Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Mostly true (unless it isn't)

In "Facts are Stupid," Dan Kois examines the ongoing debate about truth vs. fact in creative nonfiction, making a compelling case for the need for trust between author and reader. I can't tell you exactly how he twists the knife in your gut at the end; you'll just have to read it for yourself (here). But I will raise the question: are readers more likely to trust a writer who reveals his inaccuracies or one who denies them?

Of course there's an important distinction between outright untruth and exaggeration for comic effect--or at least I hope there is. (But what if that's a specious claim? What if the toaster manual I recently ridiculed was only 20 pages long instead of 40? Will revealing that inaccuracy destroy my readers' trust?) "Some inaccuracies are good for business," claims the Foundling Father in The America Play by Suzan-Lori Parks: "Take the stovepipe hat! Never really worn indoors but people dont like their Lincoln hatless."

Truth hurts--but so does falsehood. My commitment to telling the truth may have initially arisen from an innate inability to lie convincingly. I won't claim that I cannot tell a lie, but I know that any lie I tell will make my head hurt and my heart race, and I'm convinced that a lie will telegraph its falsehood as if in blinking neon lights on my forehead. (But what if I'm lying right now about my inadequacy as a liar? How would you know?)

So while I'm pretty good at telling the truth, I'm even better at not telling the whole truth. More than 20 years as a pastor's wife have trained me to bite my tongue and keep big chunks of truth to myself. I haven't mentioned publicly, for instance, the campus brouhaha that's currently making me grind my few remaining molars into dust. (Would a fact-checker challenge that statement? If I tell you that I'm missing two molars and the ones that remain are so badly cracked that my dentist keeps asking me whether I've ever fallen face-first out of a third-story window, will you believe me or assume that I'm exaggerating to win sympathy?)

Dan Kois convinces me that writing effective nonfiction requires a commitment to both truth and fact, but that commitment needn't crowd out creativity, comedy, and art. If facts alone could speak for themselves, we wouldn't need writers; we would just point out the window toward the big wide world and say, "See for yourself!" But when a nonfiction writer tosses facts out the window, that's when he ought to lose my trust.

(Unless he doesn't--and then what do I do?)   

No comments: