Reality, Fiction, and Truth

by Sherwood Smith

Three or four years ago, a writer was a day away from departing on a massive book tour before her equally massive launch of a memoir about growing up poor in South-central LA and her gangsta life. Then her sister blew the whistle: she proved to be an upscale Valley girl. The memoir was fiction.

Here’s the part that got to me. She claimed (and from what I could tell, this was corroborated) that her book as fiction had been rejected everywhere with a similar sort of observation: her writing was dynamic, the story riveting, but no one could sell it as fiction.

Roger that, she said. She reinvented herself, and rewrote the story as a memoir.

Sale! Except, ooops, she apparently didn’t clue her own family in on the deceit, though she brought in a bunch of ringers as gangsta witnesses in order to charm her editorial house with their lack of couth.

While this story is unusual, the central conflict isn’t: people seem to want their fiction to be . . . real.

The most obvious example of this conflict is reality TV, which I think is the direct descendant of the “True Confessions” mags of fifty years ago–and the “travel books” of two hundred years ago, many of which were written by people who’d never been any farther from home than ten miles.

I’ll get to those old examples in a second, but for now, I’ve seen various discussions circling around the question: how real is reality TV?

I tried watching one show. It seemed blatantly fake. I sensed the presence of a director just off camera, typing crazily on the TelePrompter, Be sexier! More emotion! because the body language of the actors was such a stiff, self-conscious contrast to the banality of their words as they struggled to pile on yet more intensifiers for emotions they seemed to be required (judging by the frenetic da-da-DOOM music and the wild camera angles and jump cuts) to be projecting.

But there’s no question that Top Chef is about real chefs, Runway is about real designers; my son points out that the various shows about bad drivers and cops arresting people are all taken from police car video tapes. Real people, but from little I’ve seen, (“OMG, it’s like, I’m all, OMG, it’s so horrible, so incredibly, wow, it’s just, I don’t know, OhmiGAWD!”) very bad drama.

So why do people watch these things, or read “tell all” books about similar events? Is the craving for reality really a craving for truth? Is that possible, especially these days, when paradigms are shifting so fast we can feel the breeze–when many artists are lauded for their artistic efforts to prove that there is no truth beyond experience, and that cannot be trusted?

Patricia Meyer Spacks wrote a book addressing this subject within the context of eighteenth century novels, which are closer to our concept of the modern novel than, say, Chaucer, or Pilgrim’s Progress. She has this evocative sentence at the very start, Truth, dressed–like Falsehood–by Desire, becomes Fiction which riffs off an ornately written screed by Samuel Johnson in Rambler.

Johnson considered it neither useful nor appropriate for the novelist to merely imitate actuality, Spacks explains in her foreword. And then goes on to address Johnson’s point, which was about moral or ethical truth being the goal of good fiction.

The writers in those days all felt that fiction could convey truth. Smollett, in Humphrey Clinker gleefully gives us a too-credibly disgusting view of what the Baths were really like in the 1700s–despite the high tone that Beau Nash tried so desperately to inculcate. Don’t ever read that passage around mealtimes!

Nabokov says, The good reader is aware that the quest for real life, real people, and so forth is a meaningless process when speaking of books. He thinks the “zing” of the “real” that readers crave is the pleasurable shock of artistic truth.[bolding mine]

Of course, as we can easily discover while reading over the Net, one person’s artistic truth is another’s oft-seen triteness. Reader X, running eyes down a post by Reader Y enthusing tearfully about the painful truth depicted in the latest work of a given writer is thinking, “Truth? That’s not truth, that’s sentimental twaddle–wish-fulfillment claptrap on the level of the mime with a single painted tear!”

Who’s right?

Nabokov talks more about realism in fiction: All reality is comparative reality since any given reality, the window you see, the smells you perceive, the sounds you hear, are not only dependent on a crude give-and-take of the senses but also depend upon various levels of information.

