Does a snippet of an author's personal story really help you understand and interpret the author's words? Does it make you more interested in what the author writes? Apparently publishers think so, for they keep pumping out nonfiction books that, whatever the ostensible subject, are light on serious research and heavy on Me. This is a regrettable trend on two accounts. It conflates experience with understanding, as if dropping by for a visit or meeting a local were all it took to become an expert. And it produces book as ephemeral as magazine articles, hardly worth keeping on the shelf.
(Marc Levinson, in "Casting Copper As Victim," in The Wall Street Journal, October 13-14, 2012)
Levinson's comment about a book he was reviewing echoes with a sentiment expressed several years ago by Garrison Keillor. Asked to be a poetry judge, and after reading piles of bad poetry about mostly bad experiences, Keillor concludes that "Experience becomes literature when it no longer matters to the reader whether it's true or not." That is to say, the story is told so well that no one cares if it's really true. Unfortunately, the same can't be said of a work of nonfiction, as we expect nonfiction to be true. At least we ought to.
And yet the lines are increasingly blurred in a world that has lost the sense of a truth that is true, of True Truth, that is, of a truth that corresponds to reality. People believe everything, and nothing at all, and even have no difficulty holding logically inconsistent positions.
Take memoir, what you might call perspectival truth. Reading it we understand its limitations, that we are hearing one perspective on a situation, on a life. And yet as much as I enjoy the genre I often have the sense that I am being deceived for the sake of a good story, that the details of a life are embellished. I feel cheated, as I want it to be true. Given that there are some notable examples of bestsellers that turned out to be blatant falsehoods spun well, I am suspicious. I want the truth. It may be a truth limited by the author's limited experience, yet still I want the truth as far as the author knows it.
But that's not the only problem. The greater problem is when people no longer care if the memoir is really true, when it doesn't really matter. Memoir becomes fiction, and we don't care because maybe we want it to be true or need it to be true.
The best memoirs are the synoptic gospels. In them, Hebrew men tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, a truth superintended by the Holy Spirit and yet not dictated, a truth shaped perspectivally by their own unique personalities and yet nonetheless true. The Spirit tells the story of Jesus --- gives a memoir of His life, death, and resurrection --- and uses mere men in the telling, condescends in a fashion to their own limitations of perspective, and yet makes sure that the message is true.
While our own memoirs are not so perfect, that is, God is not so involved in creating an authoritative, inerrant account of our lives, allowing our imperfections to affect the telling, we can pray we tell it straight, that God will inhabit our telling so the truth we tell is True Truth.
The fact is, I want to get it straight, but I love a good story. When I'm tempted to slant the truth, to write the memoir I think I wish I had, I pray God would help me write the one I in fact have, the one He gave me. It can't get any better than that.
"Jesus wept," says John, because he saw it.
Cleopas saw a resurrected Jesus on the Road to Emmaus and said "did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road," because he saw Him and Luke set it down.
I'm glad that's really, really true. Because if He can weep over a world gone wrong, then so can we. And if Cleopas can see a resurrected Christ, then He lives and so do we who can rejoice in our tears.
Pray God we tell it straight.