Edouard Manet's painting A Bar at the Folies-Bergere has been successfully casting an eerie effect on its viewers since the time it was painted in 1882. It's not an image of a graveyard or a haunted mansion, it's merely a scene at a bar, yet you can feel something is spooky. That's because some things are not right of which I'll mention two.
There is a mirror behind the bartender which is parallel to the plane of the painting as is evidenced by the reflections of the bottles on the marble bar top. Therefore the reflection of the lady must fall directly behind her and should be hardly visible. Yet Manet has drawn it towards the right.
In the top-right corner is the face of a man who's looking at her. Since this man is standing directly before her it ought to be the reflection of you, the viewer! Again this is misplaced to make you feel that something is "off" with the painting.
A Bar at the Folies-Bergere is not a realistic work of art--it distorts reality to cast a desired impression in the audience.
Now if I compare his painting to a novel, both works of art, it leads me to the question posed in the headline. Just as Manet ignored realism while creating his painting, is it okay to forsake on factual accuracy while writing fiction?
Fiction is composed of two parts.
One part is inhabited by the characters, plot, story, dialogues, etc. This is fictional.
The other part is about the atmosphere in which the events unfold. This is about the setting, the history and geography of the place, scientific details (think of The Invisible Man), cultural details of that area, etc. This part is real.
So to rephrase my question: Should the real part remain real in fiction?
Broadly speaking there are two schools of thought here.
One believes that it's not okay to distort facts under the excuse of creative license. Using false information in a novel is akin to lying and will hamper your chances of becoming a bestselling writer.
The second one says it's alright to take some liberties. Fiction writers are not university professors. Their job is not to educate. Therefore some departures from reality are okay if they help you write a better story.
(Note this school is not free from debates as to how much liberties one can take? But I won't discuss that here.)
I side with the first camp and below I describe why.
All such discussions basically boil down to one phrase--the suspension of disbelief. This is the idea that the audience must suspend their disbelief or in other words they must accept and believe temporarily in a work of fiction despite knowing that it's not true.
When a writer makes factual errors, this illusion is shattered.
Or is it?
Some writers believe as long as your fiction is good enough, as long as you've gotten your major details right such that the audience is finding it enjoyable, there is no need to fuss over minor details.
And there are some things that should be left deliberately inaccurate.
If someone is writing historical fiction and she's trying to retain all exactness of a medieval period then her dialogues won't be understandable as those words are obsolete now.
Or if a novel is set in a region where people don't even speak the language she's writing in, she'll have to disregard that and write the dialogue in her chosen language.
So you have to take some liberties. But these "mistakes" are done on purpose. What about the inaccuracies that can be avoided? Should they be avoided?
Perhaps the most powerful argument given here is that of Shakespeare. Even Shakespearean historical plays are not historically accurate.
After all, they say, the purpose of fiction is merely entertainment.
But who decides the purpose of fiction? No one is in charge here. Different fiction writers have had different views on it.
"I have taken every possible opportunity of showing the want of sanitary improvements in the neglected dwellings of the poor." (Charles Dickens.)
"Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity." (George Orwell.)
"[T]o divert and entertain, and at the same time to instruct and improve the minds of the youth... to inculcate religion and morality in so easy and agreeable a manner as shall render them equally delightful and profitable." (Samuel Richardson.)
"The historian tells us what happened, the novelist tells us how it felt like while it was happening." (Hillary Mantel.)
"There is no greater representation of reality than a great novel." (Yann Martel.)
Even if a writer is writing only to provide comfort and relief to his readers, I think his work still should be factually accurate. Facts are the scaffolding on which the lies of fiction rest.
There will be a lot of readers who won't know about the nitty-gritty of the details mentioned in the book, no doubt, and it's easy to cheat them off. But that's intellectual dishonesty.
Fiction writers are writers nevertheless. And as writers we all have a responsibility towards our readers.
Books are all about knowledge and wisdom. They are gateways to new worlds. They allow you to travel through places you may never visit, read about experiences you may never have, and know about people whom you may never meet. By distorting facts you are spreading misinformation and are violating the sanctity of books.
Additionally, you will be giving one strong reason to book critics and angry readers to write a damaging review of your novel thus negatively affecting your sales. At least that should matter.
Yes Shakespeare did it. But as Hillary Mantel said, "Many sins are committed with the excuse that Shakespeare did them--but you are not Shakespeare!"
Get your facts right.