Monday, November 11, 2013

Louise Aronson Answers "The Question"

In the 37th in a series of posts on 2013 books entered for The Story Prize, Louise Aronson, author of A History of the Present Illness (Bloomsbury), explores the line between Truth and the truth.

It happens every reading. I’ve begun to think of it as The Question.

Indeed, the predictability of The Question is such that I’ve not only given it its own moniker, I’ve made a game of trying to guess where it will come from: Will it be the vaguely familiar, distinguished looking woman at the back, intelligence apparent not only in her gaze but in the set of her lips (a writer, I suspect, but who…)? Or will it be that bearded, middle-aged man in an oxford button-down shirt (one of many in his closet, or so I imagine…) and likely a doctor of some humanist, generalist slant, an internist like me perhaps, or a pediatrician, or a psychiatrist? Or will it be the young South-Asian-American woman with an eager, beatific smile and blond streaks in her otherwise dark brown hair (writer, medical student, or both…)?

Wait for it, I tell myself, wait for it.

When The Question comes, the words vary but the intent is the same. “You call this fiction,” they might say, “but the stories are true, right?” Or, “Which parts actually happened, and which did you make up?”

It’s tempting to answer: yes, few, and most, respectively. In other words, yes the stories are true, though few of the events actually happened, and I made most of it up, imaginary events and people being the essence of fiction.

But of course, that answer would leave people confused and is neither helpful nor nice, which is not only a bad marketing strategy but, more importantly, bad behavior.

I know I’m not the only fiction writer who gets The Question, though I might get it with more regularity. This is because I am a doctor as well as a writer and my book, A History of the Present Illness, is a collection of sixteen linked stories all of which have a protagonist who might—among many, many other descriptors—be characterized as a doctor or a patient. However, although each story was inspired by an actual person, event, comment, or image, each character and every plot was entirely and exclusively the creation of my imagination.

Inspired by real events
I wanted to represent the world, not transcribe it. I wanted to see life and people, health and illness, love and parenting, medicine and writing from new perspectives. And I wanted to learn what I could do with language, find out what would happen if X person was put in Y situation, and take readers (though for years it seemed unlikely I would ever warrant any…) into lives and worlds unlike their own. My characters range in age from 8 to 88 and come from over a dozen different ethnic groups and neighborhoods. Yes, people of those ages and backgrounds inhabit the neighborhoods of my city (and yours). That was the point. But the people in the book don’t live in San Francisco, and never have, because they don’t exist, even if they now feel as—or more—real to me (and, I hope, to my readers) than some people I actually have known.

So are the stories true?

No and yes. Or, rather, they are True, but not true.

Fiction, I believe, offers Truth with a capital T, while non-fiction in all its myriad and often entertaining and educational manifestations offers fact, or truth, small t.

Capital T truths are universals, impervious to time period, geography, and culture. They include life, death, loss, love, guilt, heroism, suffering, friendship, adventure, and terror. Truth with a capital T is the stuff that matters most to most of us most of the time. It’s our humanity distilled. It’s what endures.

This answer is clearly troubling to many people. The problem, it seems, and the reason I keep getting The Question, comes down to a misunderstanding about the very nature of reality and to a related confounding of facts and reality with truth—or more precisely, with Truth. Surely the fictional realism in the stories of recent Nobel Prize winner Alice Munro is more "real"—or at least more true-to-life—than the staged and edited competitions of reality television. Moreover, even in literature, truth is more elusive than we usually admit. Consider the literary scandals of recent years in which prominent writers have been castigated in the press and academy alike for fabrications in books billed as memoirs. For some, the deception was calculated, but for others, the line was less clear. After all, how accurately can you transcribe a conversation from this morning or last week, much less one from one, twenty, or fifty years ago? And isn’t it well established that if three people have the same experience at the same time, they will generate three different descriptions of it? And is that such an awful thing?

Too often, we ask questions about whether something is fact or fiction when the better question is whether it’s any good. Were you entertained? Did you learn something about life? Was the prose beautiful or surprising or novel? Did you stay up later than you should have because you simply could not put down the book?

One of the great gifts and pleasures of fiction is the opportunity for writers and readers alike to imagine and distill and recreate the world in ways that strike us as meaningful and compelling, whether the work itself is realistic or fantastic or allegorical. In essence, fiction is reality manipulated in service of Truth. Which brings me to the most honest answer I can give to The Question: A History of the Present Illness is a work of fiction that’s 100% true.