Silk’s Post #8 — Bombarded by coverage of the last, frantic days of the US election campaign, I’ve been more caught up in the work of speechwriters than novel writers. (For some fascinating insights into the confluence of those two arts, see Robert Lehrman’s New York Times blog post “The Speechwriter’s Life” in which he channels Kurt Vonnegut).
The speeches have made me think a lot lately about The Truth.
For starters: what is it? Yes, I know. This is a big question. Maybe the question. The one that preachers claim to have the answer to, not to mention philosophers, scholars, statisticians, scientists, and (of course) politicians.
I know I’m not likely to produce any new revelations about The Truth in a short blog post. And maybe you’re thinking, What does this have to do with writing a novel – a work of fiction – anyway?
Everything, I think.
Real life never fails to give us rich and entertaining examples of the qualities of ‘truthiness’, as news comictator Stephen Colbert calls it. The essential definition of ‘truth’, for practical purposes, seems to be that which is believed. Does it matter whether a ‘truth’ belongs in the realm of reality? fantasy? science? theology? instinct? academia? propaganda? or pure wackadoodle mania? Apparently, it doesn’t matter a bit. Fervently believed ‘truths’ have arisen from each of these realms. ‘Truths’ that some people, somewhere, are probably willing to live – or even die – for.
The mutable quality of The Truth may be bad news for the future of life on Earth, given our relatively newfound capability to self-destruct – or at least to make the world very, very unpleasant for an unpredictable number of millennia. (One does wonder when enlightenment will catch up with technology).
But fortunately, this is all fantastic news for fiction writers! So, rejoice! There really is a silver lining behind even the shape-shiftiest of clouds. If anything in this world derives its power from believers, it’s fiction. (You thought I was going to say religion, didn’t you? Perhaps that’s something all ‘good books’ have in common).
No matter what genre fiction is written in, a successful novel must offer a truth to its readers. It makes no difference whether the story is set on Earth or some parallel universe. Whether its characters are just-like-us folks or two-headed aliens. A great novel rings true in the heart, and turns readers into believers.
Sorry to go all existential on you here but, for me, this perspective on The Truth actually simplifies the job of fiction writing, and clarifies its goal. Dare to write a novel with truth in its soul – a story and characters that readers can believe in (not just believe, but believe in) – and that book will come alive. Such a book will find itself an agent, and the agent will find a publisher. That book will find shelf space. It will find readers. And it will perform its magic by converting those readers into believers.
Does this all sound like a quasi-spiritual fantasy? A gossamer web, spun in the air with invisible strands?
Perhaps that’s what The Truth is, after all. A web woven from the most fragile of all threads – belief.