Tuesday Morning Truth

Library house

Hadn’t known about The Library House in Long Beach until a few women from my Jane Austen book discussion group met there for coffee a month back. It’s such a cool place I’ve gone back a couple of times.

This last visit, I was there with a few people from a couple of intersecting circles, the center being a friend celebrating her birthday. The conversation got around to books and reading. X looked around and pointed out that everyone there was over thirty, so cumulatively we represented an impressive number of reading years, and accumulated wisdom.

Or accumulated something, said Z.

After the speculation died down, X asked everybody there to offer a truism about books or reading, preferably not a quote, but if it had to be a quote, they had to support their reasons for offering it with examples.

Okay, here is where I have to start fitting my own words to theirs. I wasn’t taking notes, and I remember in image, not words. But here’s the gist.

X began, obviously having thought about it. She said, Narcissists’ books are full of flat characters (except for the author’s stand-in) because they are too full of themselves to be aware of other people except as set dressing in their own dramas.

That got some exclamations, the clearest being, “How do you know any given author is a narcissist?”

Person Y said it’s easier than ever now to determine that, all you have to do is go to Facebook, and if 99% of their posts are about themselves (the 1% maybe being bragging about how awesome their kid/spouse/lover is), you got yourself a narcissist.

“By that reasoning, everybody is a narcissist,” scoffed Z. “Facebook is all about your sharing whatever you think interesting. If you want to take a picture of your lunch and toot that it only contains twelve calories, Facebook is the place for it. I think your truism only works as a rule about bad writing. The author could be the nicest, most caring, deepest reaching social historian in L.A. She just doesn’t know how to put it into words.”

“Okay,” X said, with that crossed-arm look of someone who has just been dumped on, but is pretending that everything was in fun. She turned to me. “How about you, you’re a writer.”

Everybody turned to me. “Hey, I write to entertain people like me,” I sidestepped like a flapping chicken. “You want wisdom, you go to the smart people. Like Patricial Meyer Spacks said in her book about rereading, Imaginative writing can tell a deeper truth than that promulgated by the king of prose that sticks rigorously to demonstrable fact. (Actually, what I said was more like “Imaginative writing can tell a deeper truth than the prose that sticks to facts.”)

“Support that,” said X. “Why did you pick that quote?”

I burbled (with a few million “uh”s and “um”s and backtracks) about how rereading certain books showed me how they had shaped the course of my life, whereas others might have had a profound effect on the first read, then not so much afterward. But all these books had hit me with what I found true, whether it was emotional truth or spiritual truth. The point being that the sense of ‘truth’ transcended a mere accumulation of facts.

Because I value rereading so much when I stumbled across Spacks’ book, I nabbed it, and I’d been rereading her essay about Jane Austen recently.

We got onto the value of rereading, not only the expectation of past pleasure and surprise, but it can jump time, in effect, blending the experience of reading with memory of past readings. Layers and layers, which can bring out new truths from the text that one hadn’t seen.


The next person said with a challenging look at us, Every story has already been told.

She got the uproar she expected:

Every novel is different!

Familiar stories have an infinitude of versions!

The search for originality is overrated!

What is ‘original’ can be oldie-but-moldie for someone else!

I think the most interesting bit that came out of that discussion was the observation that for most of Europe the word for novel is “roman,” which comes from the old meaning of romance. English, naturally, had to be different—while borrowing their word from Italian! (novella, which means new)

And the last person, who may or may not have had time to think about her response, put this forward: If there is any universal theme to all of literature is that human beings matter.

From there we got into “matters to whom?” Would aliens have novels? Amazing how our memories intermix experience with our reading, so that the two not only mix, but can even blend.

Z wanted to know if anyone had ever mistaken a memory of a scene for something real. No one admitted to that, though a couple of us visual readers said we had trouble remembering actual places we had visited if we’d experienced them vividly in novels first. The imagined memory could distort the real memory. And many said that a film version of a book could be a stinker, yet the actor playing the familiar character would replace one’s old images.


