Remember James Frey? He wrote A Million Little Pieces, a book about his struggles with substance abuse, which, like all memoirs, was marketed as a true story. In early 2006, Frey admitted exaggerating and fabricating details of his book and was famously excoriated by Oprah for having “betrayed millions of readers.”

The out-ing of James Frey sparked one iteration of the “fact versus fiction” debate that is emblematic of our time. From reality TV to comedian-delivered news, from Wikipedia history to newspaper bankruptcy, from weapons of mass destruction to “interrogation techniques,” we seem to have a problem with the truth.

The problem: there’s truth, Truth, the truth, and a truth. There’s even Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness,” the 2005 “word of the year” which still finds its way into leading op-eds.

We can’t always recognize truth, and when we’ve got it, we don’t necessarily know what it means. We’re uncomfortable qualifying truth (the “whole” truth, a “half” truth, “self-evident” truths) even though we know that unqualified truth is itself a fantasy.

When the Frey-story broke, Michiko Kakutani tried to make sense of it in theNew York Times: “We live in a relativistic culture … where spin sessions and spin doctors are an accepted part of politics, where academics argue that history depends on who is writing the history …”

As someone who weighs in on the side of the academics, I think it would have been impossible for Frey to tell the unimpeachable Truth of his life (indeed, he argued that he had captured “the essential truth”). When we tell our stories, we are always engaged in a bit of revisionist history, whether that’s revision by omission or imagination.

But even if we can’t definitively draw the line between memory and make-believe, we mustn’t throw the proverbial baby—truth—out with the bathwater of certainty and fact.

With the decline of traditional journalism and the rise of the citizen-reporter, with the abandonment of the official story and the advent of bloggers’ perspectives, we’re not even searching out the truth anymore. We’re wading through the internet cesspool to find anything that can be heard above the noise—true, false, meaningful, meaningless, substantiated, fabricated, researched, or tweeted.

We’ve traded in the aspiration of objectivity for the promise of multiple subjectivities. However problematic the former, we should be alarmed by the shallowness of the latter.

The ease of online publishing, of telling your story to the invisible, typing hordes, doesn’t mean you give up writerly integrity. The abundance of real-time perspectives on every unfolding event doesn’t mean we dismiss evenhanded reporting. And “truthiness” doesn’t have to be a 21st-century substitute for understanding the complex beast that the truth really is.

The internet suggests all truths are equal. I say some truths are more equal than others.

 

Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan was Editor of India Currents from July 2007-June 2009. 
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