Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Truth in fiction

Last week we talked about the authenticity of novelists. This week, I’d like to go one step further and talk about the notion of truth in fiction.

I’m not talking about truth as it relates to history or events in a fictional narrative; rather, I’m talking about whether or not the character’s reactions, revelations and resolutions are “true”, or based on reality.

James Bradley, in the June Australian Literary Review, points out the general notion that most narratives have therapeutic value, with arcs that feature “an uplifting journey from squalor to redemption, purpose-built to elicit the bursts of spontaneous applause that pepper American talk shows like the ‘hallelujahs’ they have taken the place of”.

Bradley argues that narratives which set out to inspire people and change lives are fantasies and fairytales, which “not only do not enrich our moral imagination but denude it. It isn’t true stories we hunger for at all, but manufactured stories that resemble true stories in every way but the ones that count”.

He says these types of “fantasy” narratives (assumedly ones involving happy endings) are “symptomatic of our culture’s growing resistance to the messiness and moral ambiguity of real life ... Our impatience with complexity, our desire for resolution, our need for clear moral messages … are the driving the erosion of the cultural authority of fiction”.

Is this true?

I guess it depends on what you want from a story (and for me this changes as often as my reading material) and how well it is delivered.

In my teens and early 20s, I think I always wanted clear resolution and happy endings. Now, in the latter half of my 30s – after experience more of life and its complexities – I’m satisified to read a story without a clear resolution, providing there’s been some sort of meaningful emotional journey by a major character, and they (and I) are left with a sense of hope about the future.

I’ve just finished reading two excellent Australian novels that manage to be firmly grounded in the “real” and yet still deliver emotional resolutions.

The first is Helen Garner’s first novel in 15 years, The Spare Room. The other is Tim Winton’s first offering in seven years, Breath.

The Spare Room is told through the eyes of Helen, a woman who agrees to support her friend Nicola - in the final stages of a terminal cancer - while the latter undergoes bizarre “experimental” treatment. Over the course of three emotionally-charged weeks, Helen becomes Nicola’s nurse, guardian angel and unflinching judge.

The novel appears to contain even more “truth” than usual: the narrator shares the author’s name, and her experience of living next door to her daughter and having recently helped a friend through the latter stages of cancer.

But instead of penning this story as memoir, Garner’s written it as fiction, which no doubt gave her greater scope in the storytelling. An interesting question for the author then, would be which parts reflect her actual experience, and which parts are fictionalised for the sake of the story.

Of course the answer is actually irrelevant, because this story rings with truth as Helen struggles with rage, grief, compassion and affection towards her friend.

Meanwhile Breath is a rites-of-passage story of Pikelet and Loonie, two risk-taking, competitive mates who team up with a gun surfer, Sando, and his fractious wife, Eva. The boys become obsessed with risk and danger. It begins simply enough, with staying under the river water for as long as possible, but moves on to the more intense physical and emotional risks posed by huge surf and confronting sexual experiences.

Like The Spare Room, Breath is expertly written. Winton captures a wonderful sense of place and uses fiction to ask questions about addiction and its costs, about risk-taking and about their long-term consequences.

In both stories, the endings are not what many might call “happy”, but the tension is resolved, and all experiences have meaning. If they were to follow the rule of being “true”, I suspect the endings for both could have been very different; which might have made them more realistic, but less satisfying.

Many literary experts would tell us that fiction (like other art forms) should reflect society and reality, but can’t we have more than one type of “legitimate” narrative?

Is it wrong to crave a happy ending, in a world where so few rarely exist?

12 comments:

Jennifer said...

Thanks for the post - I find this question really interesting. Still trying to find the answer though... All I know is that I love my fantasy and happy endings and hope they aren't doing me any moral or psychological damage!

I agree that narratives can have therapeutic value but I don't see why this should be a bad thing. As long as you don't go overboard that is. I think I'd be worse off without my favourite (idealistic fantasy) novels to escape into. Actually, I was under the impression that narratives in general were getting more morally ambiguous, not less.

I don't see any reason art ought to always reflect reality either. I like it when fiction relates to my real life but I also like the parts that don't. But then I'm presupposing that art is for enjoyment... There is the problem of unrealistic art creating unrealistic ideas and expectations about the world - maybe it depends whether or not the reader can recognise the fantasy?

