Our Love of True Stories Has Destroyed Our Sense of Truth

Rebecca Wolff on Octavia Butler, Digital Emptiness, and the Unreality of the End Times

By  Rebecca Wolff

I.

How do you normalize a human?

All you have to do is tell the story of the person, who is human. If it’s a real person, with a true story, then that story becomes human data.

Normalcy is a quality of being usual, on a data scale. If something occurs enough times, it is normal.

Data is not the material from which the average work of fiction or memoir is crafted. These arise from ectoplasmic, plastic substances—experience, fancy, themata, language itself. Nor, it seems, is data, related to “truth,” a basis for pitching a news story. It is tough to sell a news story based on statistical frequency of a given phenomenon, say, the number of children born drug-addicted in a given low-income housing complex in the South Bronx. Instead you could sell a true story about one child, the rise and fall of how that child fails to thrive, thrives, fails finally or thrives finally.

In the fall of 2017, I sat in the audience at a symposium on “Telling the Truth in a Post-Truth World,” at the University at Albany, while a panel of journalists, reporters, historians, and academics talked about “Race, Class, and the Future of Democracy.” I sat with my 15-year-old son, for whom it is hard to sit still for long. He was fidgeting with his fidget spinner and itching to get outside where he could chat to his friends in the never-ending Discord chat in peace; I was riveted by the gravity that tilted the room and which each panelist brought to their responses to the moderator’s prompts. My ears particularly perked up when Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, a journalist and MacArthur Fellow, spoke frankly of her pained conclusion, after a long time reporting on poor families in the South Bronx, that human interest stories, while in demand by editors almost to the exclusion of other reporting on social issues, fail to produce meaningful attention to the social conditions they are meant to illuminate. They are not effective, she said.

The 1991 initial iteration of this symposium on Telling the Truth, at the University at Albany, featured among many other panels a panel of esteemed fiction writers including Norman Mailer, Mary Gordon, and William Kennedy, convened to confront the possibility posed by this question: Is Fiction Truer than Truth?  That three-day symposium is described as developing out of the iterative process of “thinking about and struggling with the fascinating and vexing problems presented by the ambiguous boundaries between fiction and history, journalism and autobiography.”

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On the same panel in 2017 I also heard, with, to me, shocking frequency, invocations of the name of the President, and the antics of the President himself being rehearsed, again and again. That social issue, a human, sucked up a lot of energy from the panelists. Like moths to flames, lemmings to precipices, like fish to bait, the speakers circled and marched and rose, and brought the conversation again and again to the exact place of least truth. The human interest. His tweets and his narcissism and his mental health, his dishonesty and his tyranny. All shockingly true.

I ask you, hoping not to distract you from whatever you’re doing: Is Donald Trump an exemplary human, or a normal human?

The categorical word “human” has been repurposed lately, via slang. On the internet now we use it to imply a quality of beingness akin to what Walter Benjamin cited as “aura,” although he developed this concept on behalf of artworks. He said artworks, though capable of being reproduced, originally possess auratic, indivisible qualities. He worried about what would happen to those artworks when they became reproducible, as were photographs, as were texts.

“No matter how normal it is, I will never get used to the way humans stare into devices and forget where they are standing, forget why they went to check the device, the device obviating all purpose and only demanding attention.”

Now as a species we feel a need to identify the undying individualist qualities of members of our species, and we use “human” as an appendance to some of our favorite adjectives like “special” or “beautiful” or “favorite.” We are trying to find ways to signal that which is unquantifiable and unreproducible in our humanness, qualities not reducible by algorithmic process and therefore not capable of being bought or sold or even sold to. Strangely, we most often apprehend other humans in their humanness through their presence on social media, wherein they represent themselves, some with more frequency, more bandwidth, killing it more than others. This massive media representation is in accordance with a subsequent concern of Benjamin’s: “the legitimate imperatives of the ‘masses’ to reverse cultural privilege.”

