Reflecting on the Art of Truth and Performance Narratives

NonfictioNow 2012 took place in Melbourne last week

It brought together writers, teachers, readers and students of nonfiction from around the world. There were three days of panels, readings and events that focused on the practice, thinking, communication and writing of nonfiction in all its forms.

I caught a conversation from the conference about The Art of Truth on Radio National’s Book and Arts Daily.  Helen Garner, David Shields, Jose Dalisay and Margo Jefferson talked with Michael Cathcart about re-presenting the truth in non-fiction writing. The trail for the program was:

If you’re a journalist or a historian, you are supposed to write truth. You may have a complex concept of the truth, you may acknowledge that in any one moment there are many truths however, the point is that they are all truths. You can’t make things up. But if you’re a fiction writer, you’re supposed to make stuff up; the more imaginative the better. But these simple distinctions don’t really help us make sense of the way in which we try to get at the truth through social media, reality TV, and film. Plus there are the works which are hybrid, such as historical novels like Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies by Hillary Mantel. These books are novels, but they do, implicitly, claim to be truthful.

During the conversation David Shields read out a paragraph written by Philip Roth. I picked up on a separate quote after listening to that reading.

Philip Roth said:

As you well know, the intriguing biographical issue—and critical issue, for that matter—isn’t that a writer will write about some of what has happened to him, but how he writes about it, which, when understood properly, takes us a long way to understanding why he writes about it. A more intriguing question is why and how he writes about what hasn’t happened—how he feeds what’s hypothetical or imagined into what’s inspired and controlled by recollection

I went away thinking about how sport scientists might judge their work as fiction. We tend to talk about validity and reliability in research. Perhaps we could talk about truth too. I like the idea that we should account for what has not happened and how we re-present our experience to others who were not there at the time decisions were made about what data to include and exclude.

In my own case this post was readied by my viewing of a picture of Einstein’s office at Princeton and by the availability of a car journey that allowed me to listen to the entire hour of the Radio National program. Philip Roth was the pivot for my thinking about narrative as was revisiting this 1998 presentation that included ideas about narrative from David Polkinghorne and Elliot Eisner.

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