Monday, December 17, 2018

Truth or Lies. Fiction or Nonfiction.

Annamaria on Monday


There is a group of fiction writers in Philadelphia called The Liars Club.  There is a group in the United States government right now that are called the Administration that many feel should adopt that name.

Where has the truth gone?

It's what we all think we want.

But I wonder--did it ever exist?

As a historical novelist, I steep myself in a ton of research before I take on the task of bringing you back to the setting of my story.  Yet I have several times been vilified by card-carrying historians because I write historical fiction.  They think books like mine pollute the factual record.

I think books like theirs tell only one version of the truth--filtered as the facts are though the attitudes of the writer.  I have huge problem with their inability to admit this.

So what is the truth and what is a lie?  Where does fact end and fiction begin?

Mulling over these conundrums, while considering writing this blog, I realized that I had a date this past Saturday to have brunch with the perfect people to talk this over.  Here they are, Jeff and Carol Markowitz:



Jeff is a novelist of wonderful crime novels, my favorite of which is the hilarious Death and White Diamonds.  How did Jeff know that every corpse in the parade of murder victims in the story would make readers laugh?  How did he manage to pull it off?  You got me!


Carol is now completing a nonfiction story of two American soldiers in WWII.  Her sources are their letters to her mother during the war, and her own research into events happening in history while those GIs were writing to her mom of their personal experiences.  It's a book a am very much looking forward to reading.

So we three, over waffles and eggs benedict, took up the subject of what is truth?

We made short work of what happens at the extremes, where it is easy to tell the black and white difference.  This dichotomy is easily apparent if the question is a simple one and requires a simple answer.  If you ask me, for instance, if I have ever been to Copenhagen, "yes" would be an absolute lie, and "no" the absolute truth.  And we are all familiar with the need for white lies told because the truth would be hurtful and the lie does no damage.  How do I like the new decor of your house?  It's lovely, not matter what I actually think.

Little white lies, big white lies, little black lies... there are lots more than fifty shades of gray between truth and fiction.

This was where Jeff said that the real danger of lies is the Campaign of Lying--where many, many small lies are told in order to create a huge untruth.  This is the kind of thing we are seeing on the political and financial fronts, a purposeful maneuver to achieve a nefarious goal.  How much we have seen lately of manipulation of public opinion, resulting in disaster for just about everyone but purveyors of a tsunami of lies.

What more can we say about this?  We shuddered and moved on to things we know and do ourselves.  

Carol had just gotten back from a two and a half day conference in New Orleans of researchers into WWII.  She had had a marvelous time listening to the presentations and hanging out with like-minded researchers and writers.

She told about a speech at the conference by the historical novelist Jessica Shattuck, who began by telling the historians in the audience that she would be grateful if they did not pelt her with rotten tomatoes.   (Evidently Shattuck has run into some of the same sort of nay-sayers I have run into in libraries, who distain "fictionalizing the facts.")  She did not talk about her historical novel--which tells of the widows three real men who plotted the assassination of Hitler.


In her talk Shattuck concentrated instead on what she had learned as a result of her close relationship with her grandparents, who ran a Nazi youth camp in Germany in the thirties.

Here's the rub: The audience, whom she knew would disdain historical fiction, were hungry for the "true" stories of Shattuck's grandparents.  The historians questioned her at length about the details of what she knew to be "facts."  BUT... BUT... What about the fact that these stories happened eighty years and have been dragged through the memories of three generations.  AND that some of the re-tellers may have had emotional reasons to forget or purposely leave out important parts of the story.

In her work, Carol is struggling with similarly difficult choices.  Ernie, one of the GIs in Carol's book was captured by the Germans and sent many of his letters from a Stalag.  He never wrote about feeling guilty that he had survived while his buddies died in battle, or because others were going on dying in new battles, while he lived on in his prison.  When he came home, he was withdrawn and depressed.  Many men who showed up in Carol's research admitted in their writings that they were consumed with survivor guilt.  Was Ernie?  He didn't admit it.  But then what else could have caused Ernie's depression.  Carol wants to tell the truth.  But... But...

She wouldn't have this issue to worry over if she were turning the story into fiction.  Fiction does not have to stick to the facts.


Most historical novelists that I know do their best to respect the facts.

Bad writers of historical fiction can and certainly do play fast and loose with the truth.  I have complained about them right here on MIE, when I pilloried the writers of the TV series Medici, Masters of Florence.  For lots reasons, a person might keep the facts but change the names of the real people involved.  The writers of the Medici series kept the names (and locations and time frame) but completely ignored the facts.  All may be fair in love and war.  But since when does that apply to cable TV?