Trump is a human, and therefore humans find him interesting. Human interest, as amplified by journalism, is the interest human beings have in other human beings, and the things that they do, the experiences they have, which allow them to exemplify other humans, whole classes of humans. It is the opposite of their aura. We are told a human-interest story in the hopes that through it we can be shown, or taught, a little bit more about what it is like to be, not exactly that human, but that human with specific social characteristics: they are poor, they are white, they are young, they are old, they are migrant, they are addicted, they are a woman, they are transgender, they are black, they are a soldier, they are an orphan, they have a set of circumstances that define them materially and that couch their individual true story in a realm of lack of specificity that gives context to their outcome. Whatever their circumstances, they went from this condition to this outcome, starting out here and ending up there. It happened like this to that one person, and so from there you can extrapolate a whole other bunch of similar outcomes. Ideally, we are going to take what we learn from this person’s human interest story about the ramifications of, and implications embedded in, these social circumstances, and we are going to be moved to work to improve or amend those circumstances.

But it seems that human interest has something in common with self-interest, only outward facing. Just as self-interest is a partial, even compromised, possibly corrupt form of self-awareness, so is human interest, the interest we have in humans, a compromised form of another popular and quasi-literary trope called “empathy,” or apprehension of a human not yourself. The difference between self-examination and self-interest is the difference between a news story and a human interest story.

Stories are one very popular way we make meaning out of experience, order out of disorder, sense out of nonsense, matter out of particles, time out of mind. The poet Anne Carson blows our collective, tech-addled mind when she gently and dispassionately reminds us, in her famous beloved book-length essay Eros the Bittersweet, that before there were coded texts, and alphabets, and of course before reproduction of sound, we apprehended language only as voiced and simultaneously embodied; a story was told to us by a person, always—cells and neurons and eye contact. There was no other way. Stories lived in, emanated from, people. Bards recited epics; parents told cautionary tales. Only later did scribes craft parables; moralists squeeze out fables; fabulists marry normalcy to magic, miming back to us our human unlikelihood. Realists crafted daily nihilism.

Stories, sometimes called “narratives,” are how we grab circumstances, conditions, even histories by the neck and make them do our bidding. Cities undergoing what is called “revitalization” for tourist consumption, as is my small city in the Hudson Valley currently, hire branding agencies to help them “tell the story of their city,” the better to eat you with, my dear. They who control the narrative control the buy-in, and expert marketing execs know this full well, as does even your average human, who is encouraged to get their story straight, and then to tell it on the Ted stage or at the Moth or in a pitch on a blog for a podcast. A recent post on Insta which I thumbed past at the speed of nausea captured a millennial apparently in the midst of a particularly satisfying morning’s round of creativity with the caption “I am always telling my story.” This is not to promise delight or enchantment but rather to threaten toxic oversell, a pernicious surplus of reproduced selfhood such that I must buy you. Not I am you but I own you. This compulsive narratizing is a mutual enslavement of the captive teller who cannot afford to live her own life (to wit Uber, AirBnB, avatar) and her captive audience who cannot put their phone down.

Experimental fiction writers and poets in the late 20th century played around with this control extensively, intending to develop means for, modes of, subversion. The agenda was to prevent or disrupt instrumentalization of language and narrative for the purposes of capitalist ideology. To that end they intervened in syntax, grammar, narrativity, and vehicles including the page and the book itself. Hypertext attempted a model of the brain’s capacity for associative proliferation of narratives, but then the internet caught up with itself and flung the exhausted reader back into her armchair, smelly old book in hand, “grateful.”

 

II.

