Fact or Fiction?

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During Oscar season, I noticed that many of the nominated movies featured real people: pianist Don Shirley in Green Book, Ron Stallworth in BlacKkKlansman, author Lee Israel in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, and, of course, the late great Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody. The film Vice told the story of the Bush years with uncanny performances by Christian Bale as Dick Cheney, Sam Rockwell as George W., and Amy Adams as Lynne Cheney. The Favourite, though a work of fiction, depicted Queen Anne, a real life historical figure. Even Roma was a thinly disguised autobiographical story of director Alfonso Cuaron’s childhood.

In the Trump era, truth is certainly stranger and more riveting than any fiction could be. Each news day features a revolving cast of characters in the White House, manic tweets from the president at all hours of the night, investigations, accusations, and counter accusations. Fox News has become little more than Trump’s mouthpiece, and suddenly fictional stories like Wag the Dog, Being There, and, most ominously, 1984 have become eerily prescient.

Yet the world of fiction still holds a fascinating allure. While the MPAA favored reality film in its Oscar nominations this year, superheroes and their villains dominated the box office. Such films as Venom, Aquaman, Deadpool 2, Ant Man and the Wasp – as well as the latest sequels in such franchises as Spiderman and The Avengers – all made tidy profits for the movie studios at a time when theater audiences have been dwindling. The smash hit Black Panther, the first black superhero movie, was even nominated for Best Picture along with numerous technical awards.

Our appetite for escapism will always co-exist with our interest in real life drama. And the intersection of the two is often the key to unlocking truths about the human condition. I’m thinking particularly of dystopian and science fiction. These genres take us into the future, but they are really making commentaries on the present. I recently read Joyce Carol Oates’ latest novel, The Hazards of Time Travel, which depicts an authoritarian North American state in 2039. The main character, who has the temerity to ask questions and think for herself, is sent back to 1959 Wisconsin for “re-education.” As I read the book, I couldn’t help thinking about the slogan “Make America Great Again.” The manipulation of truth, control over the media, and other horrors of Oates’ fictional future feel ominously close to American society today.

Fact or fiction? Either way, our interest in stories may be the key to saving civilization. As long as we are able to think and feel about the human condition, we will continue to question and challenge the status quo. In the legendary words of Abraham Lincoln, “you may fool all the people some of the time; you can even fool some of the people all the time: but you can’t fool all of the people all the time.”

As we venture into another presidential election cycle (God help us!), let’s hope Honest Abe was right.

 

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Nothing But the Truth

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“There’s a world of difference between truth and facts. Facts can obscure truth.”
― Maya Angelou

Since her death last week, Maya Angelou’s many profound quotes have been circulating on the internet. The one that struck me the most forcefully was this statement about truth and fact. At once I felt a kindred spirit in Angelou. I have always loved fiction, preferring it to non-fiction for many reasons. Stories are enthralling, and the characters born out of writers’ minds are so fascinating. There is nothing I love more than a fat, juicy novel that I can spend hours absorbing. Non-fiction, on the other hand, is more utilitarian. I associate it with school studies or simple information-gathering.

I am not negating the importance of facts. As an aspiring journalist in college, I learned to gather and disseminate facts, to be objective and to write simply, without flourishes or figurative language. Each day I read the newspaper (Yes, the actual paper, not a digital version!) and try to keep abreast of what is happening in the world. And I would certainly want the facts if I were confronted with a medical diagnosis or a lawsuit.

But facts can be misleading. Commentators and politicians can use selective facts to support their positions while leaving out important contradictory evidence. In fact, studies have shown that most people pay attention to evidence that supports their world view and discount or ignore facts that conflict with it. More importantly, facts often don’t get to the heart of a matter, to truth with a capital “T,” if you will.

A good example of the difference is the approach to history. History textbooks and non-fiction accounts of historical events contain a wealth of knowledge. But good historical fiction can bring history to life. I recently read the novel The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd. It is the intertwining story of a young white girl living in an upper class Southern family and the young slave girl she is given for her birthday. Through the novel, I learned many things about antebellum South Carolina and also the abolitionist movement led by Quakers in the North. But I was also able to feel the shame, heartbreak and triumph of people trying to overcome the terrible scourges wrought by slavery. The novel is based upon real people and events from the 1800s, yet I don’t think I would understand the reality of their situation any better by reading non-fiction accounts of their lives.

Throughout history human beings have attempted to search for Truth. In the New Testament, Pontius Pilate ironically and rhetorically asks Jesus, “What is truth?” as if to say, “It’s all relative.” The Romantic poet John Keats asserts in “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” “Beauty is truth, truth beauty./That is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know.” As for myself, I will continue to look for glimpses of truth in the beautiful world of literature.

The World According to Jim

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In honor of my friend Jim Kokoris’s birthday, I would like to promote his three wonderful novels. Jim and I were friends in college, but I hadn’t seen him for years until I discovered his first novel in a local bookstore. That novel, The Rich Part of Life, made me an instant and devoted fan of Jim’s fiction. The novel is a funny and often bittersweet depiction of a father and his sons, who lose a wife and mother but gain, not only a fortune, but a new appreciation for each other.

I love the mixture of humor and pathos that is present in all of Jim’s fiction. Jim’s subsequent novels, Sister North and The Pursuit of Other Interests, continue this tradition and draw readers into the lives of ordinary characters who face personal crises that include the loss of loved ones, jobs, and the ability to continue life as they had previously known it.

For more information, please go to http://www.jimkokoris.net, and most importantly, buy his books. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

Happy Birthday, Jim!