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The Art of Truth in nonfiction: an event summary

nonfiction truth in narrative 294x300 The Art of Truth in nonfiction: an event summary

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Last Friday I popped along to The Art of Truth: Writerly Perspectives, the keynote speech of the Nonfiction Now conference. As usual, I came armed with pen and paper and took copious notes. Heres my summary of the event:

Michael Cathcart opened by discussing the idea of truth, as well as the idea of multiple truth. Fiction authors, he noted, are meant to make things up, but what of things such as narrative non-fiction or historical fiction: things that fall between truth and fiction, or along the spectrum of truth?

He asked author and academic David Shields, author of Reality Hunger: A Manifesto whether people still have a need for stories, or whether theres a certain hunger for reality. Shields responded that children love stories, that theyre hardwired for themtheres obviously a need for stories, but at the same time, a need for stories that are congruent with contemporary settings, not for the glacial, 19th Century style stories that are represented by the novel.

On the desire for the 'real'

He added that there is definitely a desire for the real: people lead lives that are so artificial and mediated that they crave reality.

(The ideas of 'truth' and 'reality' seemed to be quite interchangeable throughout the talk, with what is real often being prescribed a 'truth' status, and vice-versa, although there was nuance here.)

Cathcart interjected to ask what is meant by 'people' or the 'we' term that Shields was using, to which Shields defined his audience as western capitalist democracies. Margo Jefferson, a biographer and former journalist at the NYT, chimed in to add that although the old ways of telling stories are still fine, theres an expectation that those stories should be of those times, rather than ours.

Jose Dalisay Jr, a filipino academic and biographer, had a slightly different definition of the 'we', but agreed that there is a desire for reality in his native Philippines: theres a cathartic effect offered by stories that cut to the bone. Australian author Helen Garner, known for her realist fiction, argued that 'real' experiences abound, but need to be searched out by avoiding the media. She described spending time gardening or in the company of children as intensely 'real'.

On 19th century structures and 'real' narratives

Shields added that the other panelists desire for finding a thread of what is real in todays world is congruent with the desire for storytelling structures that reflect this. He argued that the traditional novel structure works as a way to access interiority, but that the very idea of this is obsolete in a world where privacy is scarcely known.

Present-day novels still have 19th century sensibilities, emphasising setting as though theyre Balzac, or character as though theyre drawing on Freud. The extraordinary complexity of their structures implies an almost godlike meaning, a loftiness that is irrelevant: so many novels today are antiquarian, filled with formal gestures.

Shields, though an author of three novels himself, today prefers forms such as literary collages or personal essays: these are the forms that reflect 21st century culture, he said. We need an art that is congruent with how we live now, rather than attempting to recreate the Beethovens, Rembrandts, and Citizen Kanes that were the pinnacles of their times.

On bringing ones own truths to a narrative

Dalisay spoke of his own experiences in writing about his own life in a fictionalised manner, and also about his work as a biographer. He wrote about his life in novel form rather than autobiographical form because he felt that his own life was not interesting enough, and that he wanted to be able to bring other things, stories to the picture. He did not entirely agree with Shields idea of the literary collage being the key 21st century structure in that he feels as though the novel is a format that is still being developed in the Philippines: skipping the novel would be like attempting to develop a post-industrial world without having built the earlier requisite structures.

While in some cultures and contexts the novel probably has been transcended, he said, the novel has never really taken off in the Philippines. Although the form first appeared in the Philippines in the 19th century, there has never been a strong tradition in the form: he feels that its about time that his home country embraced the novels ability to help make sense of reality on a larger scale.

On 'truthful' fiction

Garner was asked about her deeply factual fiction and about her recent works in non-fiction, and whether these represented a frustration with the novel as a form. She acknowledged that sometimes a particular novel will frustrate her to no end, a good novel allows her to revel in a 'glory of happiness' ' its a joyful experience, she said. Some things that can be done in a novel that are precious and valuable.

