No Such Thing As Fiction: Blurring the Lines Between Fact and Fiction
Updated: Dec 14, 2019
“On November 16, 2016 Oxford Dictionaries announced that “post-truth” had been selected as the word which, more than any other, reflects “the passing year in language.” It defines “post-truth” as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief,” reads an article on Newsweek titled, “The Truth About Post-Truth Politics.”
An article on Forbes titled, “The Post-Truth World – Why Have We Had Enough Of Experts?” reads: “We are living in a post-truth world, where alternative facts and fake news compete on an equal footing with peer-reviewed research and formerly-authoritative sources.”
The Wallstreet Journal, New York Times, Atlantic, they all use this phrase, post-truth era. In media, philosophy, and social media we see people talking about fake news, alternative facts, and the decimation of truth in our society. When did this stuff start becoming acceptable? Since when did people stop looking for the truth and start accepting whatever they wanted? It’s nothing short of a conscious choice to discard what we don’t like and take what we do, regardless of reality.
It was my last term at the University of Tampa. I was in an MFA for creative writing. Each term we’d be assigned books to read as a class and discuss them on campus. This particular term we were assigned Thomas French’s ‘nonfiction’ book Zoo Story. We sat in the auditorium and department director, Erica Dawson, took the stage and started asking us questions about the book. It wasn’t like quizzical questions to gotcha, but questions like what did you like or dislike and why. In every term I’d had previously, students never said they disliked the reading–at least not in the open group. They wouldn’t criticize the books, but instead, it was strict praise or silence. Considering there were about 80 or more of us in the room, not everyone had to comment. So those who wanted to praise something spoke, sometimes Professor Dawson would pick someone, and everyone else would sit quietly and likely hope they weren’t called on.
I listened to a handful of people praise the book: they talked about the voice, the narrative, the idea of the story and how they liked the elephants. I had a major problem with this book and no one was bringing it up–and I doubted anyone would given the record, so I raised my hand. When called on, I said I had a problem with the book calling itself nonfiction when the author had written fictitious text into it. French’s book was about the Lowry Zoo in Tampa, Florida and it was written from his perspective as well as the “I” perspective from people he claims to have interviewed. The book moves through a handful of years and switched from himself to employees of the zoo, to the zookeeper and his wife at some point. So all of them were human characters he could talk to. The book itself was anti-zoo and claiming people as irresponsible. To help prove his point, there were a few times in the book where he wrote the thoughts of the animals, I distinctly remember a cheetah having a thought and it wasn’t prefaced with something like, “I thought the animal looked like,” or “I could imagine it thinking.” French, instead, completely plastered human emotion and human thought onto animals of the Lowry Zoo then continued to call it nonfiction.
By saying something is nonfiction, it means the author prepared something with honesty to the best of their knowledge. To make something up is completely contradictory to the truth. To make matters worse, the fiction the author inserted was politically aimed to agree with him. I pointed at that in writing animal thoughts and calling it nonfiction, the author delegitimized himself as a truth-teller and it left me wondering what else he had lied about in the book. If someone proves they’ll lie once, what’s to stop them from lying again?
To my surprise, there was a lot of pushback against me for saying lies had no place in nonfiction. Hands rushed into the air to rebut me:
“–But what French did was fine because what he wrote helped what he was trying to say. If it’s to help prove a point, then it’s okay to make things up,” they said. Student after student raised their hand to speak out against me and justify lying as a means to an end. This is beyond unethical. If it’s okay to lie to prove a point, then why can’t newspapers and census reports exaggerate numbers of crimes in order to demonize individuals or groups? Why is ‘fake news’ demonized? We’re wondering where this ‘post-fact era’ is coming from, but it’s starting with students who grow up learning it’s okay to lie if it convinces people to your side.
It’s a dangerous precedent to start. When does it cross the line? It shouldn’t be justifiable just because you agree with the lie that’s being made or the point they’re trying to press. Inserting fabrications into the truth should be looked down upon no matter who’s doing it. That, or you no one can be demonized for lying and the newspaper becomes nothing but a hateful fanfiction written by mendacious people.
