Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Stories, truth and ourselves.

I've been thinking a lot recently about truth, and honesty, and reality, and the relationships between them. I like to think of it as a Truth Detox. Not that I want to be honest all the time, you understand (I'm not quite ready for that yet, and I'm not sure if I ever will be) - it's more about being aware of the ways I lie and elude and fudge things to myself. One of the things that has dawned on me over the last few months is that lying to other people is morally grey, in the sense that you can judge each lie on a case-by-case basis, dependent on context: but lying to yourself is always, always wrong, because it means you automatically pass that on to other people. Once you stop being honest with yourself, there's no choice involved.

That is one of those things that when you write it down looks about a hundred times less profound than when you thought of it. Phooey.

But aaaaanyway. Thinking about truth is particularly interesting if the way you earn your living is all about fiction. Because, at its best, fiction is truthful. It's the big Defense of Poesie, isn't it, that by creating something that isn't real you can find a space to say something that is enlightening and recognisable and, well, you know... spot on. We've all had those moments, when you read a novel and think: yes. Yes, absolutely yes. The best moments in reading are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - that you'd thought special, particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you've never met, maybe even someone long dead. And it's as if a hand has come out and taken yours. Yes, the past does come back and haunt us exactly the way it does in The Ghost of Thomas Kempe. Yes, misery does make me lean against walls for no apparent reason, like in I Capture The Castle; yes, memory does run the risk of driving us mad, like in Funes, His Memory. And yes, the important thing in this life is not aunts but the courage with which you face them.*

But it's not that simple. The big problem a lot of people have with trashy writing (mentioning no naTwilightmes, of course) is that it just doesn't ring true. Or worse, it provides people with a narrative that is simultaneously dishonest and seductive - which means that not only is it not edifying (and I use that in the deepest, most liberal sense, which is nothing to do with "improving" literature) it is actually really problematic. Like it or not, books rehearse the world for us: they teach us how to think about ourselves, our relationships, our bodies. They work in the same way that advertising does. We need to think carefully about the narratives we give people, because narratives are powerful.

Which is not to say that there isn't a place for trashy books, in the same way that there is sometimes a place for conscious lying - or self-indulgent dreaming, or any kind of activity which takes us out of ourselves. Actually - yes, that's a good phrase. Things that take us out of ourselves are fine - good, in fact - as long as we can put ourselves back afterwards. Lying - or buying into someone else's lie - is defensible as long as you know it's a lie.

What makes this more interesting is that it's not only bad writing that helps us lie to ourselves. I originally started thinking about this post because of something I remembered from a long time ago, when I was in a messy love-triangle-relationship-thingy, and happened to go and see the film of The End of the Affair. I still remember, very clearly, walking out of the cinema, feeling suddenly very passionate about my lover. Not because of anything about him, you understand, but because the story had resonated with me, because the tragedy and romance of it made me think of my own situation - in the same way that seeing an advert for a perfume you already wear can, briefly, make you feel more glamorous than just wearing the perfume does. This, I said to myself, is my story. Like those characters, I am having an affair. Therefore, like those characters, I am tragic and lovable and romantic... It's dangerous. And yet, the ability of narratives to validate our own experience is part of its wonder. It just has to be confronted honestly.

Not sure what point, if any, I am trying to make here. Maybe that, when it comes down to it, real people are more important than fictional characters. Life is more important than art. Lying can be good as long as it's done knowingly, in the context of the truth.

Not, perhaps, terribly profound. (OK, that "perhaps" is there to salve my pride. But I'm going to leave it there anyway.) But - I like to think - for a writer, it's a good thing to get clear in my head.

* Jokes, of course, have to pinpoint something that's simultaneously an exaggeration and absolutely true, otherwise they're not funny.

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