27 April 2015

Oh Say, Where Is Truth? Part 1: Fact or Fiction?

This is the first in a trilogy of posts about finding truth.

While traveling across Australia by train with my husband in 2006, I became engrossed in a highly-acclaimed biography of one of the prophets of this dispensation, which was written by a believing, committed member of the LDS Church. As the author began referring to the accounts of certain incidents, however, I became at first uncomfortable, and finally very disturbed.

My unease did not come from fears that my testimony would be shaken, but rather because I sensed that much of what was being considered as "history" or "facts" was not really how things actually happened. I doubted the accuracy of some of the original reporting, and the memories of those being quoted, because they didn’t ring true to me.

I put the biography aside, and resumed reading a work of fiction which is loosely based on the life of a prophet of this dispensation, and which was written by another believing, committed member of the LDS church. A few pages into my reading I was struck by the realization that I felt a much stronger sense of "truth" while I was reading that fantasy novel, than I did while reading certain parts of the supposedly non-fiction biography. How could this be?

The people in the biography were real people, and the events chronicled had really happened (at least most of them!). The events and the characters in the novel, although inspired by real events and people, were an invention of the author. What was the “truth” I was sensing?

A reputable biographer is expected show to his objectivity by including contradictory material in his work. He may qualify some material as suspect and classify other material as reliable, but if he omits evidence that runs counter to his personal opinion, he risks his reputation.

However, even the best of intentions cannot guarantee the objective “truth” of the events a biographer or historian chronicles. Every author has both conscious and unconscious biases that may color the interpretation of the source materials they use. In addition, we all know from personal experience that we often mishear what is spoken, misinterpret what we see, remember things inaccurately, report them incorrectly and succumb to the influence of others when we are asked to chronicle events we may have witnessed. Eye-witnesses to crimes have sometimes proved unreliable, as evidenced by the number of convicts being cleared of crimes on the basis of new DNA evidence.

Like me, you have probably been frustrated and annoyed when a trusted news source publishes an article, or broadcasts an investigative report on a subject we know very well, because we see glaring errors in the reporting. Upon reflection we might surmise that it is likely that other stories in the media are similarly error prone, but since we usually don’t have the depth of knowledge to judge properly, we tend to think we are usually getting the straight story.

In contrast to the biographer, the novelist is expected to control the worldview of his novel. He demonstrates his art in the creation of characters whose motivations, relationships and philosophies of life are in harmony with that worldview.

While reading the biography, I believe I often experienced tension because much of what I was reading did not seem to harmonize with things I knew spiritually to be true.

While reading the novel, I felt strongly that author and I shared the same fundamental worldview. Within the imaginary world he created, the characters (including their motivations, reactions and interactions), as well as the events portrayed (including their genesis and the resulting consequences) fully resonated with my sense of the underlying truths of our universe.

I continue to read works of fiction and non-fiction, both to increase my knowledge, and to be entertained. But for me, the best books of both genres, the ones I choose to reread many times, are those that not only inform and delight me, but also speak truth to my soul.


James Goldberg said...

My mother had a similar experience reading a biography of Eliza R. Snow and her autobiography. The autobiography had a lot more sense of Snow's interiority, her feelings and attitudes about things. Stripped of that interior life, the biography read as a bunch of hard things that happened to one woman.
It's not the biography as a genre can't produce a sense of interiority, but most modern biographers are hesitant to really try. Novels sort of have to--although many ring false in their depictions.
Anyway: fascinating post. Thank you.

Rosalie Erekson Stone said...

Thanks you very much for your comment, James. I think that biography is a very challenging genre, and I’m sure authors realize that they are apt to be criticized by some readers as being too critical, and others as too flattering in their portrayal of any famous historical figure they write about.