Integrity and fiction on the Web

I had thoughts that I thought best not shared, but then I read Frank McPherson’s excellent take on the hoax, so maybe I have something more to share after all. I’d really rather let the topic die, but since it appears there are still things for us to learn, let’s learn. Take consolation in that we can learn without me ever saying that name that begins with “K.” OK?
Here’s Frank:

For most of the last three or four months Dave Winer has been promoting the idea of amateur journalism. His point being that today’s mainstream media cannot be trusted, and does nothing but lie. Dave feels he can’t trust writers of BigPubs because they could be bought out by some person or company. He questions their integrity.

I’m trained as a professional journalist. I’ve seen the corruption from the inside. But I also know the source of the corruption, and that individuals inside can rise above it. I have classmates and former colleagues all over the place. CNet’s Troy Wolverton was in my New Media class. MSNBC’s Bob Sullivan taught my Editing class. The Associated Press’ David A. Lieb was my first editor in college. The AP’s Justin Hyde entrusted a newspaper column to me at the tender age of 19. My mentor as a columnist was Andrew Blasko, now a writer/pr contact/editor (strange combination) at The Heritage Foundation. USA Today’s Elizabeth McKinley was in my Editorial Writing class.

Those are just the people whose bylines I’ve seen recently, or who I remember for one reason or another.

I trust these people. I don’t always agree with them. I trust their ability to get the facts straight, partly because some of them were among the people who helped me learn to get the facts straight, and all of them learned to get the facts straight from the same people I did. Plus I spent a lot of time with them. I know they have integrity because I saw it. Not only do I trust them to get the story straight, but I wouldn’t think twice about tossing my car keys to any of them.

I also believe in amateur journalism. As far as I’m concerned, Mike Royko was the greatest journalist of all time. You know how Royko learned journalism? He went to the Chicago Public Library, grabbed every book on journalism and newswriting he could find, and spent a weekend reading them. He learned the principles and ethics of journalism, combined that with a God-given knack for writing that he may or may not have realized he had, and became a legend.

The key word Frank McPherson brought up is integrity. The individuals I mentioned have integrity. The National Enquirer lacks integrity. NBC’s Dateline lacks integrity. Debbie Swenson lacks integrity. Corporations are inherently no more and no less capable of integrity than individuals.

But corporations may have a slight edge in ability to maintain their integrity, because of accountability. Corporations, being made up of individuals, have a certain amount of accountability built in. Individuals can get accountability or they can reject it. I know if I say something that makes people wonder if I’ve been smoking crack, Dan Bowman or Dustin Cook or Pete Moore or a host of others will call me on it. They’ll chime in with their twenty bucks’ worth (that’s the price most people put on my words, and theirs should be worth what mine are), the truth will come out, and we’ll all be the better for it.

And that doesn’t just apply to my writing. When I teach a Bible study, there are usually two masters’ students among the audience. Those guys are slumming. While there are many preachers who have less formal training than I have, Matt and John know far more than I do. I have no idea what they can learn from me. But I appreciate them being there, because if I’m wrong, I know they’ll speak up, and they know I expect them to.

Integrity and accountability aren’t so much something you get so much as they are something you live. And yes, you should look for them, and if someone appears to lack them, then no, you shouldn’t trust them, not even for the sports scores. Don’t give them the eyeballs the advertisers look for.

Now, Frank brought up Bo Leuf, who brought up the question of fiction. Bo observed that when fiction writing first appears in a new medium, it looks like fact, and outrages people. And some people still can’t tell the difference years later. Having lived next door to people who truly believed the X Files were real, I know this firsthand.

Personally, I love the idea of a fictional weblog. We’ve been trying for years to figure out ways to exploit the unique capabilities of the Internet, and the weblog lets us do that.

The idea hit me as I read the end of this Oklahoman article. “I think [Swenson] wanted to tell a story. But she should have written a book or something.” Those were the words of Julie Fullbright, the local hero who unknowingly gave her face to the fictional character whose name I promised not to mention. That’s the kind of quotable quote a journalist lives for. I read those words just before I left work for the day, and I’ve been thinking about them all night.

I thought she was right then, and I think she’s still right now.

