WHAT TRUTH IS THERE IN FICTION?
There are stories that, whether they contain any or not, ring with truth and sound real. There are other stories that sound false, feel contrived and are not believable. All of this is moderated by the fact that good writers can make impossible and false things seem real, and that bad writers can make things that actually happened and are actually true sound patently false.
I read a story this morning which not only felt inelegant and overly mannered, but it also sounded contrived and falsely stylized, like it was trying too hard. It was a story in an anthology, and the narrator’s patois came off as precious in a vulgar and false way. Does anyone, I asked myself, actually speak like that? Or am I reading a writer with a tin ear and an overly eager keyboard, someone with flawed transcription powers? A writer who just got it wrong, like when an American actor tries to imitate a French or German or Latino accent and fails? Like Al Pacino trying to sound Cuban but flubbing it big time.
It also occurred to me that perhaps the story was depicting a slice of society in which the local argot is one that I am simply neither conversant with nor have been exposed to. I like to think that I have a good ear for accents, real and phony, though not good enough to imitate an accent myself. Gwyneth Paltrowen does a convincing British accent. Hugh Laurie and Henry Cavill do American impeccably. Kevin Costner can’t do anything but American. And few American actors can do French with any sense of grace or verisimilitude.
Fiction, I’ve been intuiting more than actually learning, is a tricky and trickster’s medium. It is composed of words, and words are the bricks with which both truth and bullshit are built with. Bad writers offend. Good writers seduce.
And, of course, there are a million reasons why we read. Truth and accuracy are only two of them. But in the end what seduces us is believability. Make me believe. Do you really love me? And will you still love me tomorrow?
Either one of those things may or may not be true. But your convincing me that either one of them is true will get me to take my pants off. And then you can have your way with me.
Now that’s a good writer.