The War Against Subjective Truth

There is a curious phenomenon underway in contemporary literature. Two recent novels, Marianne Wiggins’ The Shadow Catcher and Katherine Taylor’s Rules for Saying Goodbye, both feature characters named “Marianne Wiggins” and “Katherine Taylor.” (And both are set, oddly enough, in large part on the West Coast.) In approaching both of these books as a reader, I was both delighted by the miasma of invented subjective truths contained within these novels and somewhat curious as to why these respective subjective accounts were not executed in memoir form. Is it possible that in our post-James Frey memoir world that today’s writers are not allowed even a kernel of invention when setting down their stories?

Earlier this year, I read Anthony Burgess’s two-volume autobiography (which he preferred to style, St. Augustine-style, as “Confessions”), Little Wilson and Big God and You’ve Had Your Time. One of the joys of reading these picaresque narratives was to observe precisely how Burgess invented himself. By his own admission, Burgess relied almost exclusively on his memory, occasionally verifying his wild ontological tales through whatever notes he had at his disposal. This approach raises some interesting questions. Can we believe that a preteen John Wilson (Burgess’s real name) truly coaxed numerous maids into sexual intercourse? Can we believe that, as a struggling writer, he was able to provide money for some of his sexual conquests? I don’t think these questions of verisimilitude matter so much, because one reads these memoirs largely to observe how Burgess created himself and what his particular perspective revealed about his view of the human condition. Let us not forget that human nature is as much defined by what one choose to remember and how one remembers, as by what actually happened.

But now only two decades later after Burgess’s truth, in an age that demands a video taken from a cell phone and uploaded to YouTube for veracity and a letter published to the New Yorker demands Kafkaesque fact checking to clear up a quibble, I’m wondering if some of the fun has been taken out of these narrative liberties and this flexibility for heightened perspective has been notably impaired. Some recent posts on this site have featured subjective reports of events and a few people have written in to express how “mediocre” they are because they do not match up with their own respective memories. Daniel Mendelsohn chooses to believe that I “fawningly asked to shake [his] hand,” when this was not the case at all. However, I was doped up on Benadryl to fight a cold. So Mendelsohn may have misperceived this condition as obsequious. I choose to believe, perhaps wrongly, that Mendelsohn was not referring to himself when he referred to “98% of these emails were from those ‘sitting in his underwear with a laptop'” — in large part because he did indeed express frustration, only minutes later, with the confessional nature of emails that came in response to his excellent memoir, The Lost. I’m wondering why we cannot live in a world in which both subjective truths and both unique contexts are possible.

If we are, as Mendelsohn stated on Thursday night, in “a crisis about reality,” and I agree with Mendelsohn that we are, why then is there such inflexibility to varying subjective accounts? Can we not accept another person’s right to a subjective report? Can we not accept the disparity between authorial intention and reader interpretation? Or have we become so hyper-sensitive as a culture that any account which does not portray people in anything less than a celebratory light causes, those like Donna Masini, to be “rather shocked” that anyone would perceive something different. I will no doubt be taken to the task by the peanut gallery for “waffling,” but, for what it’s worth, I intended to portray Mendelsohn in a picaresque light, which he took objection to. He assumes that I intended to belittle him for his “hyper-articulitis,” when in fact I recognize the affliction in myself and intended to celebrate it. It makes Mendelsohn who he is, and I think the world is an interesting place because of it. Likewise Matt Mendelsohn assumes that I have seen his brother multiple times when I have only seen him once, along with numerous other untrue speculations by others about me in the thread.

It’s no surprise then that Wiggins and Taylor have turned to the novel format for the kind of thing once commonly found in memoirs or gonzo journalism. In the novel, respective liberties can be accepted because everyone accepts the work as “fiction.” Until, of course, the current fervor for absolute truth extends beyond the limits of nonfiction and starts to apply to the novel. Then where will we all go?


  1. I was a mere three feet from Rodney King when he stammered “Can’t we all just get along?” (I was the L.A. photographer for UPI at the time.) So with that in mind–and a promise not to ever post again, lest you think I’m a groupie–I will agree with you here: all of this sturm und drang is unnecessary. Your blog demonstrates a clear love and respect for the written word. And, speaking from the Dep’t. of Nepotism, my brother’s work shows the same.

