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Remembering The Vendee, by Sophie Masson
In early 1794 Robespierre’s Convention decided to exterminate the Vendéens to the last man, woman and child. If the French Revolution was the first modern ideology, were the Vendée massacres the archetype of modern genocides?

Sophie Masson
The author's website, with information about her life, her books, and essays on various topics.

Bestseller on honour killing 'is a fake'
“Since its publication in 2002, Forbidden Love has sold more than 250,000 copies worldwide, and its harrowing descriptions of Khouri's spirited friend Dalia, killed by her father after a chaste affair with an army officer, have moved festival audiences to tears.” [Guardian]

Fake abuse photos: Editor quits
“The Daily Mirror says its editor Piers Morgan has resigned over the publication of 'fake' pictures of British soldiers abusing Iraqi detainees. The tabloid newspaper issued a statement on Friday afternoon apologizing for printing the pictures, saying it believed it had been ‘the subject of a calculated and malicious hoax.’" [CNN]

John Paul II and the Art of the Sacred, by  Sophie Masson
Many people were critical of John Paul II because they regarded him as too conservative. But very many others were equally critical because he was too liberal. This is the story of one such family, and why one member of it changed her mind...

Online Catholics
A weekly independent news e-magazine led by a lay team about contemporary Catholic life in Australia and the world.

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True Lies and the Quest for 'Authenticity'

Are an author's emotional or deeply-held beliefs enough to make a work ‘authentic?’ That’s the disturbing reasoning behind two recent journalistic hoaxes.

Sophie Masson

This is an age obsessed with 'authenticity'. Perhaps it's natural, in a time when there's such an overload of information available, and conversely, a tendency for more and more 'spin' to be applied to that very information, that 'authenticity' should become a kind of Holy Grail, pursued with one-eyed zeal. After all, the most 'authentic' story—the one that feels the most real—commands the most attention.

Trouble is, many people seem to have lost the ability, or at least the inclination, to separate fact from fiction; and many others seem to have fallen into the post-modern contention that all truth is relative. To some, an 'emotional' truth is enough to make something real, or a political truth, or an imaginative one—whatever you like. The writer's deeply-held beliefs are considered enough to make a work 'authentic', even if that work has been presented as factual, and therefore away from the normal terrain of 'emotional truth,' fiction itself, imaginative story.

These reflections were prompted by the revelation of two recent hoaxes—the faked 'prison abuse' photographs of British soldiers torturing Iraqis, as published in the UK Daily Mirror; and the bestselling fake 'memoir', Forbidden Love, by Norma Khouri, published in 15 countries as a true account of an 'honour' killing of a Jordanian woman by her own father when she is caught in an illicit affair.

In both cases, the success of the hoax depended on a real context: real abuse in Abu Ghraib prison, by US soldiers; and real honour killings in Jordan and other places, as evidenced by Amnesty International and other human rights organizations. But in both cases, the hoaxers were able to get away with their fakes because their target audience really wanted to believe in the authenticity of their work.

In both cases, the hoaxes damaged the real causes of real people, and disfigured people’s real tragedies.
m publishers to readers, people were reacting from a deeply-held conviction that these things had actually happened as they were depicted, and that therefore no rigorous checks were needed on the facts in each case. Less care was taken, in fact, than in the face of a novel or other work of the imagination. The hoaxers' supposed identitiesin the fake prison abuse photos, their 'status' as whistleblowing British soldiers, in the case of Forbidden Love, the author's pose as the murdered woman's best friendput to rest, for those who really wanted to believe their stories, any qualms they might have had. And yet, when investigators began to check on the facts, the hoax quickly—you could say even shamefully quickly—became unravelled.

The reaction of the former editor of the Daily Mirror, Piers Morgan, to the incontrovertible fact that he'd bought, and championed at length in his newspaper, vicious fakes, created by greedy opportunists to cash in on the indignation around Abu Ghraib, was most illuminating. He said that it did not really matter, as the photographs illustrated things he was sure were really going on in prisons controlled by the British army in Iraq! See, as long as it illustrated an 'emotional truth', it was fine to use techniques of which Goebbels would have been proud.

Similarly, some defenders of Forbidden Love have claimed that it did not really matter that the author's purported story, and the details of her life, did not at all conform to the teary and passionate picture she depicted, both in her book and in interviews. It didn't matter because it, too, illustrated what was really going on in Jordan—never mind the fact that the top Jordanian women's rights group, who campaigns against real honour killings, said it had set back their cause for years.

And there's the rub. In both cases, the acclaimed 'authenticity' of the photographs and the book justified their release, on the grounds that this was real stuff, and you couldn't hide it. In both cases, the hoaxes damaged the real causes of real people, and disfigured people's real tragedies.

Many people seem to have fallen for the post-modern argument that all truth is relative.
Ultimately, of course, it's the hoaxers who are responsible for creating their falsehoods, carefully created to appeal to the prejudices and preconceptions of their target audience. But the audience itself doesn't escape responsibility—not for its gullibility, for our society mostly functions on trust, and why shouldn't it?—but for the fact that all too many people, in the face of what should be shocking revelations, show such bad faith. You can't both campaign for something on the grounds that it's unanswerably authentic, then turn around and say that anyway, it doesn't matter, imaginatively, emotionally, it rings true, and what are you worried about?

For me, as a novelist as well as a reader, there is a great deal to worry about. You cannot claim something to be sheer, unadulterated non-fiction, and then when it's proven to be lies—much more lies than any fiction, including fantasy, could ever be—breezily sidestep the troubling questions by dismissing the very nature of factual authenticity itself.

August 2, 2004

SOPHIE MASSON is a novelist, short-story writer and essayist. She writes from Australia.

Copyright 2004. All rights reserved.

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08.03.04   spy1 says:
This reminds me of the whole debate over the so-called literary genre of "creative non-fiction." Or in non-Orwellian parlance, lies!

08.03.04   Godspy says:
Are an author's emotional or deeply-held beliefs enough to make a work ‘authentic?’ That’s the disturbing reasoning behind two recent journalistic hoaxes.

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