I think I need to read that article. :-)

Gustav said...

Dear Paula

This is another challenging post.

You pose several interesting questions but the one that is most important to me is the last.

"Is it wrong to crave a happy ending, in a world where so few rarely exist?"

Perhaps I am strange, no I am strange, a happy ending does not do it for me.

Happy, predictable endings suck.

I prefer the unexpected endings that have shreds of truth, hope, and redemption. I seek truth in my fiction when it comes to the ending of a story.

Do you recall the ending of the stories of "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" or of the "Phantom of the Opera"?

Hope in the midst of gloom and sadness rings true to me in the end.

Sometimes getting what you want in relation to a happy ending is like eating cheap candy and rotting your teeth with it.

I prefer a few raw carrots, a swirl of whiskey, and a bit of cheese. Life is more complicated and rich than simplistic happy endings in my view.

Rebecca said...

I am always disappointed when there is no happy ending, but I must admit that one of my favourite movies is Sweet November. The first time I watched it, I think I cried for 3 or 4 hours afterwards and the next day because it's so sad.

I find those sad endings tend to stay with me much longer, and I find myself pondering.. "why did it end that way? why couldn't there be some resolution to the story? etc".

Linda Jacobs said...

I love Gustav's response and agree with him. Happy endings get boring after a while. Why read the book if you know that everything is going to end up hunky dory? I want a book with teeth!

Paula Weston said...

I think I'd have to say I can fall into both opinion camps, depending on my mood.

I like a satisfying ending, as long as it's not trite, forced or vomit-inducing by saccharine sweetness.

But I'm also satisfied to be challenged by ambiguity when simple solutions to complex problems just aren't realistic.

I think the important thing is to know what sort of story you're looking for at a particular moment in time, because craving one type, and receiving the other, is incredibly frustrating!

Paula Weston said...

I think I'd have to say I can fall into both opinion camps, depending on my mood.

I like a satisfying ending, as long as it's not trite, forced or vomit-inducing by saccharine sweetness.

But I'm also satisfied to be challenged by ambiguity when simple solutions to complex problems just aren't realistic.

I think the important thing is to know what sort of story you're looking for at a particular moment in time, because craving one type, and receiving the other, is incredibly frustrating!

Paula Weston said...

I think I'd have to say I can fall into both opinion camps, depending on my mood.

I like a satisfying ending, as long as it's not trite, forced or vomit-inducing by saccharine sweetness.

But I'm also satisfied to be challenged by ambiguity when simple solutions to complex problems just aren't realistic.

I think the important thing is to know what sort of story you're looking for at a particular moment in time, because craving one type, and receiving the other, is incredibly frustrating!

Paula Weston said...

You know, my husband always tells me to stop clicking the mouse when nothing happens ... guess I should listen!

Sorry about that...

Gustav said...

Dear Paula

We have all been there - clicking furiously only to find we have sent repetitive emails. Oh the joys of technology.

I posted my random 7 for you.

Bec said...

Well I'm going completely against the grain here. I LOVE my happy endings. Like I may have said before, I get very emotionally involved in what I am reading, to the point where the mood of a book will permeate my dreams, and my general demeanor, for days on end. And quite frankly, I'd prefer to be walking around feeling swoony and uplifted, and like all is right with the world, than feeling depressed, sad or angry. I get enough realism from life itself. When I read I want to escape. And really, I find reading happy endings makes me strive harder to achieve such happy things in real life. Because no, sometimes in life things aren't fair, and they don't turn out, and they're messy and painful and sad....but that's no reason not to keep trying to keep things as fair as possible, as happy as possible, and as pain-free as possible. Happy endings help me to believe that it's worth trying for these things...and that they can happen...
...now excuse me while I gingerly step down from my very high horse...:P

Gustav said...

Paula

I like Bec's comment and I too like certain happy endings but I guess I would maybe use the words interesting, uplifting and thought provoking rather than happy.

Casablanca is one of my favourite stories. The ending is not happy, but is interesting, uplifting (to me at least), and has some truth in it.

This a great topic Paula in that the final act in any story is the most important.

Paula Weston said...

Great discussion.

Thanks everyone for your comments (and Bec, I'm glad you entered the discussion as I always love the way you describe your relationship with the stories you inhabit).