Why Reality is Overrated

Some liar with a French poodle he probably stole from a loving family
While reading the introduction to John Steinbeck's excellent travelogue Travels with Charley, I made the startling discovery that he probably made some stuff up. Jay Parini, the author of the introduction, noted some facts didn't match up then shrugged it off by saying "he's a true novelist." Scratching my head, I took to Facebook, noting that had the renowned author been born in another era, he would have become Oprah's worst enemy. (I couldn't find my status for a screen capture and I don't remember exactly what I said, so I'm kind of pulling a Steinbeck on this one. And that is probably the only time I can be accused of "pulling a Steinbeck", unless I someday own a poodle that was raised in France and name it after a relative.)

I spent a good part of my adult life hearing stories of the next literary liar who mislabeled fiction as memoir or journalism. And it seems the years have only broadened our insistence for complete and uncreative honesty. After reading about so called reality television, I can't help but think this has only gotten worse. If we're demanding television tell the truth, something must be off.

There are two important differences between Travels with Charley and the other works I mentioned above: storytelling and truth. Steinbeck was a master storyteller and crafted his tale around a central truth and a keen eye on his surroundings. Even if he took a plane around the country rather than traveling by truck and never talked to a single soul, that doesn't make the dialogue or observations in the book untrue. A skilled author can pull details out of his crack and invent a story; telling one that serves a deeper truth is not so easy. Maybe our worship of details at the expense of truth isn't new, but it's definitely more noticeable now. Here's hoping truth telling catches on. A friend at work who is a car guy asks me what I'm reading in the break room, and I usually lie, "It's a book about a truck." When he saw me reading Travels with Charley, he asked what it was about. "Actually, this one is about a truck." Of course, I was full of it.

1 comment:

  1. Good stuff.

    I recalled reading the road trip memoir of a popular author and then grabbing the revised edition after loosing the book. The author landed in Portland at the end of the trip. In the first edition of the book he discovered the glories of Starbucks. In the second, Sumptown. A minor change, but it reminded me that there's room for some licence.

    And almost any dialogue in any memoir is a reconstruction. No one remembers that level of detail.