The Brutality of Truth
Writers and boxers stand their ground and try their level best to win by a knock out. But it has always been easier to identify who wins a boxing match. With fiction, things aren’t so easy. Writers expose our inner most secrets. Readers stagger against the emotional ropes when realize what they believe as reality is little more than a tissue of selfishness, deception, hypocrisy, or irrationality.
Think of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man or Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird or George Orwell’s Nineteen Eight-Four. The full power of the state is often complicit in the delusion manufacturing and distribution machinery that converts injustice and unfairness into its opposite. Thus books are banned, writers jailed, exiled or murdered. Schools become indoctrination centers. Teachers become the agents of official truth. A serious writer, like a boxer, must be able to take a punch, too. Most of the writers I know can.
But maybe many people don’t want to read that kind of book. Or that kind of writer doesn’t entertain and only disturbs them, making you question what they believe to be the proper ordering of your life and community. Upsetting a person’s myths about a nationality, religion, drugs, war, or the environment is lighting a short fuse.
There are loads of pleasant diversions. The Internet has opened a new place to hang out, dragging us into a fog, and permanently distracting our attention so that we are no longer able to focus on the kind of issues that have concerned writers for the last 500 years. Maybe that time is coming not to an end. Have we entered a phase transition to another state of consciousness? Or have our concerns about the human condition been lost somewhere as we endlessly try to absorb bits and pieces from mountains of data, information, opinions, and rants. We may have become so distracted that we’ve reached a point where (1) we no longer pay attention to what is going on around us or (2) we are aware of what is happening but we’ve lost our capacity to care, feel empathy or (3) we retreat into a world of satire and irony.
There is another possibility. We know that we have been conned by a system that is now broken and rather than face that prospect we flee into the maze of images and words that scream hundreds of messages at one time through our computer screen. We feel powerless to do anything about it. In that case why invest the time in a book that promises us what we have come to believe is impossible. We keep guessing which of the three shells has the coin underneath even though we know the game is rigged.
Without the hope of social and political change the fall back position is to seek diversion from the contradictions, the messiness of life. One way to read around the larger issues is to indulge in the equivalent of playing literary solitaire.
In other words, lose oneself in ‘Diversionary’ fiction. This kind of book isn’t even sparing (forget about boxing). The purpose of this kind of fiction is to reassure the reader that his or her cherished delusions can be reconciled. Looking at the kind of fiction makes the bestseller list, there is little question what the marketplace verdict is when it comes to buying books. Only a small number of readers want to get into the ring with someone like Orwell. He will leave you bloodied.
Orwell’s characters struggle against much larger problems—where everyone gets dirty, no one walks away without injury, and the safe ground is always giving way. That’s the secret world uncovered in the best kind of fiction. It’s not a division between fantasy and realism (Pullman creates a fantasy world) but the author’s intention to tell secrets in that world undermine our ability to keep believing in the delusions in our own world. Diversionary Fiction dishes up comic strip characters who occupy secret worlds in a fantasy universe disconnected from our own reality..
“A writer should be judged by how honest and brutal he will be: by the quality of the secrets he tells, as well as by the panache with which he tells them. It's what Czeslaw Milosz meant when he said, ‘When a writer is born into a family, that family is finished.’”
In Britain, though, the courts through libel and defamation laws do their level best to take the hard punch out of books. Here’s a good explanation on how the British law on libel by shifting the burden of proof places any writer in the ring with the desire to back pedal, think hard before throwing a punch, and hope that somehow winning on points will be as highly regarded as a knockout.
“Critics of British defamation law say it chills free speech in several ways. Defendants have to prove that their published allegations were true, unlike in the United States, where plaintiffs must demonstrate that an author or publisher disseminated false information — and in cases brought by prominent figures, that this was done with serious doubts as to the truth of the reporting.”
The Americans are seeking to put an end to this nonsense by passing legislation barring the enforcement of such judgments against American publishers and writers.