If You're Looking for the Truth, Start With Something Made Up
OK, why not. Let's begin with a slightly melodramatic plea: We need the truth. The unvarnished, genuine, all-powerful, humble truth. Three sentences in, and this piece may seem entirely pointless. Of course the truth matters. Of course we need it. And yet.
And yet, bored focus-group participants nibble on biscuits, waiting to escape with their vouchers. Grads produce suspiciously perfect vox pops. "The data" gives whatever truth is required. Global insight surveys discover we live busy lives. So it goes, all in blind pursuit of objective truth.
We have an arsenal of tools to construct the truth, as if we're building an Ikea bookshelf, and yet, we're making work that people hate.
A dusty antidote sits on our shelves. It's bountiful. A rich source of truth that we should start acknowledging. Celebrating. Glorifying. An always-present feast of inspiring, beautiful, funny, foreign, whimsical, bizarre truth. And yet, it's usually dismissed as made up: fiction.
There's more to the truth than "what."
In conversation with The New Yorker, the author Tana French spoke of how fiction gives us fresh perspectives: "One of the core points of the arts is to give us a glimpse of what it's like to be someone else, to see the world for a little while through someone else's eyes, and to realize that other people have viewpoints that are completely different from our own, and that those are just as real and intense and vivid and valid."
It's a love song for empathy, that special gift that comes from leaving our bubble to more deeply understand where someone different is coming from. Of knowing not just what people do, but why. It's vital because it's wildly insufficient to just know what the truth is. Our job is to go deeper and feel the truth, understand it at a human level, and understand why the truth is true.
"Why" is why we should embrace the power of fiction. Beyond mere words on a page, fiction is where we wander through foreign wonderlands and immerse ourselves into other people's minds. It's where people explain their culture and background and experiences, and even spell out the reasons they do things. It's "why" on tap, poured straight from the page into our brains.
Writing is detective work.
The teenage lovers of the 2018 best-seller novel Normal People, Marianne and Connell, reacted to situations in diametrically opposed ways. Marianne was open and Connell was closed. Marianne invited and Connell ran. Their contrast powers the novel. Asked why she wrote them so differently, Sally Rooney explained it through an examination of culture: "I think maybe men are socialized to fear loss of self more than women are, because women from such a young age are groomed for motherhood, and they're sort of ready to think, 'There will be a time in my life when I'm taking second, or third, or fourth place to the other people in my life.' I don't know that men are socialized to get ready for that in the same way."
It's a thoughtful explanation, a truth developed from a lifetime of watching men and women. A truth like this, if it were "real," if it were deeply paraphrased from a focus-group respondent, if it came from a government report, would be the gleaming jewel of a planner's deck, proudly, importantly placed on top of a full-bleed image. A slide that would stay on-screen for minutes while the planner makes eye contact with every client to emphasize the seriousness and importance and wisdom of this cultural insight. It would headline the IPA case study. It would be referenced in dozens of presentations by other agencies for years to come. And yet: It's made up. It's not true. It can't be used.
In an interview with the Guardian, the author Kerry Hudson explains that writers don't actually make things up: "I still need an absolute truth, something 'real' to begin from. I will stretch and twist that reality, filter it through various fictional smoke and mirrors, expand and compress its meaning, but at the center of each book there is that grain of 'this really happened' ... Yes, this is 'made up' but this is also the most truthful thing I have to give you."
The fictional sausage ain't stuffed with empty dreams. It's full of truth that explains humanity, developed through hard work. Marlon James, winner of the 2015 Man Booker award, describes writing fiction as detective work: "You have all these characters and you're trying to get under the rock of their reasoning … you have to figure out why people do bad things."
Why. In the end, we all have the same job as authors: to know why people do what they do.
"Books are a uniquely portable magic." —Stephen King
Fiction is to us like the sun is to Superman, like rage is to the Hulk, like accidentally getting bitten by a radioactive spider in a both blessed-and-cursed accident is to Spider-Man. A superpower that reveals the why of the truth. It's not particularly glamorous. There will be very few superhero movies made about it. But it's ours, if we want it.
There are no heroic burdens to accepting the power of fiction. No journey, no villain to fight. It's easy: Just recognise the truth in fiction. Acknowledge the insights in fiction are as true as a bored focus-group respondent. Leave work early to read. Use fiction to understand what's happening in culture. Let it inspire.
Speaking of the superpowered. In one of Harry Potter's final scenes, Dumbledore challenges a possibly hallucinating Harry: "Of course [this vision] is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean it is not real?"
It's J.K. Rowling flipping the script, challenging us to treasure the gift of fiction, to recognize the immense generosity and value of an author painstakingly channeling their imagination and empathy and dreams, through 26 letters, into stories.
Stories that let you be someone else, see the world differently, that take you to places and times you would never otherwise. Stories that make you richer, more interesting, a little more at home in the world. Stories that change you. All that, happening inside your head. What a gift. The least we can do to acknowledge this gift is to accept that this may not be real, but it is true.
Read whatever your heart pulls you towards. Read bad books, good books, classics, read it all. Read the dusty, vintage Penguin book sitting on the shelf. Read the Oprah Book Club book which is popular for good reason. Read and abandon War and Peace. Read on the toilet. Read books that challenge you. Read books that are pure comfort. Read anything and everything. Just read. In those made-up pages, you'll find the truth.