Trading with the truth?

This was written just after it was revealed that Norma Khouri was not exactly who she claimed to be and that the sensationalist pot boiler that she had written was not exactly non-fiction. I have been thinking a lot about the fine line between fact and fiction over the last few years. Participating in the professional writing course at RMIT has only made me more aware of how fine that line can be. The piece was written as an exercise in writing opinion pieces. I am not sure I was able to exactly convey how I feel, but I am happy to read your feedback if you have any.

Shock horror; best selling author is a liar! Likewise, an award winning filmmaker who has also penned a few books is accused of playing fast and loose with the truth; but never mind that because maybe their lies make us think about the other liars in the world. The thing is, just about everyone is a little fuzzy when it comes to the truth; if Norma Khouri's book is a product of her imagination, does that really mean that there is no higher truth to it or value in it? If Michael Moore edits news footage to push his own agenda, does that make him a greater propagandist than the corporate news media who love the politicians he mocks?
Truth is everyone lies sometime, because the truth is too complicated; it is too big; so we edit it down to a more digestible size. Not that we really think of this as lying, we sincerely believe that sometimes fudging facts is for a just cause or makes everyone's life a tiny bit easier. Lying in itself is not really a crime; it is the purpose behind the lie that matters.
That is where artists come in; I define art as a lie that pursues, and hopefully reveals, a deeper truth. It is the artist's role to explore alternate truths— in doing so the artist may be compelled deceive or move truth out of the original context. Almost everything that is presented to us as documentary fact contains a certain amount of fiction, even if it is just that facts are stage-managed to make an interesting story. Likewise, behind every fiction there is some truth. Jack Kerourac and Christopher Isherwood turned their real life experiences into entertaining fictions and Joan Lindsay wrote a novel that struck such a truthful chord in Australia's collective imagination that we took it to be an honest tale of how a number of Edwardian era school girls disappeared while on an outing to Hanging Rock.
Current literary fashion seems to favour writers who present works of non-fiction, especially "real life" tales of hardship, courage or tragedy. These books are often uneven in the quality of the actual writing and in the case of Khouri's book; even quite basic factual errors went unnoticed by the editors. Not that I have read Forbidden Love, the literary equivalent of the "based on a true story TV movie of the week" has never held much attraction. Rather than condemn Khouri for being a liar, I would query the motive behind Random House's acceptance of the manuscript. Perhaps the guidelines for publishing literary non-fiction should be exactly the same as for fiction; meaning if the only reason a manuscript is of interest is its claim to be a true account of a person's experience, then maybe it is not really worth publishing.
With Norma Khouri's deception there does seem to be more than a simple gimmick to sell a sensationalistic novel; in interviews she seems to be a sincere and sympathetic character and this hints at a darker aspect to the deception. Pathological liars are often quite compelling characters— such as The Talented Mr Ripley— who will do anything to save themselves from being discovered because on a certain level they believe the fiction they have created is real. It will be interesting to see how this little distraction from the war on terror and other global tragedies plays out.
Bringing me to the kind of lies we should not tolerate. More and more we accept that even when our politicians tell the truth, it is a stage managed truth; it is like the truth of reality TV or the tabloid gossip magazines. Like modern day P.T. Barnum's, successful politicians talk in 10 second news grabs compelling us to feel rather than think; because that is what the commercial news media demands. This is how authoritarian governments are democratically elected into power, good people are guided to turn their heads from the injustice around them and innocents are killed in the name of justice. The average person is overloaded with so much information and distraction there is little time to actually listen to the truth; let alone take the time to understand it. For most people the truth is too complicated and messy.
There's a perverse joy in catching someone out in a lie, but when fiction often contains an unattractive truth, perhaps it is wise to take a step back and examine the message again.

 

cyndy kitt vogelsang 2004


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