Y, who had been quiet for a while, spoke up. “Talking about real memories of people and fictional characters who are just as real, and Facebook, and all the rest, suggests this one: All literature is gossip. And the novel will never die, because humans will never lose their interest in gossip.

How we learn by gossip, how we teach by gossip, how we control social situations by gossip, how it harms or even can heal, how ancient gossip is as fascinating as fresh, how we speculate through gossip, all got their due notice before the hour was up and everybody had to go off on their own pursuits.

So, if you’ve made it this far, what truisms would you like to throw out on a spring Saturday morning?




Tuesday Morning Truth — 30 Comments

  1. Every reader makes their own version of a book. Even if they’re reading accurately and completely (not terribly likely), they will make variations in emphasis.

    Facebook has a lot of public diary material, but there are all sorts of posts and discussions there.

    As for person Y, would that mean that people who share a lot of cat videos are less likely to be narcissists?

    • I like your truism.To which I would add not only emphasis but experience.

      The Facebook brangle went on and on. (You could tell who didn’t do Facebook by their attitudes of waiting, which I’m sure emanated from me, too.)

  2. I agree with Nancy. I remember hearing Barbara Kingsolver at a writer’s conference many years ago say something to the effect that what the author writes is a sketch and the reader fills in the details. But it’s an interesting paradox because even in the act of recreating the author’s vision to our own (in the same way that we cannot help but recreate God in our own image), in a good book we are touched and often changed by what we read.

    Love this post and I’m going to rush off and find the Spack book. The books I reread on a regular basis, like Michael Malone’s extraordinarily rich comic novel Handling Sin (the only thing of his that I’ve loved, alas), comfort me with their familiarity and continue to surprise me with new insights.

  3. Aristotle observed that fiction told a more philosophical truth than history, because history is full of accidents and flukes, but fiction could tell a more generalized truth.

  4. Oh, and on the FB discussion: I don’t agree with the assessment that everyone who promotes endlessly on FB is a narcissist. (In fact, these kinds of truisms–so overly generalized–frustrate me. The world is just not simple enough to fit inside most truisms.) Some very nice authors do it because they feel they have to–they are told by their publishers or their promoters that ‘s the only their book will get noticed. Just as you can find people insisting you must tweet the same message 4 times a day to be sure to capture the maximum views. It’s very easy enough to zip right past those posts and tweets to the content you want. I do some promoting on FB, but I’ve noticed that the posts I get the most response to are not those pushing books so I try not to overdo it. 🙂

    • Oh, believe me, that was protested. The Facebook conversation went on a long time. I tuned out a lot of it, but the gist I caught is that Facebook is like novels in that everyone’s Facebook is different. For ever poster who never reads it and only posts about themselves, there are those who have little social access for many reasons, and who thus find a vital and meaningful connection with others. And in the middle? The coffee break flyer. None of whom are narcissists.

      I suspect that X had a thing going against a specific book, or a specific author, and had been waiting to spring this on people, but didn’t get the desired “Huzzah, you are so right!”

  5. My take is that stories bind us together, show us our place in life and what we can achieve. We need stories and we have been telling ourselves stories for thousands of years–it might be one of the things that makes us human (it certainly can teach us to be more decently human). And it seems to me that commercials are unfortunately taking over the part of our lives where real stories used to be–they certainly portray what someone thinks we ought to be doing and what we ought to strive for. Unfortunately, I think that just commercials, with no real meat to them, tends to make people shallow. Thanks be (to whatever convenient deity listening) that stories, real stories, are still around.

    • Commercials have been around for a while, and yeah, their history parallels the development of fiction. Interesting reading about the professional beauties of 150 years ago, who could exist by posing with products, which caused sales to zoom. People put the product to the face, provided their own story (the beauty uses the product) and so they had to have it, too!

      I don’t think people are any more shallow than they ever were–those conversational circles of 300 years ago could be tedious past bearing, from all the lampoons and comments in letters and diaries–we just see more of it.

  6. One could consider “historical” truth and “fictional” truth. The history actually happened, but the fiction often feels truer to people because fiction has to make sense and evokes more immediate empathy in the reader.

