Friday, August 19, 2005

The Da Vinci Code: Using Fact in Fiction

How should fiction deal with history and fact?

There are plenty of places to find out about the discrepancies in Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, but one of the questions that should be posed concerns the genre of writing and the subsequent standards for the handling of history and fact.

Novels are fiction. No matter how true to life and to history a book may appear the fact that it is fiction makes it a work of literary art. When Tom Clancy writes a book on the topic of submarines he is held to a different standard than when he writes a fictional novel about a submarine. Clancy does not write Alice-in-Wonderland-type books. While fantastic, the characters in his books are supposed to be real people and the events are supposed to be feasible.

The problem that is encountered concerns the right of the author to use both historical fact and to create history that accords with the story. In Dan Brown's case, he masterfully intertwines the two. His characters Langdon and Teabing are supposedly scholars, and so their views and teachings in the book are treated as academic fact.

Personally, it seems ethically acceptable in making up a fictional story to altar the facts so long as one is not slandering a real person – but there would be many obvious gray areas in between when it comes to the possibility of offending persons or groups. The danger is only truly present when a novel is written in a genre and style that conveys that the events taking place are true to life, realistic fiction.

For Dan Brown, the popularity of The Da Vinci Code brought the issues to the forefront as Americans have made the book a bestseller for a record-setting length of time. Many Christians have read the book and find it interesting. Many Christians have also read the book and failed to distinguish fact from fiction, and therein lies the problem. Much hype has surrounded Brown's use of theories and fictional historical ideas to embellish the novel. He is certainly not the first fiction (nor non-fiction) writer to take factual events and distort them to fit his story. He will not be the last.

Making up facts for the NY Times is wrong. However, making up facts for a work of fiction seems to fit well with the definition of fiction. As much as I (and history) strongly disagree with the presentations made by Langdon and Teabing in the novel and with Brown to the extent that his characters represent his own views, I do not fault him for writing in this style. In fact, for a man whose worldview appears to be significantly different from a biblical worldview, this novel is precisely what I would expect.

1 comment:

Jared Bridges said...

I still haven't read The DaVinci Code yet, but I've heard that there is some sort of preface to the book claiming that all its research is truthful -- or something of the sort.

If this is so, it would be a blatant attempt to boost the veracity of ficticious claims, which seems to me beyond the acceptable bounds of fiction writing. It's like saying, "All this is make-believe, but not really. Wink, wink."

I wonder if The DaVinci Code isn't like a modern Uncle Tom's Cabin. Though Stowe's novel was completely fiction, it was taken at the time as the way things were. Uncle Tom's Cabin had a positive effect in helping to abolish slavery. What effect The DaVinci Code will have on the public consciousness of Christianity remains to be seen.