Monday, 6 October 2008

The maundering old woman, kicked out of the republic - Anne Rooney

My daughter wanted to talk about worthwhile careers - but not with me because I’m clearly not qualified to judge. Huh?
‘You’re a children’s writer,’ she said.
‘Isn’t that a worthwhile occupation?’
‘Duu-urrrr!’ (I’m not sure how to indicate that undulation of the word that carries all the weight of disdain – but you know how it goes.)
I asked what she thinks my job entails.
‘Telling lies about an imaginary bird’, she answered without hesitation.

Ever since Plato banished poets from the true Republic, writers have had to answer the charge of untruthfulness. Usually, it has been leveled against loftier works.
‘They’re not lies, they’re stories,’ I said.
‘But they’re not true,’ she countered.
I tried the line about deep psychological truth versus literal truth, dragging in Boccaccio as witness for the defence: ‘There was never a maundering old woman, sitting with others late of a winter's night at the home fireside, making up tales of Hell, the fates, Ghosts and the like … but did not feel there was a grain of truth in them.’
She eyed me suspiciously.
‘What’s maundering?’
Oh God, now she thinks I’m a maundering old woman. I wanted her to think I was Boccaccio.
‘He’s wrong,’ she said, with the inalienable confidence of the teenager. ‘They’re lies; they’re not true.’

Ah, but we know they are true, somehow. That’s why books are dangerous. It’s why books (and writers) have been burned throughout history. It’s why Arthur Miller faced the House of un-American Activities Committee, Salman Rushdie got his fatwa and the fabulous Wild Swans was banned in China. We liars tell dangerous truths that some people – tyrants, the Church, Americans don’t want voiced. I imagine a bonfire of the vanities, with first-readers about luckless birds prominent.

Book-burning bonfire
But writers can’t be subversive all on their own. Writers rely on intelligent readers. If the book-banning authorities thought readers would be blind to the message, they would have no reason to worry. Writers know their readers want the key to the secret room; the best writers know how to slip them that key, even under the harshest regimes. And childhood can be one of the most repressive.
Some children feel they are in solitary confinement, locked away from anyone who can explain what is happening in their lives, to their bodies, in their minds. A story can show them that their experience is universal. Some children need not just a key, but a file hidden in a pie. A good book, whether it’s a story or a fact book, can be the pie. That’s why the job is worthwhile. We don’t only tell lies about imaginary birds – we try to hide files in pies, too. We don’t need to make the files – they’re universal – we just cook the pies. Which is lucky, as I have a cooker but not a furnace.


Nick Green said...

I have a private motto (surely not original) which is, 'The only good stories are the true ones.' The casual observer might take this to mean that I side with your daughter, that I look down on fiction and only respect fact. Au contraire (no surprise there!).

Rather, I tend towards the notion that absolute fact is pretty much impossible, and that only *truth* is attainable; and it's attainable without the assistance of too many 'facts'.

Read the same 'factual story' in the Guardian and the Daily Mail, and you see how different they are. So how can they be said to be fact? But read well-written imaginative fiction, and it is loaded with truth, in spite of dragons, spaceships, wizards, ghosts etc.

Let them keep their spurious 'facts'. Give me truth!

Lucy Coats said...

Seconded, Nick. I have found more truth to touch my heart in fantasy worlds that are 'lies' than in any work of non-fiction 'accuracy'.

What a brilliant post, Anne. I sympathise more than I can say with the 'Duuu-rr' attitude of lofty teenage superiority. However, take heart from the fact that one of my very good friends--who has a doctorate in marine biology and is very eminent in her field of scientific absolutes--has exactly the same result from her children. We are not what we do, we are merely parents who know nothing. It has ever been thus.

Anne Rooney said...

Thank you Lucy, Nick. And Lucy - the duuu-rrr daughter passionately wants to be a marine biologist. I'm sure she would not have at all a duuu-rrr attitude to your friend. (Of course my doctorate in lies counts for nothing -- but a doctorate in fish! Wow!)

John Dougherty said...

Fiction can be truthful, just as the literal truth can be an actual lie: Sarah Palin's comment about Barack Obama 'palling around with terrorists' could be said to be true, in that he has associated with someone who has a terrorist past. In terms of the meaning it carries, though, I believe it to be deceitful and untruthful.