The debate about truth in writing is a bullshit debate

If truth can’t be agreed upon or defined, except as something that represents the world, then how you represent your world is the truth.
Portrait of George Orwell at the BBC | writers block

The question of veracity in writing—perhaps I should say, veracity in all media—is topical in this decade. It’s one of the reasons why I started the Propaganda project; and, in doing so, have been forced to define such bullshit phrases as fake news.

Yet, as I sit here on this damp, May afternoon in my pyjamas, filled with pancakes and apricot jam, reading the introduction to a collection of Orwell’s essays, it struck me that perhaps the entire debate is unnecessary.

Keith Gessen, who wrote the Introduction to All Art is Propaganda: Critical Essays, argues that part of the magic of Orwell’s ‘truth’—which is, that he always seems to be telling the truth, even when he isn’t—is that he assumes that he is. Gessen writes:

… he never speaks from a point of view that is anything but his own, while at the same time he believes that any normal unprejudiced person—the “common man”, the common Englishman—would see it the same way.

Keith Gessen, ‘Introduction”. In Packer, George (ed.) All Art is Propaganda: Critical Essays, 2009: First Mariner Books, New York.

Gessen is ostensibly making the point that Orwell thinks that he’s representing a collective much greater than himself. But his actual point is that Orwell never writes from any perspective other than his own. And that this, this one key element is what makes his work feel so authoritative.

Which therefore begs the question: If you write only your own truth, how can anybody claim that you are not an honest writer?

This means, of course, that if you write works that pander the dominant narrative of the day, and your books are filled with lines that are clearly only included because they are politically correct, then you cannot possibly be considered to be a truthful writer. You are instead a writer who is writing what the public wants to hear.

But George Orwell? He wrote what was real for him.

Which is why Lionel Shriver’s speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival in 2016 was such an important moment. She was vilified for it. The young, sensitive, culturally appropriate students, marched out because Shriver was able to represent the reality.

Just because you don’t like reality doesn’t mean it isn’t reality.

Just because you don’t like what a writer writes, or how he or she does it, it doesn’t mean that it’s wrong.

Just because someone writes in an authoritative manner, it doesn’t mean that they are generically right. It means that they are true to themselves.

This is why it is more important that readers develop the breadth, life, experience, and training, to be able to assess written things as being true for them; and to simply disregard them if they are not.

In the case of journalism, even George Orwell, in the 1940s, saw battles that killed hundreds go unreported; he saw peaceful situations written up as bloody battles (even if they never took place). He worried that these things would go down in history as “correct” even though they were total fabrications. Thus emerges some of his deepest fears and concerns about propaganda.

Journalists have a particular imperative to be honest, to tell the stories of the world that they see. They have a requirement to understand rules of evidence, to collect it and represent truthful stories.

But truthful stories don’t sell, and in this day and age, a great many outstanding journalists no longer have “journalist” jobs. Your “fake news” isn’t a new thing (and if you think it is, you’re probably young or inexperienced).

This is because propaganda is meta. It is a movement, a programming, a collection of tactics designed to shape public opinion in a particular way. Orwell may have been better at seeing the Soviet, Communist “threat” more clearly (as Gessen puts it) than the Western consumerism in which he was embedded. Regardless, he could see the machinations of propaganda clearly.

Which means that if you self-censor; if you do not write what is true to you, even if publishers refuse to talk to you and the media yells at you, and social media deplatforms you, then you, yourself, become a tool making propaganda work. You stop being a truthful writer, because you want to be visible.

Truth herself is a many-sided thing. You could say that it is the way the world is, but then you need to ask, ‘according to whom?’

Coherence says that if it’s coherent with your beliefs, then it’s true. Correspondence says that something is true if its representation aligns with reality. Postmodernists could be said to hold that there is no truth, or that it is a product of belief. For example, Kant says that you can never get beyond your own subjective experience, therefore you can never know the real truth of anything. Relativism says that there is no absolute truth. Nietszche says that truth is an illusion. Pluralism says that all views are valid.

If truth can’t be agreed upon or defined, except as something that represents the world. Then how you represent your world is the truth.

Which means, darling writer, just write.

Ignore the rest of the world.

Ignore what you are “supposed” to write.

Ignore people who tell you that you can’t create certain characters, worlds, or situations.

Just write what is true for you. If an audience finds you, then they will see your truth for what it is. And if you become famous some day, then they, just like Gessen, will argue that you believed that you stood for the “common man”.

When, in fact, all you were doing was standing up for you.