A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

What Is Truth?

Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies FLEETWOOD MAC

According to a piece in last Saturday's Guardian, John Steinbeck's classic travelogue Travels With Charley is no factually accurate report of his famous road trip. (I'll remind you that, in this incredibly popular memoir from the early 1960s, Steinbeck and his French poodle Charley make a 10,000 mile odyssey round the US, romantically roughing it in a camper truck he names after Don Quixote's horse Rosinante.) It's now been shown that Steinbeck's narrative is completely unreliable. The van is driven on an artistic licence; the story is peppered with 'creative fictions'. Just one example: although Steinbeck makes out the trip was a solo voyage, it seems he was almost never alone. Indeed, half the time he was accompanied by his wife, Elaine, and for much of the trip stayed at luxury motels or parked up on friends' properties. He even spent one week on a cattle ranch owned by a Texan millionaire. Steinbeck spins such a good tale. You feel you're right there beside him and Charley, cooking your beans with them on a campfire under the stars. So do these embellishments, these omissions, these flirtations on the borderline between truth and fantasy, really matter?

This kind of authorial malleability is nothing new, of course. Writers have always been prone to embroider the truth in their autobiographies. Thoreau, for instance, somehow neglected to mention in Walden that his self-sufficient, hermit-style sojourn in the woods was enlivened by regular visitors, frequent excursions to the nearby village, boxes of food sent weekly by his mother or sister, and yet more emergency parcels regularly delivered by Ralph Waldo Emerson's wife. In A Moveable Feast Ernest Hemingway led us to believe he was living in Paris almost as a down-and-out - but this was in fact far from the case. Lillian Hellman's memoirs are notorious for their cobweb of 'factual errors' (I put it politely). And, quite recently, James Frey was exposed as being 'economical with the truth', to say the very least, in his drug-addled memoir A Million Little Pieces. But should we care about any of this too much - as long as the account's a good one, and well written, and keeps us enthralled?


Ruth said...

I have mixed feelings about it. But I think I'm mostly OK with making a good tale.

What is fiction, what is memoir, what is fact? If you took notes and wrote a book about my family, a different version for each of us siblings, I wonder how much would overlap?

I write imagined memoir, that way I can make up anything I want to fill in the blanks of what I don't know.

emilene said...

Frankly, I think in some cases the truth would make for quite boring reading!

Dominic Rivron said...

I think it depends on the context in which the work is presented. I don't expect a memoir -something I reasonably assume to be an attempt at a direct communication of experience- to be fictionalised. I've just posted a series of blog posts about our holiday in Wales. I did not pretend it was a camping holiday. Why would I?

Winter Pilgrim said...

Where does trust go if we start accepting that such narratives will contain deviations from the truth?

The unscrupulous authors deceived their audience in order to pump up themselves as well as their sales. Truth is important.

Nonfiction is not fictitious; fiction is.

Ruth said...

If the text in question is turned to for biographical information, then that's a problem.

If you could ask the author, Steinbeck in this case, what his intention was, what would he say?

The Solitary Walker said...

Good debate.

My own take is this: if a writer deliberately puts intentionally misleading, factually incorrect stuff into a straight autobiography or travel memoir - without stating anywhere that it's been romanticized or whatever in some way, and contains artistic truth sometimes instead of literal truth - then I've got an issue with that writer. As Dominic and WP say, truth, and trust that the writer is telling the truth, is important in nonfiction. However, if it's clear that the account is some sort of poetic biography, or just 'based on truth' etc. then, fair enough, the author has admitted such, and we read it accordingly.

If we want to take this debate to a more philosophical level - there's an argument that no autobiography is ever the unvarnished 'truth' as, even in the very first paragraph, there's a lot of creative shaping, sorting and selecting going on. As Emilene hints: some completely literal, unshaped, second-by-second account of the completely truthful experience of one's life as it actually happened would be boring in the extreme. And as Ruth indicates: the truth about fiction and nonfiction is complicated; the division between the two genres is quite blurry.

Grizz………… said...

I've thought quite a bit about this post—it's questions, implications, my own feelings, perspectives, reasonings. As the line from John Denver's "SomeDays Are Diamonds" goes, "We all know the truth is hard to come by…"

Mark Twain once said: "If you tell the truth you don't have to remember anything." Certainly, in this case Steinbeck knew the true details of his journey, and in the book, failed to portray many of them. Moreover, he may have invented details that did not occur. Is this a breach of trust with the reader? More so for the latter than the former, I think—because I can perhaps see the reasoning behind the "artistic license" of omission whereby the removal of some minutiae and incidents creates a stronger, clearer narrative flow.

That said, I wish Steinbeck's trip had happened exactly as written; I'd frankly prefer that to him having written it exactly as it occurred.

Years before, Steinbeck chronicled another sort of journey, this the writing of his great novel, "East of Eden," in a series of daily "letters" to his editor, Pascal Covici. He was quite truthful in his reporting of the daily work-in-progress, and of some contemporaneous events in his life. Yet there were also omissions, at least in the posthumous publication of these letters (Journal of a Novel.)

Over the years, I've read many biographies and autobiographies of certain people I admired or wanted to know more about. I don't recall a single autobiography that told all the details mentioned in the biographies of that same person. (Various biographers frequently differed on details, whether they happened or not, etc.) Autobiographies—and quasi-autobiographical travel books—suffer from the same shortcoming…that of a prejudiced perspective.

A favorite writer once did a book about his walking the length of California. It detailed much about what he saw along the way—but like all good travel books, leaned heavily into the whys and wherefores, the philosophy and reasons for the journey. Decades later, in another book, he told the real impetus behind the walk, what propelled him onto the trail for so many weeks. Not a word of this had appeared in the original book…and I felt more disappointed by that than I do by Steinbeck's omission, doubtless because it seems more germane.

What is truth? Can it ever be told? Only and always in a limited way, regardless of what we think, hope, say, or attempt.

Truth is as slippery as a just-caught trout. Elusive in the telling, often elusive in the knowing—even if you were there and the report details what you witnessed or did. And sometimes it simply gets in the way of the story—as Twain also noted: "I don't know anything that mars good literature so completely as too much truth."

The Solitary Walker said...

'Truth is as slippery as a just-caught trout.' Indeed that is so. We all offer perspectives on the truth, from our own viewpoints, and no two angles are the same.

This was such a beautifully written and carefully pondered comment, Grizz. Thanks so much for it.

Friko said...

I too read the article. For quite some time now the question of lying has been occupying my creative thoughts, not just in literature but in everyday life.

I would think that creative licence is permitted, a truly factual account would probably be rather mundane and boring.

Don't we have a new genre called 'faction'? Perhaps that is not a bad thing. Had the writers you mention had that option, perhaps they would have come clean themselves.

The Solitary Walker said...

Friko - there's an interesting genre-busting form around at the moment (faction, if you like, but not quite that) which blends biography, fiction, nature writing, poetry, history, travelogue etc. in an exciting and creative way. Robert Macfarlane and WG Sebald come to mind.