A Novelist and a Newsman

Posted by on August 21, 2013

A Monday Morning Memo for the Clients and Friends of Williams Marketing

In Halifax, Nova Scotia, lies a cemetery where 121 recovered bodies of Titanic passengers were buried in the spring of 1912. According to Jay Clarke of Knight-Ridder newspapers, “One marker there receives outsized attention from visitors. It is the grave of a crewman who would have remained totally unknown were it not for the recent “Titanic” movie. The central character in that movie is named Jack Dawson; the crewman’s name is J. Dawson. Soon after the movie hit the world’s screens, teen-age girls began leaving flowers at the grave of Dawson, who was a fire stoker on the ship. Never mind that Jack Dawson is a fictional character who never existed, and that J. Dawson (probably James) was certainly no Leonardo DeCaprio. Fresh flowers – and teenage girls – still appear at his grave.”

“Bill,” said the legendary novelist James Michener to his friend, international news correspondent William J. Lederer, “the public is more willing to believe fiction than non-fiction.” In a recent telephone conversation from his home in Florida, Lederer said, “Jim Michener’s advice to me back in 1958 is the only reason I re-wrote my manuscript to be a fiction story before submitting it to the publisher.” Rewritten as Michener had suggested, the “fictionalized” true story of The Ugly American went on to sell more than 6,000,000 copies. Lederer’s fictionalized story was so utterly convincing that in 1959, Senator John F. Kennedy sent a copy to every member of the United States Senate. Historians credit Lederer’s novel with having greater impact on American foreign policy than any other single document since The Declaration of Independence. Following his election to the presidency, JFK used the lessons of Lederer’s book as the foundation for establishing The Peace Corps. None of this would have happened if Lederer had submitted his work as non-fiction.

“The public is more willing to believe fiction than non-fiction.” It was the assertion of James Michener that we humans tend to be analytical of anything that is presented as “fact.” Our instinctive response is to ask, “Am I willing to believe this information? Does it agree with my own experiences and observations? Have these so-called ’facts’ been slanted so that I’m hearing only one side of the story?” Yes, when information is presented to us as “fact,” our emotions quickly move to the shadows to allow our intellectual filters to do their job.

The enjoyment of fiction, however, requires the willing suspension of disbelief. In other words, fiction is judged emotionally first, intellectually second. By the time our intellect has found the flaw in a story, our emotions have usually already sailed past it. The intellect nearly always makes allowances for what the emotions have already accepted.

“Win the heart and the mind will follow,” has been the secret of all the world’s great persuaders since the beginning of recorded history. Can you accept this lesson as true, or will you continue to present only the boring and tedious “facts”?

The choice is yours.

Roy H. Williams

Leave a Reply