In his infamous Harper's manifesto, Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast, Tom Wolfe recalls an incident that occurred while he was writing his first novel:
I first wrote The Bonfire of the Vanities serially for Rolling Stone, producing a chapter every two weeks with a gun at my temple. In the third chapter I introduced one of my main characters, a thirty-two-year-old Bronx assistant district attorney named Larry Kramer, sitting in a subway car [his clothes disheveled], his eyes jumping about in a bughouse manner. This was supposed to create unbearable suspense in the readers. What on earth had reduced this otherwise healthy young man to such a pathetic state? This chapter appeared in July of 1984. In an installment scheduled for April of 1985, the readers would learn of his humiliation by a wolfpack, who had taken all his money plus his little district attorney's badge. But it so happened that in December of 1984 a young man named Bernhard Goetz found himself in an identical situation on a subway in New York, hemmed in by four youths who were, in fact, from the South Bronx. Far from caving in, he took out a .38 caliber revolver and shot all four of them and became one of the most notorious figures in America. Now how could I, four months later, in April of 1985, proceed with my plan? People would say, This poor fellow Wolfe, he has no imagination. He reads the newspapers, gets these obvious ideas, and then gives us this wimp Kramer, who caves in. So I abandoned the plan, dropped it altogether. The Rolling Stone readers burning thirst, if any, to know what accounted for assistant D.A. Kramer's pitiful costume and alarming facial tics was never slaked.
I thought about that anecdote on Monday when I read Sara's post about Edward Bachner, the suburban Chicago man who is accused of stockpiling pufferfish toxin, allegedly for the purpose of murdering his wife. Sara noted that the FBI was allegedly aware that Bachner had solicited people on the internet to kill his wife several years ago, and yet they did not tell her. "I would love to see the dialogue that went on in the FBI office when they decided not to charge Bachner and not to tell his wife about the 2005 alleged attempt to hire a hitman," Sara writes. "I can guarantee that if any of us wrote it, our editors would reject it as bogus."
That is certainly true. But while real life frequently trumps fiction, it also gives novelists license. Now that it's actually happened and a stink has been made in the media, a reader might accept such an absurd scenario in a novel (see the comments in Sara's post for some funny attempts). A plotline can go from "that would never happen" to "ripped from the headlines" in a heartbeat.
The Goetz incident might have preempted one proposed scene in Bonfire, but it has spawned an untold number of scenes in others. Wolfe had his fictional ADA cowering on the subway because it was the only reaction he considered plausible at the time, but since Bernhard Goetz we've had any number of unlikely city vigilantes in fiction, Jodie Foster's NPR hostess turned one-woman justice machine being only a recent example. They don't seem so incredible because we know it can happen. And they keep recurring in fiction because we haven't yet processed all the hows and whys of the actual event.
I've just read a book due out next month on Leopold and Loeb (more on that at a future date). As that pair, both from wealthy families, prowled Chicago's Kenwood neighborhood for a victim, Richard Loeb imagined that he and Leopold were supervillains like the ones he had read about in the pulps. Although they were motivated by nothing more than the desire to experience the sensation of killing (and to see if they could get away with it) they concocted a demand for a ransom they didn't need because the fictional villains Richard knew always had some criminal motive. Leopold and Loeb themselves did not find plausible a villain who murdered without motive, even as they were planning a murder that had no motive.
Ironically, their trial introduced the public to just that idea--the killer who murders for the sensation of killing--and in Leopold and Loeb's long wake mystery and thriller readers have been treated to a multitude of villains who kill for the "art of it," even as actual such killers have proven to be rather scarce. Reality--or at least the public perception of it--has provided the mystery writer with license.
In his essay, Wolfe argues that the ideal novelist is a reporter who observes the world carefully and is frequently able to anticipate events before they happen.
To write Elmer Gantry, the great portrait of not only a corrupt evangelist but also the entire Protestant clergy at a time when they still set the moral tone of America, [Sinclair] Lewis left his home in New England and moved to Kansas City. He organized Bible study groups for clergymen, delivered sermons from the pulpits of preachers on summer vacation, attended tent meetings and Chautauqua lectures and church conferences and classes at the seminaries, all the while doggedly taking notes on five-by-eight cards.
It was through this process, documentation, that Lewis happened to scoop the Jim Bakker story by sixty years--and to render it totally plausible, historically and psychologically, in fiction.
True enough, but real life doesn't really need fiction to make it plausible. Real life needs fiction to make it understandable. Fiction sometimes leaps out ahead, as was the case with Elmer Gantry. Most of the time it trails behind, trying to make some sense of it all.