm sorry I haven't responded to each one individually. My day fell away from me thanks to a vet appointment and a bunch of other real world stuff that "matters" (Grin.)

    Jenni mentions fiction as escapism. I certainly do read books that are pure fluff once in a while, but most of the fiction I enjoy, including genre fiction, does offer something more. You've all listed some wonderful examples here.

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  19. Jenni

    Oh, I agree. To me, escaping into fiction means entering the specific world created by the author and imagining every bit of it as if I were there on the page. That works much better when there is real substance to the work rather than when it's just fluff. I can't read a lot of Harlequin romances, for example, because I just can't put myself in that special world. I am reading Jonathan's "Precious Blood" at the moment, and oh wow, that is a world he's created. I alternate between being frightened out of my wits and not wanting to put the book down because I want to know what happens next. That is escapism to me – I would much rather be reading that story than writing a settlement demand! 🙂

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  20. Jenni

    Also, Alafair, I meant to mention, one of the things I enjoyed about your novel Long Gone, was the special places you took us – not just the gallery, but the restaurants, apartments, and country places. I also loved the realistic details you added that made the novel memorable – the cop who was concerned enough about his own "eyewitness" identification that he went the extra mile to be sure. Those sorts of details rang true, drew me into the world you created, and kept me there. Wonderful.

    These are the types of details we learn from and that infuse meaning far beyond the moment of reading the novel.

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  21. Fran

    I learned a lot about the Cathar Crusades from Kate Mosse in LABYRINTH, and I'm currently learning a lot about the Inuits on Ellesmere Island from M. J. McGrath. Anyone who's ever read a mystery novel has learned something; mystery authors have to be well-researched since your readers are trained to be persnickety about mistakes! And I'm wiser and richer for it, so thank you!

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  22. MJ

    Reading the comments made me remember that most of what I really, truly understand about Detroit, I learned from Loren Estleman's standalone Detroit novels. The Edsel, the Battle of the Overpass, race relations, etc. Beats a textbook every day.

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  23. Reader Deb

    I read what I call "commercial" fiction proudly and never stop learning from any of it. I never fail to be amazed at the amount of research which goes into writing fiction. When I come up with out-of-the-way answers, I always credit the fiction author who educated me. In fact, just recently, I was explaining the law of physics as it applies to taking curves in the road — which I learned from a novel! You work hard, and I am proud to support your hard work.

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