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March 4, 2008


Fishing for the truth

Some people would say it’s been a bad month for the truth, especially literary truth.

First Misha Defonseca’s best-selling Holocaust memoir, Misha, turns out to be a fabrication.

Then a gangland memoir, Love and Consequences, published under the pseudonym of Margaret Seltzer, turns out to be another one.

In both cases, the events described in the books could have happened. But they didn’t. Or at least they didn’t to the author, who presented them as autobiographical fact.

The incidents raise several questions. Why did the authors feel the need to present these stories as nonfiction? Why did they — and probably their editors — feel the stories would carry more weight as nonfiction than as fiction? Promoted as novels, they would have avoided criticism, but perhaps they wouldn’t have been gobbled up quite so eagerly. These incidents come on the heels of a series of recent storms over plagiarism and fact-fudging, mostly minor tempests that somehow escaped their teapots and threatened to obscure the entire publishing horizon. Why are we so fixated on facts, often at the expense of the larger truth that only fiction can convey?

I wonder if these concerns are somehow related to the general political climate, in which we have been flooded with lies until our heads are spinning. It’s an issue as old as fiction itself.

The work generally described as the world’s first novel, The Tale of Genji, recognized the dangerous territory it was entering. In the famous “Fireflies” chapter, Genji finds his beloved Tamazakura in her chambers, surrounded by illustrated stories.

“What a nuisance this all is,” he said one day. “Women seem to have been born to be cheerfully deceived…. I think that these yarns must come from people much practiced in lying.”

Tamazakura sees through him:

She pushed away her inkstone. “I can see that that would be the view of someone much given to lying himself. For my part, I am convinced of their truthfulness.”

Even the skeptical Genji begins to come around, acknowledging that he might have been too literal in his approach:

“There are differences in the degree of seriousness. But to dismiss them as lies is itself to depart from the truth. Even in the writ which the Buddha drew from his noble heart are parables, devices for pointing obliquely at the truth.”

A pretty scary idea — pointing obliquely at the truth. But sometimes the truth, like Zhuangzi’s fish, can only be captured by stealth:

The reason for a fish-trap is the fish. When the fish is caught the trap may be ignored. The reason for the rabbit snare is the rabbit. When the rabbit is caught the snare may be ignored. The reason for language is an idea to be expressed. When the idea is expressed, the language may be ignored.

When people are starving — for food or for truth — they need sustenance. The more fish-traps they have, the more fish they can catch. Why quibble over which kind to use?

       — Copyright Betsey Culp 2008