A term prior to this we were visited by author, Lidia Yuknavitch. To prepare for her visit, we were assigned her book The Small Backs of Children. After I completed it, I wanted to see what other people thought of it–mostly because I personally hated it, but wanted to get some other perspectives. Upon reading reviews, there were a lot of people talking about how much of it was similar to her other book The Chronology of Water, but why this was wouldn’t make complete sense until Yuknavitch’s seminar during the residency. Every headlining author who visited our program also spent an hour or two in seminar. Yuknavitch’s was on combining fiction and nonfiction. During her seminar, she explained that many all of her books (at the time) were a mixture of fiction and nonfiction, based on experiences she’d had. Like French, she believed in adding things to real experiences in order to prove a point. The big difference between her and French was Yuknavitch didn’t publish her works as nonfiction. In fact, she believed nonfiction didn’t actually exist.
She argued that in every work of nonfiction, something is always added, thus making nonfiction a myth. At the time of her visit, I had a friend who was writing a book about a crime her mother had worked on as an investigator. She read police files, interviewed those involved, and put a lot of work into the accuracy of her information. We’d had speakers who wrote biographies of people who have long since passed and I think it’s insincere to say all these people are lying. I think it’s especially insincere if we assume everyone is lying from the get-go because they have some point they’d rather prove through fiction than do research, present the facts, and let everyone decide for themselves.
At the end of the discussion on French, there was an agreement in the auditorium that fabricating the truth was justifiable as long as it made an argument more convincing — and this is why we are in a post-truth era. This is why fake news, alternative facts, and stupid people run rampant.
Storytelling and writing have been used to examine society, reveal the truth, and pass on myth, legend, culture, and news. What I’ve seen over the last few years are authors, writers, reporters, and journalists who are more concerned with world-building than the traditional tenets of storytelling. Finishing up an advanced degree in writing, I was able to witness this first hand. I wasn’t among the professionals pushing out news articles at any mainstream outlet, however, I was among people who would like to have their content consumed en masse. I was among a mixture of authors of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. I was among the information distributors of the future. If they believe the truth is whatever they create, not what has happened, I’m worried. If we were learning that truth doesn’t matter in a writing program, I cannot imagine what they’re teaching in journalism.
It’s not just artists who have lost their way, but society as a whole: people care less about what the truth is and more about if it’s a good story or it matches their version of the world. People don’t seek to find and tell the truth anymore, they forsake research in favor of personal biases. Authors, journalists, and those with the responsibility, to tell the truth, have stumbled upon something they don’t like. I think we’ve reached a point where they stopped doing the research because they realize the research doesn’t agree with the world they’ve created and so instead of reporting the world as it is, they report the world as they want it. They ignore reality while spouting fiction in hopes that if they repeat themselves enough, they can create the world they want and then shout, “I told you so” at their dissenters.
Storytellers, especially those writing any form of nonfiction, be it a news article, biography, historical record, or even poetry, no longer care about learning, discovery, enlightenment, or honesty. They care about being right; they care about humiliating the opponent; they care about bragging rights.
There’s a war for the future. It’s been going on for much longer than we know. They tell us the truth doesn’t matter by teaching post-modernism in school, by saying there’s no such thing as evidence, and by validating feelings as if they are facts. They tell you there is no such thing as the truth which gives everyone permission to make up whatever world they want and since the evidence doesn’t exist, there’s no way to prove what the truth is.
Disinformation is the weapon, the wrecking ball, and historical pencil, but it’s not the end.
Ayn Rand said, “You can run from reality, but you can’t run from the consequences of reality.”
As long as there are truth seekers and truth tellers out there, as long as people are willing to listen, learn, hear criticism, and change their ideas, we’re not lost in a post-truth era. We’re just taking a slight detour. At the very least, we can wait for Rand’s words to prove true as the falsehoods spoken can never outrun the truth of reality and when reality catches up, she’s not the kindest of souls, especially to those pushing lies about her.