Is there truth in art? Storytellers place great value in the power of fiction to communicate ideas - but does the artist reveal truth, or just an amazing simulation? Paul O'Brien looks for the facts in fiction.
22 May 2006

"Things need not have happened to be true. Tales and dreams are the shadow-truths that will endure when mere facts are dust and ashes, and forgot." - SANDMAN #19

Judging from the context in which that line appears, Neil Gaiman seems to consider it a rather pleasing thought. It's from the 'Midsummer Night's Dream' issue, where Oberon watches the play and politely points out that none of it actually happened. Dream insists that this doesn't actually matter, for the reasons I've quoted. This view is not particularly unusual among writers - perhaps unsurprisingly, since it's also an assertion of the importance of what they do for a living. In large part they're right, but I've never found it a very reassuring notion at all.

At this stage, we really need to define our terms, since anything remotely philosophical quickly goes off the rails if you don't. So what is this 'truth' thing anyway? Or, more accurately, what do writers and artists mean when they talk about art revealing higher truths? It goes without saying that factual accounts of real events are only one type of truth. The laws of physics, for example, are true. Statements about human nature, or trends in society, are (or can be) true. Generalisations, in other words. And a completely fictional story can nonetheless illustrate some truth about the real world.

In theory, at least, all stories have some kind of point to them. If there's no point, then you've just got a series of events, not a story. That said, particularly when it comes to mainstream entertainment, you'll find a lot of stories that go through the motions of having a point without really meaning it. Plenty of movies are still churned out where the moral goes no deeper than 'good triumphs over evil because of courage', or 'love conquers all'. Unless they're aimed at very young children, nobody really expects the audience to accept this. The plot is there as a framework for the evening's entertainment and a corny, simplistic message comes with the territory. They're familiar structures and nothing more.

'A fictional story can illustrate some truth about the world.' Not all mainstream storytelling falls into this category, however. Plenty of movie stories see themselves as making entirely genuine points. The obvious genres here are romantic comedy, which works best when viewers accept it as saying something true about human nature, and that species of overblown drama best described as Oscar-fodder, which loves to make trite but apparently sincere points about triumph over adversity and social injustice. At a more complex level the messages become less blatant but are still usually there - even a story that deliberately avoids reaching a firm conclusion on an issue usually has something to say about why the issue is important and why it is so difficult.

This, of course, is one of the great values of storytelling. They take difficult issues and make them accessible. They are part of the process by which our culture works out how it's going to interpret the world. And this is not simply a one-sided process where the artists write and everyone else listens; society as a whole chooses which stories resonate and endure, depending in part on how convincingly they illustrate something we believe in.

Many of these issues are, frankly, indigestible if you try to approach them in a more literal way. If you want to learn about human nature, you could always buy some psychology textbooks. If you want to understand social injustice, you could always read up on economics. If you find Alan Moore and Grant Morrison's periodic musings about the nature of the universe fascinating, well, there's a ton of philosophical writing out there, most of it mind-burningly dry and difficult for the uninitiated. Most people can't be bothered with this sort of thing, and understandably so. Reading up on subjects, even important ones, is time consuming, and not desperately interesting, and there are too many of them to get through anyway. Much better to have somebody mediate it for you. Unavoidable, to be honest, because you can't be an expert in everything.

The arts communicate these ideas rather more effectively, since they play off our emotions as much as our reason, and use a whole range of techniques to illustrate their point besides straightforward reasoned argument. They are rather good at convincing us of ideas, not by proving them in any particularly rigorous way, but by presenting them in a manner we find utterly credible.

'Stories take difficult issues and make them accessible.' And this is the tricky bit, for me, because it would be absurd to pretend that only true ideas can be communicated in this way. In the hands of a skilful writer, it can be done with a whole range of ideas that are sufficiently in line with our preconceptions, true or otherwise. For centuries, writers have cheerfully devoted themselves to illustrating points that made perfect sense in the culture of their day but now come across as embarrassingly wrong-headed. They were, nonetheless, frequently convincing at the time.

In the scientific world, your conclusions and generalisations ought to be based on hard fact. As the adage goes, "Everybody is entitled to their own opinion, but not to their own facts". But in stories that doesn't apply, because by definition the writer gets to make up his own facts. As long as the audience accepts those facts as plausible, there's a fair chance that they'll buy the conclusion. Actual truth takes second place to plausibility, which works in part on an instinctive and emotional level.

This is the sort of thing that the American satirist Stephen Colbert had in mind when he coined the term 'truthiness' to describe the level on which most political debate now takes place. Truthiness is the quality that something has if it feels true, not because it accords with the facts, but because it accords with our preconceptions. Humans have a depressingly efficient ability to explain away or just plain disregard contrary evidence, to wilfully misinterpret the facts, and to generally bury their heads in the sand. The idea that we tend to believe things that are true is, in itself, 'truthy' - it sure feels great to believe it, even though it doesn't really accord with our experience of the real world.

Storytelling can be a way of spreading a higher truth, but it can also just as easily be the way in which we interpret the world to fit our preconceptions. As Gaiman says, stories "are the shadow-truths that will endure when mere facts are dust and ashes, and forgot".

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