Jeff and I (and our fellow novelist Richie Narvaez, in conversation later that same day) came  to a realization.  That fiction can and often is the best way to tell the truth.  Short stories and novels can portray with enormous realism what humans on this planet experience.  It is often the only way to find the truth: How people really are.  What life is--or was--really like.


To my way of thinking, for instance, Jane Austen's Persuasion can tell you more about what it meant to be the unmarried daughter of a baronet in the 1800s than can all the treatises written on the subject put together.

20 comments:

  1. Truths told as fiction resonate more with the human psyche than being lectured. We are almost hard-wired to crave the story around the campfire, from which lessons are learned on a subliminal level. Great post, Annamaria.

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    1. Thank you, Zoe. I hated history in school because learning, say the causes of the Hundred Years War taught me nothing. It was historical fiction that hooked me on learning about the past. You have just explained why.

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  2. Excellent, excellent post. Well said and I agree completely.

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    1. Thank you so much, Triss. Coming from a person with your background, what an endorsement!!!

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  3. Great stuff!
    (Perhaps slightly off topic), I'm reading The Political Novel by Stuart A Scheingold: "the literary imagination has long been recognized as capturing the spirit and the soul of the time." They delve, like historical novels, into deeper truths.

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    1. James, how nice to see you here! What you say is not off topic at all. It is exactly our point. Fiction delves deeper and gets closer to reality, and as Zoe said above, to what really matters to the overwhelming majority of people

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  4. Truth is something that each of us experience by ourselves (whether we're together in crowds or not), and so there are as many truths as there are people.

    And how do you KNOW it's true that you've never been to Copenhagen? It's POSSIBLE that, for some unexplained reason, your parents actually took you to Copenhagen when you were an infant, and (for that unexplained reason) NEVER told you about the trip. Unlikely? Probably. Impossible? Not at all.

    'Truth' is sort of the twin sister (through a mirror darkly) of 'secrets.' It's not a secret if more than one person knows it. The truth becomes more true when you know more peoples' experiences of it. It's like a statistical scatter-shot diagram: the more samples you have, the closer you can zero in on the center of the truth.

    And finally (yes, I know, thank god!) truth is a slippery eel. Even seemingly simple truths (like 1+1=2) depend SO much upon definitions and assumptions. People rarely share the same assumptions and definitions of ANYTHING, so "absolute truth" is about as real as a candy-striped unicorn.

    Great column, AmA!

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    1. I am tempted to say, too true, EvKa. All that you say. Except for the "possibility" of my having been Copenhagen. My family was poor (this I mean POOR, not "not rich." There was literally not enough money to buy me shoes, MUCH less a ticket to Denmark. There are absolute truths. Few. Very few. But not none.

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    2. Ah, but you can't rule out that a wealthy person (or a shadow government organization) didn't send your parents on a secret mission... :-)

      I should also have added that truth, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

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    3. Yes, I suppose. There was a war on and transatlantic travel was heavily curtailed, and torpedoes from u-boats were an ever present danger. My father was fighting in the Pacific. But my mother might have taken the chance. Do you suppose she also brought along my two-year-old brother, or left him home with my grandparents? In either case, I’m glad we survived the torpedo.

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    4. See? See? See how much drama and excitement can be hidden in those cracks in 'known' history that can tell us so much more about what life was like "back then." :-)))

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  5. So, historical novelists suffer the same slings and arrows as folk singers. An acquaintance of mine from many years back once had a coffee house in Northhampton, Massachusetts--up by Amherst and Holyoke. He booked top flight folk singers, who performed their own recorded songs, but every time they deviated from their recorded versions, "fans" in the audience would interrupt them shouting out the original lyrics, and generally disrupting the performance. The owner called them "folk song Nazis," as it was their version of the artists' work or nothing. Needless to say, they got their wish, because the artists refused to return to the venue and the coffee house went out of the folk song business.

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    2. All I can say, Bro, is that your friend opened his coffee house in the wrong place. Massachusetts? What a dumb idea. As a frequent denizen of such places in West Village in the 60s and 70s, I can tell you that we never behaved in such a ridiculous way. Even if Bob Dylan changed his lyrics, we were happy to hear whatever was on his mind!

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  6. Very interesting post, Annamaria! It's not only historical fiction where capturing the readers interest through fiction applies, of course. Paul Hardisty is a passionate environmentalist who now runs an important institute trying to protect the Barrier Reef off Queensland. I once asked him why he wrote fiction, given the fascination of his environmental research. He said something like, 'No one reads reports. Fiction communicates the truth to a much broader field of people.'

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    1. Perfect! I will put this though in my arsenal, Michael. Thank e!

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  7. Totally agree with you and Zoë...we lie for a living, non?

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    1. Oui! Mais...
      In doing so, we tell a deeper truth. :)

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  8. very amazing post! I love fiction novels specially historical fiction ones.

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