He goes on (and I think this bit relates to SF and F): Flaubert may have seemed realistic or naturalistic a hundred years ago to readers brought up on the writings of those sentimental ladies and gentlemen that Emma [Bovary] admired. But realism, naturalism, are only comparative notions. What a given generation feels as naturalism in a writer seems to an older generation to be exaggeration of drab detail, and to a younger generation not enough drab detail. This isms go; the ist dies; art remains.

How to achieve a sense of realism, or truth, in SF and F adds a level of challenge because so much of our own personal truth derives out of experience. When we’re young, many of us read as fast as we could in order to kick and smack the boundaries of experience out as far as we could. We figured out by age six that no matter how hard we wished, we wouldn’t get a set of wings, so reading about kids who got wings was the next best thing. We gradually learned to differentiate between the stories that had winged kids but we were doing all the work of believing in the tale’s reality, and the stories that made us feel the itch and ache in our shoulder blades, the cold wind scouring our faces, the dizzying dive down a canyon just before we level out on the warm updraft. The society in the story requires wings for survival, doesn’t just exist around them; we are there, not here.

I think we can safely say that realism isn’t always verisimilitude–we can read of experiences and not believe them. We think the person is making it all up. In the matter of SF and F, what kind of experience we’ve gone through shapes our perception of the verisimilitude the writer is giving us: one reader finds the world convincing, another doesn’t. If both read on eagerly, is there a sense of truth that underlies the presence or absence of verisimilitude? Or, put another way, does the notion of truth to you function as another word for verisimilitude, or is there artistic truth that explodes the boundaries of experience for you?

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Reality, Fiction, and Truth — 16 Comments

  1. Honestly, I think that the measure of truth, for me, comes down to people. If the people inhabiting the story — whether they are humans, dragons, winged horses or BEMs — seem convincing, that’s where I’ll look for truth, and verisimilitude becomes irrelevant.

    The one thing that Twilight (the book) captured was the voice of teenage angst. Yes, the events and other characters are often laughable, but the way Bella thinks and acts was what made me read the first book all the way through. (Well, that and the fact that my daughter was reading it.) I’m not sure I’d call it realism, or even mimesis (in Auerbach’s sense, not Adorno or Irigaray’s), but it did seem like a grain of truth hidden underneath a lot of… other things.

  2. I agree about Twilight. I’d call it thirteen year old angst, which wants to be the center of attention, but without sex, whereas older teen angst has a different quality. And older readers who loved it found it speaking to their inner thirteen year old girl, who can never, ever, get enough attention.

  3. “Reality TV” isn’t. It’s cheap to make and creates an illusion of real life, but not as well as good fiction.
    I like your distinction between realism and verisimilitude. The most exotic setting or action-packed scenes prove tedious if it’s not believable.
    Most people do read stories for some kind of safe expansion of their experience–maybe that’s why they watch reality TV, too?

  4. I really love the thoughts you’ve brought together here.

    Truth, dressed–like Falsehood–by Desire, becomes Fiction –is a great quote, and one I’d like to think about more.

    And boy, Nabokov! Good stuff there. So true about how perceptions of truth depend on knowledge. Our eyes tell us that the sun rises and sets; science tells us something more<–this example gives just two levels of truth, but there are times when there are many more, especially when we're talking about things relating to people.

    What a given generation feels as naturalism in a writer seems to an older generation to be exaggeration of drab detail, and to a younger generation not enough drab detail. Heh! True, though the example seems to imply a unidirectional trend toward more and more drab detail–and yet that’s not necessarily how things go.

    To go back to your original example, I think the reason people wanted the story of the gangsta childhood to be real is because then they’d be justified in investing that much more emotion into the story. I remember loving the story The Man Who Planted Trees and being somewhat disappointed when I realized it was fiction. It was still a lovely and inspirational story, but if it had been real–if there really had been a man who had done those things, in real life, how marvelous that would have been. Similarly, the story of a girl overcoming her gangsta childhood can be interesting and true as fiction, but if it’s **real**, if you know that person is walking around in real life somewhere–that adds something, I think.