  7. In answer to critics who questioned the veracity of events as depicted in his book Never Cry Wolf, Farley Mowat wrote: “…it is my practice never to allow facts to interfere with the truth…” (While he may have taken that policy to certain extremes in subsequent books, the general precept stands.)

    So to reiterate more-or-less what’s already been said: everything is a story, and all stories are true.

  8. A fictional narrative is a complicated symbol. Symbols carry meaning in ways simple discourse can’t. Emotion is a kind of meaning, and empathy for characters carries it.

    That sound pretentious said flat out, but I do believe it. Fiction can “stick” in the brain in a way that bare fact doesn’t. Like a cud, we can chew on it, not just swallow it. 🙂

  9. All stories are not true. Particularly revisionist stories of the civil war for instance. Not only are they not factual, they are not true and additionally they are pernicious, having effect on how people behave in the here and now to other people.

    Love, C.

    • I’d argue that stories and propaganda are two different beasts.

      Stories may not be factually accurate or true in an historical sense of the word, but at the heart of it all stories told by humans strive to reveal a fundamental understanding of what it means to be human and/or alive. It’s the core of all telling.

      Even in their simplest form, stories aren’t just an exchange of data (although they can be that too), but a device for exposing and examining our notions and motivations and behaviours and experiences. The more overlapping stories we explore, the greater perspective we gain on all of these things.

      That’s where the truth lies. It’s a process.

        • To pretend that things happened or did not happen to how they actually played out reveals something about the person who changes this and perhaps about the audience that prefers the false to the true, but it is not socially positive or even good story-telling. Think of how much more powerful Gone With the Wind would have been if even a bit of the truth and facts of how plantation slavery and slaves sales were the foundation of how this gentleman’s culture managed to exist? Instead, we have poor whites and dependent slaves basically killing overworked Scarlett’s mother because these people were too lazy and feckless to do anything for themselves.

          • And that’s why we have writers like Alice Walker and Chinua Achebe and Lawrence Hill to provide a different lens through which to view the story.

            Having never actually read Gone With the Wind, I shouldn’t really comment, but I’ve always understood it to be primarily a romance, and not a social commentary. Certainly from a plantation owner’s perspective, the view described would have been accurate; whether it’s an ethical and justifiable view (and I would argue emphatically that it is not) is another story entirely.

  10. It sounds like it was an interesting conversation to be part of – thanks for sharing it with us.

    How about this for a truism? Because we often make sense of the random complexities of our lives, our cultural histories and the world in general by telling ourselves stories about them, fictional narratives are significant influences on the way we think about and live our lives. (For example, whether an individual might read their life as a drama or a romcom, whether they slay their own metaphorical dragons or wait patiently for a hero to come and do the job for them)

  11. That you can discover new things in every rereading is something that’s recognized institutionally (ugly phrase, but I can’t think of a better way to put it) in the fact that the readings you get at Catholic Masses repeat every three years. It means that the homilies, year in and year out, are going to be covering the same stories. But you can take a common story–like today’s was the Road to Emmaus–and find something new in it almost every time you come to it, or if not something new, then sometimes an old realization, reaffirmed or tweaked (or maybe sometimes called into question).

    Regarding narcissism, I think it’s often in the eyes of the beholder. If you’re fond of someone, you can see their posts, even if they’re exclusively about the person themself and their accomplishments, with indulgence and see them as just exuberant. Whereas, if you don’t like the person, or if you’re feeling low or depressed yourself, you can find those sorts of posts hugely annoying and self-absorbed.

    • Well, and narcissists, real narcissists, don’t necessarily talk about themselves all the time. It’s just that they view everything as being about themselves because nobody else is really real to them. (We are all mirrors in their Funhouse, as it were.) So the narcissist could as easily be posting about environmental issues (because they want to look like somebody who cares about environmental issues) or what their kids are up to (because their kids are simply an extension of them) as about the awesome thing they had for dinner last night (because they are successful enough to be able to afford fancy dinners) or a photoshopped selfie (because they are so very, very pretty).

      🙂 Which is also the sort of thing everybody else is posting on Facebook most of the time. It isn’t a particularly good platform for deep conversation.