A while back, I read the book The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin, a fictional piece telling the story of Lindberg family told through the eyes of Anne Lindberg, Charles’ wife. Benjamin came to Little Falls to speak around the time my book club selected Benjamin’s book so I went to hear her. I have to say, she wasn’t all that well received. Members of the audience questioned her depictions with a bit more scrutiny than she might have gotten elsewhere on her book tour. This is Lindberg territory and residents of Little Falls have a better sense of the story of the aviator than most folks would. What I remember most about Benjamin’s presentation is that when something in her book was questioned as historically inaccurate, her defense was, “This is fiction.” She’d done plenty of research, she said, but had never consulted any of the Lindberg family members to get their point of view nor had she ever visited any of the Lindberg historic sights. I guess fiction writers don’t have to do those things.
The book and Ms. Benjamin come to mind this morning as I pondered this concept of fake news. I have a friend who read the book and told me how awful it was that Charles Lindberg had wives and children in other countries. As far a she was concerned, this fact so shadowed his credibility that anything else that he was or might have accomplished in his life was negated. I told her that Charles’ daughter wrote about her life growing up in the Lindberg household and gives a whole different perspective on Charles. “But she is his daughter. Of course she would be biased,” my friend said.
The fact is, my friend read The Aviator’s Wife as though it were a factual presentation. If Benjamin had been in on our conversation, I suppose she would have told her that the book is fiction and she aught not believe it as fact. But Benjamin was not present and my friend didn’t take my word for it. Benjamin, I suppose, might consider the readers who read her book as true to be just plain naive and let it go at that. But I think an author should take some responsibility just like those who write fake news should do.
Perhaps we need more genre categories. “Fake News” could be one of these. Why not? It is not a petty game when people believe a piece of news that is absolutely untrue and then make decisions in their lives as though it were fact. It has already been suggested that fake news may have influenced how people voted in the presidential election, but what about other ways people are impacted. Fear, for example. This is huge because fear can lead people to withdraw, to spread the fake news and stir up violence, to take up arms, or to turn to alcohol and drugs. This is not the responsibility of those who throw out those fake stories, you say? Not in my book! I believe we are each responsible for everything we say and do including the outcomes. When there are unexpected harmful effects to anything we do or say, it is our job to try to make these right if possible and to change our behavior. I am a writer myself and I am always trying to refine how I present my ideas in the most truthful and respectful manner I can. If I want to be satirical or if I am presenting fictional information, I want that to be clear to my readers that this is what I am doing.