    All the same, I’m pretty invested in fiction. Some of the truest stories I’ve ever read have been fiction, and clearly so.

  5. There’s been an upsurge in the UK for ‘scripted reality TV shows’ lately–apparently viewers are fine with ‘reality’ filtered through a barrage of personal stylists and maintaining a consistently high level of drama and cliffhanger-y moments.

    In a way I think it’s actually sort of reassuring; watching these shows and thinking that they are actually reality requires a fairly high suspension of disbelief, especially as the ‘cast members’ will occasionally talk about the storylines and who will be ‘leaving’ and ‘returning’ in gossip magazines.

  6. Pilgrimsoul: I wonder if there is a hefty element of Schadenfreude in reality shows . . . maybe akin to whatever motivation our ancestors felt when they would travel for miles to witness an execution?

    Asakiyume: Investing more emotion–feeling justified in investing more emotion–hmmm have to think about that, and Nabokov’s spark of artistic truth.

    Storme: yeah, I’m told it is the same here.

  7. Schadenfruede definitely. I know several people who enjoy watching people they can despise.

  8. Top Chef and Runway are, at least, about people who have specific skills and are using them. I don’t doubt that the producers select for “colorfulness” and edit for drama, but the actual skills belong to the people on screen (except when they cheat, which lends its own sort of drama).

  9. Hmm. Guess I’m going to have to read more Johnson, because I love that part about it being neither useful nor appropriate for the novelist to merely imitate actuality, and having the obligation to shape a moral point. (Which I hope authors today will do without being as sermonistic and/or heavy-handed about those moral points as some of those past-century authors were.)

  10. Johnson says, “If the world be promiscuously described, I cannot see of what use it can be to read the account; or why it may not be as safe to turn the eye immediately upon mankind, as upon a mirror which shows all that presents itself without discrimination.”

    Johnson makes good reading–the reports of his discussions not only in Boswell but in Fanny Burney’s letters and diaries, and in those of others–make it clear the guy loved talking literature and writing (and everything else).

  11. As far back as Aristotle, the rule offered was that the writer was not to imitiate nature raw, but to strip off the accidents that happen in real life and generalize — this is what happens in a far more general sense than reportage.

    People who never heard of Aristotle believe this. As witness that one character of a given group being portrayed unfavorably often draws a fevered reaction of how that group isn’t all like that.

  12. One thing that hasn’t been mentioned yet is just how unreliable human memory is: most people miss a lot and fill in the gaps with story. As if that is not bad enough, most people’s memory is malleable. Our accounts of ourselves and our own lives are something like fiction. Maybe people look to fiction for better stories for their own lives.

    As a working scientific researcher these days, I do believe in some sort of truth but, as a working scientific researcher, I can tell you that it’s not easily accessible. The way we present scientific theory tends to obscure the reality that it is assembled from many observations, all of which are a bit uncertain. People who want to know even the truth of physical reality in their lives have to work hard to see it and to remember it. I suppose it is even harder–if it is possible at all–to know the truth of oneself, let alone other people. Perhaps fiction sometimes participates in this search for truth.

  13. My goal as a writer is PLAUSIBILITY. This is actually why I don’t right all that much actual fantasy, though I kind of do a little dance around the edges. I *love* the idea of making up characters, circumstances and scenarios that MIGHT have really happened. So no, the novel I hand you isn’t true, but maybe under the right set of circumstances people really would behave this way – maybe I would, maybe you would, maybe we would do it differently ON PURPOSE because we’ll recognize the scenario when it comes up.

    It’s also why I’m not a historian. I would much rather be allowed to speculate.

  14. Randolph, a very good point.

    e.wein. Plausibility indeed, though some readers or watchers seem to think there is extra pizazz in a layer of reality over the story. For whatever reasons.