What Is Truth?—J. Conrad Guest

Or maybe the better question, the more pertinent question where fiction is concerned, is where is truth in text today?

Photo courtesy of Craig David Butler

Photo courtesy of Craig David Butler

As a reader, I’ve always sought truth in what I read. As a writer, as an artist, I not only seek perfection in my work—a noble endeavor if not achievable—but also to impart truth.

The late Susan Sontag said, “Literature is a form of responsibility—to literature itself and to society. By literature, I mean literature in the normative sense, the sense in which literature incarnates and defends high standards. By society, I mean society in the normative sense too, which suggests that a great writer of fiction, by writing truthfully about the society in which she or he lives, cannot help but evoke (if only by their absence) the better standards of justice and of truthfulness which we have the right (some would say the duty) to militate for in the necessarily imperfect societies in which we live.”

Sontag thought of writers as “moral agents.” She said, “In my view, a fiction writer whose adherence is to literature is, necessarily, someone who thinks about moral problems: about what is just and unjust, what is better or worse, what is repulsive and admirable, what is lamentable and what inspires joy and approbation. This doesn’t entail moralizing in any direct or crude sense. Serious fiction writers think about moral problems practically. They tell stories. They narrate. They evoke our common humanity in narratives with which we can identify, even though the lives may be remote from our own. They stimulate our imagination. The stories they tell enlarge and complicate—and, therefore, improve—our sympathies. They educate our capacity for moral judgment.”

Some argue against moral judgment as an attack against their personal rights. “Who are you to define what is moral?” they ask, as if right and wrong are not obverse sides of the same coin, that they exist only in shades of gray, as if only some greater being—whether an existential being or an anthropomorphic deity—is capable of distinguishing between the two. For instance, it is okay to tell a lie to protect someone from a painful truth (or to hide one’s own shame and deny accountability). To take a life is okay if it’s in the name of country or honor, and Corporate America can profit from it. We flock to the box office to see the vigilante justice in franchises like Die Hard and cheer when revenge is exacted, which is not the same as justice. Pornography, they debate, harms no one. It is protected under the First Amendment; yet how many would freely admit to their spouse or significant other, their children, that they view such material, to the detriment of their family relationships? Which brings up a question better suited for another topic: How many live their lives as if it were an open book?

Sontag: “To tell a story is to say: This is the important story. It is to reduce the spread and simultaneity of everything to something linear, a path.

“To be a moral human being is to pay, be obliged to pay, certain kinds of attention.

“When we make moral judgments, we are not just saying that this is better than that. Even more fundamentally, we are saying that this is more important than that. It is to order the overwhelming spread and simultaneity of everything, at the price of ignoring or turning our backs on most of what is happening in the world.”

It seems to me that truth in fiction is dying. Writers talk about consistency of character, that they should behave in a believable fashion, but that’s not truth. The major publishing houses, agents, creative writing courses, seem to eschew truth for entertainment. One has only to look at the Bestseller List to see that this is true. The same can be said about movies: action and violence sells; truth is boring.

I’ve met my share of consumers who freely admit to reading simply to escape from their reality. Many don’t care to read anything too deep or thought-provoking, or that perhaps mirrors too closely their own reality. Their awareness of what lies outside their reality is that of a voyeur. Quality didn’t sell 50 Shades of Gray, nor did any semblance of truth. Curiosity and vulgarity did.

How many writers today seek truth in their work, and how many simply identify an audience—for instance, unhappy housewives, or fanatics of vampires or werewolves—and simply write to that audience? The mercenary who writes for a paycheck is really saying that sales are more important than truth.

This is why I think the novel is dying: the desensitization, or decay, of society. Writers today strive to be vanilla, politically correct, offensive to no one, so that they can reach the widest audience. As a result, few authors stretch our perception of the world around us, at least not beyond the bounds of poor taste, that which encompasses violence and vulgarity.

Sontag: “Is this refusal of an extended awareness, which takes in more than is happening right now, right here, not at the heart of our ever-confused awareness of human evil and of the immense capacity of human beings to commit evil? Because there are, incontestably, zones of experience that are not distressing, which give joy, it remains a puzzle that there is so much misery and wickedness. A great deal of narrative, and the speculation that tries to free itself from narrative and become purely abstract, inquires: Why does evil exist? Why do people betray and kill one another? Why do the innocent suffer?

“But perhaps the problem ought to be rephrased: Why is evil not everywhere? More precisely, why is it somewhere but not everywhere? And what are we to do when it doesn’t befall us? When the pain that is endured is the pain of others?”

In today’s book industry, if it doesn’t sell, it isn’t relevant. But if truth isn’t relevant, what’s that say about the world around us?

J. Conrad Guest, author of: 500 Miles To GoA Retrospect In DeathA World Without MusicBackstop: A Baseball Love Story In Nine InningsJanuary’s Thaw, and One Hot January

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8 Comments

Filed under musings, writing

8 responses to “What Is Truth?—J. Conrad Guest

  1. Wonderful thought provoking post. Thank you

  2. Well, truth is relevant, J.C. – and it’s also relative. My neighbor’s “truth” may be my imponderable — or vice versa.

  3. Thanks, as always, Sheila, for stopping by.

    Thanks to you, too, Chuck and Heidi Thurston, for your comment, although I don’t agree with your assessment that truth is relative. Truth can be only what it is: truth. That a truth might not apply directly to us doesn’t make it any less a truth or even relative. Our opinion of certain truths may be relative—depending on age, gender, race, even status—but again, truth is, and can only be, what it is.

  4. “Our opinion of certain truths may be relative—depending on age, gender, race, even status—” — Absolutely. In fact, the great task would be to find a simple human truth that is not relative, i.e., supported by empirical evidence. Good luck with that one…

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