Marcia Clark on Why Fiction Is Way Stranger Than Truth
Dec 31, 1969
The Wall Street Journal
By Marcia Clark
May 11, 2012
Because it has to be. True crime is almost never strange. True crime goes something like this: Joey gets mad at Stewie for poaching his girlfriend. Joey gets drunk and plugs Stewie. Or like this: Leo’s a meth addict and he needs money to buy his fix, so he goes into a liquor store and robs the owner at gunpoint. The only twist you might find is if the owner pulls a gun and Leo kills him.
Exciting, huh? Right. I can hear you snoring. That’s true crime. And when a real case captures public attention, it isn’t – as people so often say when there’s a high profile case – because truth is stranger than fiction. Because truth isn’t stranger than fiction. It’s just true, and that’s what fascinates.
Case in point: Casey Anthony. That case had a significant following, but were the facts really so strange? A young woman kills her baby so she could live the Bella Vida and dance around in a wet T shirt. It’s morally reprehensible, cruel, depraved, but strange? No, Virginia, it isn’t.
Mothers who get rid of babies they don’t want to raise is not, sorry to say, an exotic crime. Matter of fact, it happens frequently enough that the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office has a special unit, Family Violence, devoted to the prosecution of mothers (and other family members) like that. And while it’s true that Casey Anthony was a pretty white girl and not a crack addict on welfare, that isn’t so strange either. Other pretty white girls have killed their babies. So why did Casey Anthony turn into a national obsession?
In part, because of her lawyer’s incendiary claim – never backed up by a shred of evidence – that she was molested by her father, and that he was the true culprit. But mostly because this was a true story that, thanks to the hungry maw of the twenty-four news cycle, we could watch unfold.
That woman sitting at counsel table…that man on the witness stand…all real. The facts themselves were a lot less strange than most works of fiction – certainly much less strange than the most successful fiction. Like for instance, “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” or “Silence of the Lambs.” Those are strange stories. But Casey Anthony? Meh.
But that’s the thing with true crime. The most mundane story is instantly fascinating if you start with the words, “this is a true story.”
Fiction can’t get away with that. It doesn’t have the magical promise of “true story” to fall back on.
In the mystery/thriller genre in particular, crimes have to be big, shocking and packed with gnarly twists to hold readers’ attention. But even literary fiction tends to focus on ultra strange characters:
Nabokov in “Lolita,” for instance.
That’s why no successful fiction writer tells the story of how Joey shot Stewie. He or she knows we’d all be snoring before we finished reading the jacket cover. Now, make Joey a flesh-eating serial killer with a genius IQ…
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