Wednesday, May 14, 2008

So you want the truth …

Many, many years ago when I had just started Year 7 my science teacher asked the class to write about what would happen if the sun stopped shining. I had learned all about photosynthesis in Year 6, so I wrote a story about the end of the world.
“Fade to black,” I called it.
I was pleased with my story. I was not pleased when the science teacher disdainfully held it up between thumb and forefinger in front of the class as an example of what primary school babies wrote.
“You’re in high school now,” he said. “You need to write science reports, not this science fiction”. And he threw my story on my desk with its mark of 1/10. This was a brutal introduction to scientific methodology and reporting. A quick lesson, remembered ever since that report writing was different to writing a story.
But while the writing mode had to be different, did truth change through being narrated in another way? My juvenile apocalyptic account of the end of the world due to the dying of the sun was true enough in that life needs sunlight to sustain it. But my science teacher required me to give it (questionable) scientific validity and describe in the form of problem, method, results and conclusion. Did this make it more truthful?
Only if you trust scientists absolutely. And you should not. Scientific fraud is not unknown. In 2006 two stem-cell research papers written by Woo Suk Hwang previously published in Science were retracted when the editors were advised Hwang had fabricated data. The esteemed medical journal Lancet also had to withdraw a paper by John Sudbo when it was discovered the patient histories included in them were invented. Researchers have also been known to report only positive results from their research, and this has led to the public release of pharmaceutical drugs whose adverse side effects have been fatal. There are many more examples, so scientific reports are no indicator of truthfulness. They can be as much fiction as, well, fiction.
Nevertheless scientists expect communication in the form of a report. A report provides a comprehensible structure. The structure is comfortably familiar, even if the contents are completely false. A false report can escape detection because it “looks right”. Most casual readers won’t necessarily check the data or the references.
It is clear from Bookscan sales data that biographies and autobiographies are popular sales categories. For the sale of trade books in the period January to September 2007 autobiographies and biographies make up the largest segment (4.5%) of the non-fiction category. Non-fiction itself represented 34.9% of trade books sold, while fiction made up only 26.8% of trade books sold. Thanks to a new Harry Potter book, children’s books had a massive 36.4% of the trade book market. So, according to the figures, if you can’t publish Harry Potter, a biography or autobiography is the next best bet, and publishers after all are betting people. Like lawyers, their business is all about risk and minimising it.
As a literary form, biographies and autobiographies traditionally have been regarded as “true stories”. But you have to question the nature of truth when a seventy-year-old, say, is writing about herself as a twenty year old. First, memory is selective. Then there are the boring bits left out because, well, they are boring. These boring bits may well be years of one’s person’s life. The resulting autobiography may well be an interesting narrative, with some matters in it that apparently “happened”, but they are as much “truth” as the drawings of a three-year old are “true” images of reality – that is, each is circumscribed by age, perception and ability. Each is not provable scientific fact, but interpretation. Hence, autobiography and biography are really and appropriately fiction, although the term “faction” might more appropriate.
Truth travels only a matter of degrees between a “true” autobiography and a fantasised story written as though it were an autobiography. The difficulty – the fraud – comes when one is passed off as the other, since each may be equally as good as each other as literary works. But is it really fraud? Regardless of genre or form, shouldn’t the quality of the writing be the final arbiter for good writing?
In Australia we are probably too rigid with our categorisations of what is fiction and non-fiction. Recently, I spoke about these issues with German author Uwe Timm, whose book In my brother’s shadow moved me greatly. Uwe insists this book is fiction, despite the fact that his includes excerpts from his dead brother’s diary, and that he writes in the first person as “Uwe Timm” about his own memories of World War II. Uwe’s brother was a member of the Waffen SS fighting on the Russian front. The diary his brother wrote there is the sort of straightforward account you might expect of an eighteen-year old – until he is wounded and reality sets in and the writing ceases. Uwe, fifty years later, wonders whether his brother felt guilt at his role in some of the worst atrocities of the war. He reflects on why his brother enlisted, how his mother and sister coped with the fire bombing of Hamburg, how he as a young child was rushed into air-raid shelters as Hamburg was firebombed. It appears to be almost all fact.
Another fact is that on one of the nights Uwe records in his book, a night when he was rushed through the streets showered with burning ashes, high above him my father peered out into the flak-lit sky from the cockpit of his Lancaster. Further back in the plane his bomb aimer lay prone and prepared to let loose the plane’s evil belly load of phosphorous bombs. The bombs were cruel weapons. My father knew that. The fact gnawed at him. The guilt had not abated even as I held his dying body in 2001. He knew he was killing civilians. Three-year-olds, as Uwe was at the time. Mothers. Grandparents. Those the soldiers had left at home in Hamburg, trusting they were relatively safe. My father was sent home to New Zealand later in 1943, sick in spirit and with bronchitis, conscious that the survival rate for the Allied air forces over Europe was only one in 2. He was merely 22 years old.
In defence of my father, Uwe argues that the phosphorous bombs were part of a desperate defence against the premeditated aggression of the Nazis, in whose tortuous philosophy his 18-year-old brother became entangled. He leaves open any analysis of the morality in such a thing as a premeditated attack on Iraq. He leaves open the distance of truth between himself at three on the ground and my father some miles up in the air at 22. He tells a story that is about truth but not “true”. He does not accept his story is memoir because he knows he has structured it as a novel. He is proud of the fugue form he has used, of the story’s rhythm, of its semblance of reality. He is proud, as he should be, of his beautiful narrative.
What is truth after all except the spaces between words?

Parts of this article first appeared in the April 2008 issue of Australian Author. Copyright © 2008 Jeremy Fisher/Australian Society of Authors.

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