I don’t know about you but when I am sitting reading a fiction, nothing truly true, not literally true, I am at least 150 percent more filled with blood than when I am reading a true story. (Note that it is outside the purview of this article to question or dissemble on matters of what is truly true in purportedly true stories.) Exactly 150 percent, because the humans represented in a work of fiction are metaphors for unlikely humans, “real” humans, and that muscle in the brain, or in the metaphorical heart, that processes metaphor is working so hard when I am reading fiction—working so hard to understand how to understand—how can I take this story I’m reading; I know it’s not true, it didn’t really happen, but at the same time it is not exactly a fake story—it’s real on some level that I don’t even know how to process because it’s not like a dream I had, someone is telling me this untrue story but I somehow can believe it at another level. Leveling up. The metaphor is: this human being in the story is a metaphor for me. “I” is me. “She” is me. “He” is me.

Ever since the 1990s, when memoir as a genre—and a cesspool of expressivity—began to lap fiction, and Autobiography of a Face, by the late poet Lucy Grealy, introduced a naissance of hyperliterary, hyper-individualist memoir—and then reality TV, and then documentary, and then blogs, and story slams, and Ted, and then social media—we as humans have been distracted from our capacity to learn, and, likely, to act. A host of vehicles for human interest, stories so endlessly true they lobotomize, cauterize, enflame, and immobilize: we are stuck in our chairs reading stories about Trump’s narcissism, about Trump’s latest word, his poor word-choice, his string of words, 20 words he put together in a row, a shithole vortex of attention, no aura reflected out of there.

The difference between fiction and memoir may be the difference—when it comes to meaning, that recyclable plastic thing we crave in our lives, and without which we become despondent and ultimately inert—between metaphor and referential mania. They say the truth shall set you free, but it seems rather to be the case that fiction, or, Stories About Fake People, who can be understood by means of the empathic engine of metaphor to be yourself, shall free you from that intolerable freedom we call meaninglessness. What matters is not that Donald Trump is president, his orange hair, his ordinary despicableness, his horrible personality and base base—he is the Ultimate Human, the epitome of a zenith—what matters now is that we look away from the blaze of ingloriousness so that we can catch sight of the human aura.

 

III.

President Donner, presumably a descendent of a surviving member of the Donner Party, a hardy strain of human, is just one of the startling presciences of Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Sower, which we might call the story of Lauren and their struggle with normalization. A regressive, implicitly racist, explicitly anti-regulatory candidate; fires in California; enslavement of workers by corporations; societal addiction to mind-warping substances which induce passive consumption of horrors—by which I mean social media; it beggars literality.

“Things are bad. My mother is hoping this new guy President Donner will start to get us back to normal.” “Normal, I muttered, I wonder what is normal.”

That Lauren is an exemplary fictional character goes almost without saying, as she is the protagonist of a parable that explicitly teaches its readers how to survive the struggle—most currently insidious internet word—we are to struggle with. Her opener: “[The dream] comes to me when I struggle—when I twist on my own personal hook and try to pretend that nothing unusual is happening.”

We, the people, struggle to remember that nothing normal is happening. We are to struggle with anthropocene transitions, multiple, synergetic, and ongoing until we won’t recognize our landscapes or our exigencies. We are to struggle with reactionary societal defensiveness that may well result, however temporarily, in the return of tribalism.

I found it poignant, immersed in this fiction, that the foreseeable leap into technocratic disassociation was yet one that Butler chose not to take. Reading this parable is in some ways wistful in that the experience of Lauren and their people is so embodied. There are reassuring limits to the specificity of Butler’s invention of our modernity. These people talk on telephones and watch TV. They have matriarchs and patriarchs. “They showed movies from their library and let us watch news and whatever else was broadcast. They couldn’t afford to subscribe to any of the new multisensory stuff, and their old Window couldn’t have received most of it, anyway.” Lauren’s hyperempathy disorder, her fleshly connectivity, is an embodiment of what has been so disrupted by social media, by its endless self-narrativizing minus metaphoric capacity, empathy reduced to “like” plus trigger for telling one’s own true story—relateability. It feels so simple and so normal, the normal that was. No matter how normal it is, I will never get used to the way humans stare into devices and forget where they are standing, forget why they went to check the device, the device obviating all purpose and only demanding attention. Pay attention to the device.