Now, having written a book, and having fallen victim to a publisher’s whims, I know what it’s like to try to write a book. I know what it’s like to try to get someone to publish it. And I know what it’s like to try to get someone to buy it. The difficulty increases with each step of that wretched process.

So, I’m sitting here with a novel about half-written, and no desire to have anything to do with a publisher until I’ve managed to acquire some clout. Now I don’t know for sure what having clout feels like, but I’m pretty sure I’ll know it when I feel it. But I can set up another weblog. I’m comfortable with that. I can give it the following subhead: “A work of fiction by David L. Farquhar.” The novel occurs in the past. That makes life easy. I just put it on its own server, with the clock set back. When today’s entry is dated 1992 or whenever, that makes it look a whole lot more like fiction.

Besides, Murel, my cubicle neighbor, has been telling me for months that I’d end up writing my novel in pieces here and one day I’d just have to tie it all together. I think he was on to something.

I won’t make any money, but that’s OK. I didn’t make any money off the one and a half books I wrote either. At least this time I won’t go in there with that expectation. If something happens that makes it profitable down the road, fine. End aside.

The character can be no more compelling than the author. That was the problem I ran into when I initially wrote the novel. I was trying to write about a 19-year-old, but I wasn’t finished being 19 myself yet. I’m not certain that at 26 I have enough perspective. But I have more than I did then.

And yes, sometimes life is better than fiction. But fiction intertwined with life kicks royal booty. The best thing about The Great Gatsby is that Jay Gatsby’s fears and insecurities were F. Scott Fitzgerald’s fears and insecurities. Jay Gatsby made his money by running drugstores that sold other stuff out the back room. F. Scott Fitzgerald made his money peddling words. But Jay Gatsby was all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s worst fears wrapped into a character. He was vulnerable and honest. Vulnerable and honest people are compelling. Heck, vulnerable and dishonest people can be compelling.

So do I launch another weblog? I’m severely tempted. This isn’t the time to do it. I need to get my server in order and start getting content migrated to this site from its predecessors and make sure everything’s working smoothly. That’ll take a while yet.

But I know the formula. I have the plot, and the plot’s captivated everyone I’ve tossed it out to. I have some characters, and they’re far more compelling than the characters in the 1994-95 draft because I’ve spent the past seven years getting to know them. A few pieces still have to come together. But I think I really want to try this experiment.

More Like This: “/cgi-bin/search.cgi?terms=weblogs&case=insensitive&boolean=and”>Weblogs Fiction Personal

3 thoughts on “Integrity and fiction on the Web

  • May 25, 2001 at 8:27 am
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    Sounds like a serial. Some pretty good authors did serials. Arthur Conan Doyle comes to mind. I don’t see any reason not to give it a try. I think it would be a fascinating read.

    The whole Kaycee thing suckered me in too. I’m not ashamed of it. Good writing should do that. At the least, its the best drama I’ve read in a few years.

  • May 25, 2001 at 9:58 am
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    So is this weblog real or fiction? I thought it was the daily adventures of a single, young, religious, baseball fan, and computer professional journalist.
    Maybe it’s not fiction, but it’s still interesting. Just think how much more interesting it would be when you actually control the events and interactions cutting out any of the boring stuff. Just don’t be like Stephen King and charge a subscription to see how it ends (or whatever he did). Perhaps you can provide a teaser chapter like many of the popular fiction writers provide at the end of their books for the next installment. You may get the interest of some publishers, although I can’t imagine any of them surfing the net.
    BTW, I heard that the National Enquirer has a new editor-in-chief this last year or so and is trying to become a reputable source. I guess you have to get the Globe for pictures of alien monkey-headed babies and clouds that look like Elvis.

  • May 25, 2001 at 11:30 am
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    This site is real and will remain so. If and when I do fiction, you’ll know it’s fiction.

    I suspect profitability would come from side projects, if ever. If a character’s site becomes popular, I can see being able to go to a publisher and say, "Hey, I’ve got x number of daily readers and this thing’s really catching fire." I don’t expect a publisher to find me. Things like that happen, but they shouldn’t be counted on.

    Now the question is, where to begin. I wouldn’t be able to start tomorrow even if I wanted to.

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