I really liked this post from Isaac Butler about what he’s calling “the Realism Canard,” a form of commentary that points out what pieces of art get right or wrong about the real-world processes, institutions, or cultures they’re examining, and treats that analysis as if it’s an end in and of itself. I do think there can be something to be said for fact-checking culture that presents itself as factually accurate and uses that claim of accuracy to convince audiences that they should give the show, movie, or novel, greater credit for dramatic power and greater credence to its ideas as a result. But I think Isaac nails it here:
Are there exceptions to this? Obviously. There are works where the idea that what you are watching is a fictional representation of things fairly close to our own world is part of the works’ value, whether it be “based on a true story” films like Zero Dark Thirty and The Fifth Estate or social issue (and agit prop) works like Won’t Back Down. And there are ways of discussing the differences between art and life that illuminate rather than reduce. That ask the question “what does it mean that they changed this thing about our world?” rather than assuming some kind of cheating or bad faith. Or ways that treat these differences not as a form of criticism, but rather a form of interesting trivia. Or, in the case of Mythbusters, edutainment.
There is also the issue of representational politics, particularly in light of what we know of narrative’s deep intertwining with the processes of stereotype formation in the brain. But I do not think it’s inconsistent to argue for diverse representations of the underrepresented– and more characters that are fully rounded– and the imaginative power of art.
The whole point of fiction is to take a step beyond the conventions and restrictions of reality. But those creative choices matter. What is it that we want to change about the world that we live in? What do we want to dream into existence? What are we most afraid of? What kind of people do we wish had more power, or had their power taken away? What do we want to be true of the people who have power now?
Given the power of mass-market fiction, I think it’s reasonable to note if a show, or a movie, or a book presents something as a fact that is untrue, and that its creators must know to be untrue. But the motivation for those sorts of untruths–as with the motivation for all the untruths that make up fiction–is often actually more revealing than the substance of the deception itself. Leaping the span between the world we live in and the one we badly want to occupy is the work of great fiction. And what makes discussing that fiction exciting and revealing isn’t just measuring the gap between those realms, but looking at all the planets, and meteors, and thinning and thickening atmospheres in between.