It baffles me when people describe any writing as honest. In my mind, honesty and truth in writing, and art in general, are two very different things. You can convey the truth of any given situation, as you must render your work meaningful or significant. Honesty, on the other hand, is much harder to find, if at all. Whenever someone describes any art work as honest, I ask, “Who is there to verify this?” It may sound simplistic when put like that, but when you think about it, that is what people are looking for when they see something as honest – that it should be true in that artist’s circumstance.
I think there is futility and even deception in that. As writers, we definitely insist on having agency, authority, over our stories. But, that is only limited to how we see our stories. When you look at writers in history, whose work in conjunction with their self, have been torn apart again and again, making it possible for numerous, contrary opinions to exist, it is almost as though there was never any authority in the first place. Even people, institutions, who come up with authoritative versions of texts, often fall into numerous assumptions about the author, their influences and their intentions. In pop culture, we would call this gossip.
The popular notion of the “death of the author” would serve well in this tumultuous sea of talking heads, as the author is exempt from any participation in the understanding of the work, and the work can itself be served by a take-it-how-you-want-it approach. The author’s job was to express what he or she wanted to express, in the way he or she wanted to express it. Whether they did it as a calculated business strategy (which is not as bad as it sounds) or because they had nobler compulsions, i.e. their soul begged of them to write it, any measure of honesty can only be made by the author, not by anybody else. And that too, if the author is interested, which many aren’t.
While honesty is personal and disposable, truth is universal. Whether you wish to write a chick-lit bestseller or a postmodern classic, it has to render true in the world you create it in. The morals maybe thrown out of the window, the logic bent to hyper-surrealistic proportions, and yet, there has to be something that rings true, if not all of it. When you recognise any writing as honest, what you see is a believability, an acceptance of circumstances and character as truthful as can be expected in something that is not real. But, that perception of honesty has more to do with how you see it, and not what the work itself is. Even an autobiography can be truthful, but that doesn’t mean it is true to what happened.
In the age of Reality TV, when nearly all best-selling books are products of reality TV stars, it is especially important for us to remember the idea of suspension of disbelief. The bulk of our culture is in determining whether things are honest or not, which is our need to see if such implausibilities (for example, the seemingly unnatural shapes of certain body parts of these reality stars) are actually possible. But, that takes away from what this seemingly “low-brow” entertainment offers us. It is nothing new, but it is something always on our mind. Nothing primal, but something exclusive to our species – a desire to see realities different from ours. Our capacity, and compulsion to exercise our imagination on whatever catches our fancy. Something to inform our dreams, aspirations, things that keep us going.
Suspension of disbelief implies that as long as we insist on the truth, we do not care how distanced it is from reality. Which is a rather healthy way of looking at all art. And what separates art from science, and even helps in creating the latter. The work doesn’t have to be honest, as long as it is truthful. The writer, the artist, has to mean nothing to you, as long as you find their work worthwhile, even if it is non-fiction meant to tug at your heartstrings. At the end of the day, any honesty that should matter to you is your own, while faith and truthfulness is something you should expect of everything that touches your life.
Do you look for honesty in writing?
For post on being true to yourself, click here.