I promise not to say his name, but I trust you all know who I mean when I say that a certain public figure—well, maybe more than one—has forced (some) Americans to examine our individual and cultural relationships with the truth. This person’s relationship with “the truth” has been described as “loose,” as similar to a “lemur’s relationship with the Supreme Court vacancy;” that is to say, utterly irrelevant. There are those who find this disturbing, and others who find it enticing and maybe a little exciting.
I fall into the former camp, which has given rise to some questions about the differences between truth-telling in politics and in art. I generally claim a pretty high tolerance of blurred lines, of what Sherry Simpson (via comedian Stephen Colbert) refers to in her teaching as “truthiness.” If I read something categorized as nonfiction, and learn that some details of characters or events were altered for the sake of the story or the people involved, but still ring true, my response is usually “eh.” In high school, I made myself a t-shirt with Neil Gaiman’s statement “Things need not have happened to be true” printed across it. Even though I don’t think I could write real fiction (and what the hell does that mean?) to save my life, the sentiment still resonates. Memory is flawed. Subjectivity is messy. Creative work implies a license to shape and color the creation. This we know and accept; move on.
I’ve been slowly making my way through Zora Neale Hurston’s autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road. When I started the book, I knew nothing of the controversies surrounding it, but some Googling dug up criticisms that Hurston wrote Dust Tracks to appease her publisher, and either by Hurston’s design or overly invasive editing, minimized the author’s experiences of racism and violence while highlighting friendships with white benefactors, thus appeasing white audiences with a more assimilationist worldview than the rest of her work suggests. Alice Walker called it “the most unfortunate thing Hurston ever wrote.” And amidst these criticisms were also claims that Hurston misrepresented facts and details of her own life, or just made things up; one Goodreads reviewer suggests that “if you want to know the real Zora Neale Hurston, read Carla Kaplan’s biography.”
I bristled at this; why would I read someone else’s words when Hurston wrote her own, even if she took some liberties with “truth”? Her life is her truth to play with, isn’t it?
But. The accusations of pandering complicate that. Last year, Claire Vaye Watkins wrote an essay called “On Pandering” (if you haven’t read it, look it up; it’s worth reading and sitting with for a while) in which she examines a circuitous string of events and conversations that landed her at the questions “Who am I writing for? Who am I writing toward?”
She continues, “Myself, I have been writing to impress old white men. Countless decisions I’ve made about what to write and how to write it have been in acquiescence to the opinions of the white male literati. Not only acquiescence but a beseeching, approval seeking, people pleasing.” I don’t know anything about Watkins’ writing, beyond the fact that I’ve been told I’d like it, and I probably would. Her revelation that she recognized her own pandering probably won’t change my enjoyment of her books when I do get to them; my tastes have also been shaped by the white male literati. But I’m sure it has changed her own writing processes, and in turn she asks us to change, or at least examine, our own.
Around the time that Watkins’ essay was published, or at least close enough that they have melded into the same conversation in my memory (which is inherently flawed), Ernestine Hayes asked in this blog, “Who are we reading? Who are we writing?” She asks students and readers to examine and refine our reading lists to include indigenous writers telling their own stories “rather than allowing others to do that work.” She wrote, “I have come to realize that there is a difference between fact and truth. As a writer, I know that what we call fiction often reveals our personal stories, and what we label non-fiction is frequently no more than illusions we have fashioned into our narrative.”
Maybe the unacceptability of some “loose relationships with the truth” originates in what motivates the speaker. In the case of the aforementioned unnamed figure whose manipulations of reality are motivated by prestige and greed rather than genuine truth-seeking, it is conscious pandering at its worst. And while politics and art are entirely different disciplines, both are acts of storytelling, of presenting a vision of reality and seeing who will join you, and it’s worth asking practitioners of both, “who are you writing for?” And the answer might give some insight into the nature of their “truthiness.”