Shields agreed, saying that he used to love novels'hes read thousands and written several himself'and agrees that the novel is still very much alive and viable in its commercial manifestations. In his case, however, he now finds the architecture of the novel tedious, finding that it takes him away from what matters in the story. He does have a soft spot for 'anti-novels', such as Ben Lerners Leaving the Atocha Station, which he described as only nominally a novel.

He quoted David Foster Wallace as saying:

'We're existentially alone on the planet. I can't know what you're thinking and feeling and you can't know what I'm thinking and feeling. And the very best works construct a bridge across that abyss of human loneliness.'

Writing is meant to solve the challenge of being alive, said Shields. He wants to know what he and others are doing on this planet, and doesnt want to read seven hundred pages just to learn that the narrator wants to get laid. Though hes aware of our 'ADD culture', he has no patience for the grudging good citizenship awards for having produced very big fat novels.

Back to the idea of truth

Jefferson was asked about her Michael Jackson biography, and what her goal as a writer was when undertaking the project. She said that she had been trying to get at all the possibilities and ambivalences of truth that were embodied in Michael Jackson. He was a man of contradiction and ambiguity, and she wanted to be able to explore the many uncertainties of truth and reality that he represented: the project was a task that involved turning research and mythology into prose.

She added that the writer enters into a personal encounter with all of this, and that she positioned herself as writing from both a personal perspective and from that of a commentator, taking on the role of a narrator mediating between herself, Michael Jackson, and the many different types of readers.

Garner added that this sort of intimate engagement and paradoxical distance is something thats also seen in criticism. When writing Joe Cinques Consolation, she didnt know how to write the book: she found that she had to be in the book, an 'I' person walking around the facts. Theres no point in getting into the story and 'wading around just out of passion'. Through her research she came across things that shocked her, but didnt experience any of the ambiguity spoken of by Jefferson. It was a struggle yes, but more of an architectural problem than an existential one. She sees novels and nonfiction as fairly similar, and naturally tends to write quite factually.

On dealing with your own views when writing

Dalisay was asked about his own experience in writing a biography of a political individual'something intensely personal to him given that he was imprisoned under the Marcos regime.

He said that he felt that his own political views were essential to understanding a situation, but that an author doesnt need to drag their own experiences into their writing. Although the biography commission was a difficult one, he felt that it was worthwhile both as a writer and politically, in that it meant that he was able to uncover various political machinations in ways not yet done before. He was able to draw out certain pieces of information by asking leading questions, and dealt with material that he disagreed with by writing from his clients perspective and including verbatim quotes where required. Although he couldnt hope that the book would do much more than start a discussion, he hoped that it was one that other political experts would extend.

On the responsibility to tell the 'full' truth

Cathcart then asked the panellists whether authors had a responsibility to tell the full truth, or whether truth could be played with to some degree depending on the type of work being presented.

Dalisay said that if he were to do a work of history or creative non-fiction that he would work with the truth as much as possible: its like poker, he said, and you have to play the cards that you have. Theres always a workaround that can be found. Jefferson said that she wasnt entirely of that view. Shes intrigued by narrative and truth shifts, and is all right with them just so long as the author signals in some way that what is being told isnt entirely true. Garner, on the other hand, says that she gets around it by being in the text herself: her narrator character can shape the text and offer signals to the reader about what may or may not be truth.

Shields says that he wants to define nonfiction not as a literal translation of the 'real', but as a trampoline on which to bounce existential questions, and wants nonfiction to become more about the writer and the writers internal journey, rather than about the 'facts'. We live in a society, he argued, where nonfiction can engage in a way that novels cant. Making truth of an elusive target is where non-fiction gets interesting, he said, to which Dalisay added that sometimes it takes a view from the outside in order to show the truth.


  1. The art of truth in nonfiction: an event summary @wheelercentre

  2. Some good points to ponder here on the topic of truth in non-fiction work. Thanks for sharing!