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.
From 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 identities—in 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 friend—put 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.
In both cases, the hoaxes damaged the real causes of real people, and disfigured people’s real tragedies.
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.
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?
Many people seem to have fallen for the post-modern argument that all truth is relative.
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.