Thursday, 9 June 2016

But is it true? - by Anne Rooney

We've probably all been asked that of stories, whether stories we have written or stories we are reading or telling to children (or even adults). On one particularly memorable occasion, one of my own children asked 'is it true?' of a story  which she had helped me to make up (though I suppose the lag between invention and publication is so long a child will forget). The story featured two of her friends, which I would not usually do, but they  had just moved into a house with an ancient well and I'd used the well as a time portal. (In the story, not really.) The use of real people in an invented story was too confusing.

We tend to answer 'yes' or 'no' to the question 'is it true?' but the truth is not that simple. Here's Boccaccio, defending fiction against the charge levelled against it by the Catholic Church in the 14th century of it being iniquitous lies:

‘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.’

There is psychological truth in the untruth of stories. But what of the untruth in the supposed truth of information? 

Exobiology and the truth dilemma
in one go
I have been working on exobiology the last few weeks. That's not a thing, really. Or rather, it's entirely conjecture. It's about the life forms that might exist on other planets, including exoplanets (those outside our solar system). We know nothing about it - it's all theorising. And yet the papers I am reading are published in respectable peer-reviewed journals. You can find more detailed accounts of alien life in science fiction stories and films, but of course those are entirely made up. 

The difference between the science fiction and the science non-fiction is hard to pin down. Many science fiction writers do a lot of research, and it's likely that at least some read the exobiology journals. Even if they don't, they think hard about how their alien life-forms might work and what they would look like. The difference, really, is in presentation. Instead of 'alien life-forms might have a biology based around silicon' (unlikely, as it happens), the sci-fi novelist will name the creature and say it has a biology based around silicon. 

There are other dodgy borders between truth and fiction. I have written books about zombies and vampires that are classed as non-fiction because they are about the traditional beliefs about these non-existent creatures. So a true book about something that doesn't exist. The contracts include clauses that state everything has to be true and accurate. It's true and accurate that people believe you can make a zombie following a certain procedure, but it's not true and accurate that you actually can. 

In 1600, Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for, amongst other things, claiming that the universe is infinite and contains many inhabited planets. That's now a mainstream belief and is supported by many scientists as the most likely state of affairs. Truth shifts.The border between truth and untruth is porous. Truth leaks into fiction - both historical truth and psychological truth - and leaks out of information books, where conjecture and theory have to replace certainty. It's not black and white - not at all. And that's without even considering the subjectivity of 'truth' - that one person's 'true account' of an event is another's misrepresentation. 

Fiction and non-fiction in publishing are two realms supposedly occupied by lies and truth respectively, but that's far too bold a distinction. Some fiction is published in 'non-fiction' lists, including re-tellings of old tales and sometimes early readers - stories sold into schools and as part of reading schemes. They are sold as non-fiction because they are intended to help children develop their skill in reading, rather than being good stories ifor the sake of a good story. (I know, don't even start on that one.) 

Which brings me to the labels fiction and non-fiction. It's silly to describe a huge category (the majority) of published books by what they are not - not invented stories. I have tried saying 'information books', but that sounds dreary and as though they are not there to be enjoyed every bit as much as books that are 'untrue' (fiction). If we went for a week calling fiction 'untrue' books, that might make people pause to think about the negative connotations of the 'non' label. But all books contain truth and all books contain uncertainty, contingency, theory, partiality. So perhaps it's just time to stop trying to use true/mad-up as the way we distinguish between them. Any suggestions for new labels?


Nick Green said...

Something I have often pondered is the different layers of truth. For instance, take these two statements:

Frodo Baggins took a ring to Mount Doom.
Frodo Baggins sold ice creams on Mount Doom.

Neither statement is true. But one statement is clearly more true than the other. So there are 'layers' of truth and falseness, just as mathematicians tell us that there are different sizes of infinity (if there are an infinite number of planets, there are an infinite number of inhabited planets; but not as many as the total number of planets, which is a 'bigger' infinity).

All fiction is true to some extent, and all 'non-fiction' is fiction in a sense - in that it is one person's (or committee's) narrative about what happened. Two historical accounts can wildly differ. Which is true and which is fiction? They are both fiction, and they both contain truth.

Even our own personal memories are just narratives we construct for ourselves. They probably differ quite significantly from what actually happened.

Stroppy Author said...

Absolutely, Nick - I agree with all of that. I love your Frodo Baggins example, too!