Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Updike on Truth

Having defended my position on digital reading against John Updike's opinion of the virtual world, I am now emboldened to take him on over a more profound topic, that of truth. In his New York Review piece John Gross offered the following quotation from the new Updike collection, Due Consideration:

It is alarming to me that historical novelists openly brag that they have knowingly distorted the record, transposing dates and fudging conversations in the name of some supposed higher truth. But what truth can be higher than what actually did happen, moment by moment, incident by incident?

This is, to say the least, a touchy question; so I would like to begin with a slightly frivolous parry. In light of Updike's overall concern with questions of faith (one of the longer essays in his new book is entitled "The Future of Faith"), I would be curious as to the extent to which Updike's own faith is based on the two book of Chronicles in the Bible! More seriously, Updike has tripped himself over a fundamental principle of historiography, which is that the writing of history is more concerned with the interpretation of those moments and incidents than it is with cataloging them. However, interpretation is better served by the domain of narrative than it is by chronicling; and narrative may often be better served by distortions of the record (or, if you really want to fudge matters, examining the record through nonstandard lenses).

A fair amount of discussion over the recent HBO John Adams series concerned fidelity to the historical record. Thanks to The New Republic I was able to read remarks by the primary scriptwriter, and I did not find him bragging about distorting the record. He was open about what he did and readily with explanations based on the demands of delivering a narrative effectively through film or video. I might well share Updike's skepticism with any act of bragging; but I have not encountered it in my own experiences (which are admittedly not as extensive as his). Any account of history, essay or novel, must, of necessity, involve interpretation; and what matters most is the communication of the interpretation involved in the writing. As long as that is achieved without any efforts to deceive, I, for one, am happy with what I read.

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