I recently went to a talk by Stephen Kimber at The University Club of Toronto, where he spoke about the blurred lines between truth and fiction in written works – for example, a memoir filled with unverified (or unverifiable) ‘truths’, or narrative non-fiction that tweaks the facts a little. Kimber put forward the interesting idea that, often, lots of small fictions add up to tell ‘a greater truth’, one which could otherwise be missed by only laying out the facts for the reader.

Writing non-fiction in a ‘storytelling’ tone

A narrative, storytelling style, when applied to non-fiction, can be a great tool for leading the reader toward a greater truth. As a device, it certainly makes reading more enjoyable. Subjects like history can come to life, making us care about people and places that are long gone. However, Kimber cautioned that if you’re going to make stuff up for the sake of a greater truth, in the case of non-fiction, you should at least disclose this somehow to the reader – either in a foreword, or in an appendix.

When the facts don’t add up.

When the facts don’t add up in a piece of non-fiction, it jars readers who know of the places, people or events that have been ‘tweaked’. As a writer of narrative non-fiction, Kimber himself can attest to this fact, having received emails from readers questioning specific elements in his books – even in the case of works of fiction. Readers can still be put off if they feel the author has changed something, or doesn’t know what he or she is talking about. It risks undermining the reader’s faith in the entire work, unless it is very clear that the divergence from reality was intentional.

The Oprah debacles

It isn’t surprising that the talk often hovered toward the whole ‘A Million Little Pieces’ / Oprah debacle (and a subsequent Holocaust love story that wasn’t quite the way it was told… again, on Oprah, who surely must be getting a bit of a complex by now).

What I learned during that part of the discussion is that North American publishers often push stories that should be sold as fiction into the ‘memoir’ category. Apparently, the latter is where the money is at. I had no idea! But it seems the North American appetite for other people’s life stories is insatiable. In other parts of the world, people prefer the escapism of fiction; not so much over here.

Personally, I have very little time for non-fiction – narrative or not. I like my escapism, and I like it wrapped in as much futurist psychobabble as possible, and sold to me as sci-fi; even if, as it turns out, I have to amble into the ‘fantasy’ aisle to find my fodder. Idiotic shelving schemes aside, you have to wonder what fuels the ‘escapist’ mindset versus the ‘tell me all about your life’ mindset.

A thirst for meaning?

I wonder if North Americans have become so abstracted from the substance of their lives that they feel this need to connect, vicariously, through a life lived elsewhere, by some other person in perhaps another time or place. We could leave it at that, were it not for the fact that not just any life story will do. As one audience member at the talk pointed out, memoirs have become a genre where authors seek to outdo each other in the “look what I’ve been through” / “look what I’ve achieved” departments. In short, it isn’t just that there is a hunger for people’s life stories, but that there is a hunger for a certain type of life story – one filled with harrowing experiences, struggles and triumphs, and therefore meaning, supposedly.

So ultimately it is a search for meaning. For if someone else’s life can be shown (shown, not proved) to have meaning, then BY GOD the chances of one’s own life having some meaning inch up a wee bit.

While I like the idea of finding inspiration from someone else’s life, and perhaps having their example teach us valuable lessons, I think that in modern western culture, this variant of ‘finding inspiration in the lives of others’ has atrophied. The lives of (prominent) others have taken on godlike proportions. We place too much hope and faith in the ‘greater truth’ of someone’s memoir, whether that truth is founded on an accretion of lies or not.

In this light, the recent backlashes and disappointments about fictions within non-fictions are quite understandable, if annoying. Having mistaken a finger pointing to the moon for the moon itself, and having drawn all of one’s friends and loved ones to stare in awe at that same finger, people should and do feel silly when the figurative finger is wagged at them, reminding everyone that “No, you’re staring at the wrong thing. The moon – the greater truth” is still out there.

Instead of being gracious when our ignorance (or naivete?) is thus unveiled by the unkindness of time and life itself, we are petulant. We stomp about, saying that we’ve been hoodwinked and misled… when in fact, we have been led into an even fuller or greater truth.

We should be thankful for the enlightenment. Because in every such uncovering and every such disclosure, we learn that much more about true human nature.

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