Adam Ash

Your daily entertainment scout. Whatever is happening out there, you'll find the best writing about it in here.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Bookplanet: why there can be more truth in fiction than fact

Truer Than Fact – by JULIA GLASS

MY 5-year-old son loves the Olivia stories. Our favorite is "Olivia Saves the Circus," in which Ian Falconer's beguilingly cheeky heroine tells her class about what she did on her vacation. She relates how she went to the circus and, because all the performers were sidelined with ear infections, conducted the entire show herself: as lion tamer, tightrope walker, tattooed lady, and so forth. "And now I am famous," she concludes. The teacher does not look pleased and asks if the story is true. "Pretty true," says Olivia. "All true?" demands the teacher. Olivia stands firm: "Pretty all true." And though Mr. Falconer cleverly switches scenes at this crucial moment, we know she gets away with it.

Everyone roots for Olivia because she is a child, not a grown man with millions of adoring fans, millions of dollars, a movie deal and the patronage of a television deity. (Okay, Smoking Gun, so she's a talking piglet, the alter ego of a grown man who's got most of those perks. Details, details.) More important, Olivia is a character in a book. She was invented to captivate preschoolers, people encouraged to mingle fact with fiction.

There, I've said it. Fiction. Definition 1: a profoundly human urge that fuels and nurtures the growing minds of children, whereby they can project themselves both deep into their private fantasies and out into the bizarre world of the grown-up lives around them. Definition 2: A form of entertainment that permits perfectly sane adults to shed the burdens of ordinary life as they immerse themselves in a drama intended, at its best, to cast light on life's most urgent questions; a drama concocted by someone you don't know from Adam who nonetheless may bestow on you a gift of consolation, catharsis or broadening of conscience, sometimes while making you laugh yourself silly. Definition 3: a literary genre that appears to be shriveling in popularity, threatening further the already-dwindling profits of book publishers.

In the month-long fray over James Frey, one question has gone largely unexamined: Why do readers suddenly seem to prefer the so-called truth to fiction? It's a foregone conclusion that memoirs now sell better than novels, that magazines are giving short stories the shaft. Has fiction become a dirty word?

On my bedside table sit four fine contemporary books: a poetry collection, a nonfiction narrative about the fall of the World Trade Center towers and two novels. One novel you might call historic, in that a major character is Alfred Kinsey, a made-up real guy; the other is the story of a mother whose grown daughter has gone on a political hunger strike. Both are riveting, the first as a psychological immersion in a particular culture (ours) at a particular turning point, the second as an emotional and ethical immersion in one mother's dark night of the soul. Would the mother's story be more "real," more "redemptive," had she and her suffering been drawn from "life"? No. When I give myself over to a good novel, I surrender to the truths fashioned from one writer's heart, mind and soul. I do not waste a nanosecond wondering whether what I'm reading "really happened." I know that it might happen; in tandem with the author, I contemplate the consequences of the question "What if?"

Fiction writers work tremendously hard to make things that are patently untrue seem as true as possible. "Let me tell you a story that isn't true," beckons the fiction writer, "and I will show you some of the truest things you'll ever know." A good novel is an out-of-self experience. It lifts you off the ground so that you have the sensation of flying. It says, Look at the world around you; learn from the people in these pages, neither quite me nor quite you, how life is lived in so many different ways. A memoir says, Look at me; learn from me how one life has been lived. That solipsistic focus has its place; it, too, can move and inspire, but only fiction can give us faith that we all have the imaginative capability to understand any number of stories not our own, especially the stories of people who never would or could write a memoir.

Recently I read a novel narrated by a middle-aged man trying to solve the mystery of his own death. His posthumous recollections are rife with sorrow — murder, addiction, adultery, loss of a child — and offer no promise of heaven. Almost impossibly, yet therefore powerfully, this novel is incandescent with honesty and hope. A fine memoir is to a fine novel as a well-wrought blanket is to a fancifully embroidered patchwork quilt. The memoir, a logical creation, dissects and dignifies reality. Fiction, wholly extravagant, magnifies it and gives it moral shape. Fiction has no practical purpose. Fiction, after all, is art.

At its best, fiction cultivates fantasy and compassion; at its worst, memoir provokes schadenfreude and prurience. The ugly truth, I fear, is that many people are drawn to sensational memoirs for the same reason they watch "The Apprentice": they like to witness actual suffering, before-your-very-eyes humiliation. Notice how the first wave of rage in the Frey fracas was directed at those who uncovered the fabrications. Doubleday issued a Silly Putty definition of memoir, Larry King took the "He's only mortal" call-in from Mount Olympus, and readers insisted that the book had changed their lives "anyway." Yet these defenses quickly crumbled once Oprah Winfrey staged a public flaying. Mr. Frey didn't really go through hell? Well, she would show him hell. It wasn't James Frey's redemption that viewers cared about most; it was his shame. First the book, then the show: a double helping for mortification junkies everywhere.

I live a few miles from Salem, Mass., where visitors to the trumped-up "witch museums" shudder at images from a sinister era when stocks and gallows were a source of amusement. But how much more civilized are we? Much of contemporary entertainment slakes a thirst for the pain and abasement of others. Fiction doesn't cut it anymore because no one really and truly suffers. In fact, this is crucial to what fiction does. Through it, you experience empathy in its purest form because what you cannot experience is blame. Blame requires at least one beating heart.

Have we grown impatient with flights of fancy and with the sort of rumination that takes us deeper into ourselves? Psychotherapy takes too long; even yoga's getting stale. We're so thoroughly "plugged in" that it feels unnatural to be carried away on the private, illusory adventure of a novel. Americans want their diversions short, loud and filled with telegenic hardships. Perhaps there is a growing consensus, however sad, that the wayward realm of make-believe belongs only to our children, along with talking pigs who run the circus.

I will persist, however, in the outmoded business of literary fabrication. When readers tell me they've been moved or simply entertained by something I wrote, I will continue to declare with pleasure that I made it all up — and yet, paradoxically, that it's all true.

Well, pretty all true.

(Julia Glass, author of the forthcoming novel "The Whole World Over," won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2002.)


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