    There’s a great scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian where the People’s Front of Judea (the PFJ), en route to kidnap Pilate’s wife, bump into another group bent on the exact same mission. As they break into a rumble, someone shouts out that they shouldn’t be fighting each other but rather their common foe.

    “The Judean People’s Front?” someone asks.

    “Noooooooo. The Romans!!!!”

    Matt Mendelsohn

    p.s. I did not fact check that Monty Python quote, so don’t crucify me if it isn’t 100% accurate.

  2. Too much contention for the literary world? For WRITERS? Squeamish at the mere hint of disagreement?
    Agreement is fine, but then, it depends what one is agreeing to.
    O’Brien to Winston Smith: “Do you see three fingers, or four?”
    Should we all agree that 2+2=5?
    What we see with Ed’s post here is the philosophy of convenience; the thought process of a moral gumby. For Ed, truth is in a constant state of flux. He can say one thing on one post– and on the next deny its meaning. Or maybe he didn’t say it at all. 2+2=5.
    (When one begins to sound like Richard Nixon, one should realize one has a problem.)
    It’s a philosophical problem and it seems to infect our current literature. From most writers we see only the ethics of career. They adapt their minds and their beliefs (career their only belief) according to the situation. In that sense, perfect bureaucrats. Fascists could take charge one day and they’d change their uniforms accordingly. Communists would take over the next and the uniforms would change again. For them there is no other touchstone or yardstick than conformity.
    Most of Ed’s statements on this post are utter nonsense– utter nonsense– yet how many are swallowing them?
    Subjective truth? There is no subjective truth– there’s only a subjective search for truth. Our knowledge of truth is imperfect but we shouldn’t give up looking for it.
    No one’s asking for absolute truth– but in a society consumed by lies, through our writers no less than our politicians, some of us ask for at least SOME truth. At least an acknowledgement that the concept of truth exists. (Pontius Pilate, Bureaucrat: “What is Truth?”)
    Can we not accept another’s “subjective truth”? Well, I guess it depends on how far one wants to take this. For the Mendelsohns, selling a book about the Holocaust, one would think objective truth would have importance.
    Ttruth and objective reality have become outmoded concepts. Plagiarism has become an outmoded concept– genius writer Jonathan Lethem in a long essay of sophistry has told us this, that everything is plagiarism, so we must believe him. 2+2=5. Maybe no one knows what Daniel Mendelsohn said at the panel. Maybe he said fifty different things. Maybe none of it happened at all. How can we know? We all have our own subjective truth.
    I’m obviously out of step in many areas– such as asking that the lit world clean up its corruption. (A corruption of action which stems from a corruption of thought.) I’ve always believed, as a reader, that literature was the place to find not squeamish functionaries or weaselly commentators lacking scruples or sense, but models of how to live, of how to be a better person. Our greatest writers– Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Dumas– were on a continual search for truth and meaning. Some like Dostoevsky portrayed the bankruptcy of those immersed in intellectual nihilism (as Ed seems to be) and others like Dumas in the last volumes of his D’Artagnan saga showed how to live as an honorable person, with all attendant inconveniences.
    Litbloggers will represent a change and improvement over print critics only if they represent not simply a technical change but also an ethical one. This means having some standards, some touchstones; it means believing that our writers and our literature can be better, and realizing that the critic, if no one else, because there is no one else, has to be at the forefront of fighting for this improvement. Even if it upsets people. Otherwise he’s just one more faceless functionary going along to get along; morally, ethically, and aesthetically swaying in the breeze.

  3. I found the Wiggins Shadow Catcher to be a fantastic extension of known information about Curtis which went into the subtext of that known information. This subtext involved conclusions that are fiction, but in the possible realm of the human experience. Having read a good bit of Curtis history, I thought the conclusion about him was plausible. Too many years of his later life are unaccounted for by conventional history. I found the book to be very enjoyable. Who cares what style it may be, it went into the missing subtext of his life.

    If anyone wants to know more about ES Curtis and his works, look up THE INDIAN PICTURE OPERA, Amazon (dvd). It goes into great depth using ES Curtis 1911 lectures and photos, as he elaborates on the tribes of the west.


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