“Fiction completes us. It reifies and enhances the intellectual need we have as humans to know that we are not alone; that our consciousness is shared and shareable.”

Lauren’s gated community presents horrors on the daily: headless corpses, charred remains of homes and their residents. Naked, squatting rape victims. Dog-eaten humans. “Untreated diseases, festering wounds.” Lauren is a hyperempath, but her “sharing” is restricted, not rampant; it does not give her immunity to normalization. When she describes the scenes she walks or rides through, we know that she is still able to put some distance between herself and the suffering and despair she sees. She has, in a sense, good boundaries. She protects and cares for her own, and for her self; she is even prescient of the need for self-care. In her disastrous life she finds love and enjoyment and sensual pleasure.

Meanwhile, Octavia Butler’s prose is to some extent workmanlike; yet as I read the opening scene-setting chapters of this parable I had to ask myself: How is it that this scene feels real, and true, right now? What kind of “real and true” is this? While reportage of the places in the world where this is literally real and true feel . . . incredible, fantastic. One has to pinch ones’ self to maintain credulity: This is actually happening. Right now there is a child who is starving to death. There are hundreds of thousands; there are millions. We must protect ourselves from the killing blows of empathic experience, of transsubjectivity; if we allowed ourselves to feel it, to share, we would be crippled by our feeling, as Lauren is in danger of being crippled. Her father has “always pretended, or perhaps believed, that [her] hyperempathy syndrome was something [she] could shake off and forget about,” as we are able to do when we read memoir, or journalism. Because it is “true” it is not happening to us. In reading fiction it happens to us, and keeps happening to us after we are finished with our reading, because it is not “true.” We are not precluded from its truth. The muscle of metaphor is transformative, interpersonal, complete. The apprehension of experience via metaphor is a completion. She “walked, then rode in a daze, still not quite free of the dog [she] had killed.”

“I had felt it die, and yet I had not died.”

There is a technical, writerly shaped hole in this parable where the figure of that empathy might have been—more depictions of Lauren’s experience of hyperempathy and her commensurate ability to carve away or put aside the empathy-based hesitations she might feel about making the moves/taking the stance/claiming or inhabiting the authority she needs to feel. If her empathy were not so literal, so hyper-, it might preclude her being the sower. She is the sower of the title, literally, because this is a parable.

Literally, we are Earthseed, now that we allow the muscle of metaphor to atrophy. When the Cat Person story appeared virally on the internet—I do not even need to explain this to you, you all know what I mean, I know you do—a disabled reading population struggled to remember how to understand that this was a fiction, despite its proximate relationship to something that felt “real,” its context.

And then there is the tripe of relateability. I’m sorry, the trope. The shallow idea, currently ruling acquisition decisions at Big Five publishing houses, that we like to read memoirs, listen to true stories, because we can “relate,” because something like that has happened to us or we are “like” this person whose true story we read. More insidiously, that fictions must repeat back to us our familiar contexts in order for us to wish to buy them. The shallowness of simile over metaphor. When in fact what we mean is that in literal truth, we can better dismiss the “not me.” True stories are stories of what we are not, categorically. I am literally not that human.

And then there is the Truth of Capitalism, in which the President, Trump, can you believe that is his name, stranger than fiction, is the ultimate human not because he is relateable but because his humanity is converted directly into buying power, and within capitalism humans are prized for their capacity to purchase, or to be purchased. Self-narratives are normalizations of selfhood, reifications of the discontinuity between one self and one other self through capital investment—the value of the self as distinct content producer.

Rebecca Wolff
Rebecca Wolff
Rebecca Wolff is a contributing editor to Lit Hub. She is a poet, fiction writer, and the editor both of Fence magazine and of Fence Books. She is a fellow at the New York State Writers Institute.





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