As we stumble into the 2016 Presidential campaign (heaven help us all!), headlines have become even more cringe-worthy as “facts” are misstated, taken out of context, distorted, and outright ignored (or even better: invented). Politicians shine when it comes to logical fallacies (as I remind my English students every semester), so media sound bites make great examples of ad hominem attacks and false dichotomies.
Unfortunately, we’ve come to expect that from politicians. An entire industry has arisen which is dedicated to pointing out these factual errors: FactCheck.org, Politifact.com, and the more humorous spin-bashing Flackcheck.org, and while in the 2012 campaign, a top Romney aide announced, “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers,” such sites are sorely needed to offer even a glimmer of hope to those of us who prefer the truth.
I’m not particularly optimistic that politicians will ever change. “Truthiness,” as Stephen Colbert coined it, is their stock in trade, and they revel in the confusion it causes.
What concerns me on a more personal level (because if I didn’t divorce myself from politics I’d lose my mind!), is the continuing debate of truth in writing, in memoir, in creative non-fiction of any sort.
In his June 23, 2015 piece “(Re-)defining nonfiction, again,” LA Times book critic David L. Ulin says, “There are facts and there are truth, and they are not always the same.” He calls for a new approach, a “hybrid” where writing is recognized as an art with “reality reconstructed, redefined,” not “true stories, well told,” as espoused by Lee Gutkind at Creative Nonfiction and expertly explained by Dinty W. Moore. Catherine K. Buni explores the hybrid notion as well in an excellent survey of the debate, where she quotes Janet Malcolm identifying the trend as “radical departures from factuality.”
So which is it, in creative nonfiction of whatever form: facts? truth? some fuzzy hybrid?
Moore’s Brevity Nonfiction Blog takes on this topic on a fairly regular basis, most recently in its July 17, 2015 “The Blurring of Fact” which shared Tom Montgomery Fate’s thoughts, and earlier in a December 2014 guest post by Rachael Hanel. She quotes film director Bennett Miller: “Sometimes the facts can get in the way of telling a good story. But they don’t get in the way of the truth.”
I come down firmly in the purist camp, because while we may all have our own version of truth based on our personal experience of reality, we don’t get to choose our own facts. I’ve battled (obsessively, yes, I know!) the social media tendency to overlook facts for years in my own self-punishing way. In 2009, I posted on an earlier blog:
Author Harry Frankfurt wrote an excellent pair of books on this topic: On Bullshit and On Truth…. We must be able to discern truth in order to help us determine our reality, the bounds of our personal existence as opposed to all that is outside our selves.
And while the social media battle for truth is futile, I sincerely hope the larger literary community will come to agree with Frankfurt: “No society can afford to despise or to disrespect the truth.”