Kids Today and Truthiness


On the strength of some marvelous reviews, we’re about to read Zeitoun by Dave Eggers. Its subject is a recent political outrage (the response to Hurricane Katrina) and its method is ventriloquism (Eggers writes on behalf of a real family, the Zeitouns, who survived the tragedy). In both respects it is similar to Eggers’ last book, What is the What, in which he spoke on behalf of a lost boy of Sudan. But that book was categorized as fiction. The new book is being shelved as non-fiction.

As the figurehead of the McSweeney’s enterprise, Eggers is the poster boy for its effects on contemporary fiction. But the man himself has been a more successful writer when he stays away from fiction. His memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and his new works of political ventriloquism, What is the What and Zeitoun, are generally more highly regarded and more widely read than his fiction, You Shall Know Our Velocity and How We Are Hungry. If it seems weird to think of McSweeney’s being run by a non-fiction writer, just remember that lots of ostensibly fictional pieces in McSweeney’s are preoccupied with being based on “actual” facts, and many of their recurring features are letters, dispatches, advice columns, and other literary forms that rely on being “true” for their impact and authority.

Our generation is a bit obsessed with marking the boundary between what is objectively true and what is merely spin. We lament the decline of truth in media, and we encourage each other to be skeptical about everything from political compaigns and medical studies to the authenticity of our Ethiopian food and the conditions under which our t-shirts were manufactured. This anxiety is summed up nicely in the idea of “truthiness,” which is the quality of being true, according to a single person’s unexamined beliefs, but false by any other measure. “Truthiness” is a sarcastic term. It’s our way of laughing at the idea that something can be a little bit true, and a little bit false—or true by one person’s standards, and false by another’s. That’s ridiculous. Or so we tell ourselves when we’re watching The Colbert Report.

We’re excited to read Zeitoun by Dave Eggers, but we’re also wary, because it represents the vanguard in the drifting of fiction toward a type of “truthiness.” If there is great value in objective truth (however difficult the truth may be to identify), there is also great value in fiction—the un-truth that everyone recognizes and responds to as such. Plenty of people in our generation are concerned with protecting the truth from the evil forces of spin and subjectivity. But there aren’t many of us trying to protect fiction from degrading into a realm of quasi-truth, where all authority is drawn from supposedly real events and supposedly proven facts. If we drift too far in the McSweeney’s direction, those noble fools who defend the truth won’t even know how to define their opposite.



  1. I’m undecided about my feelings towards Eggers being the voice of displaced black people. But it does seem a little strange. Doesn’t it?

  2. Well, the family at the center of “Zeitoun” is Syrian-American. But yes, it’s strange. “You Shall Know Our Velocity” was about a couple of white American males who find a bunch of money, have an attack of conscience, and try to get rid of it in the most globally humane way possible. One day we might look back and say Dave Eggers was obsessed with apologizing for his race and class.

  3. I saw Edward Jones do a Q and A after The Known World, his novel about black slave-owners, came out, and the audience was scandalized to learn that he had done no actual research for the book; he had simply learned that blacks had owned slaves, spent a few years planning on doing research about it but couldn’t bring himself to face the drudgery, and finally wound up just writing the book. The audience couldn’t believe it. They would say, “What kind of research did you do?,” he would say, “I didn’t do any research,” and what everyone in the room seemed to hear was, “I did some extremely avant-garde form of research and I dare you to figure out what it was.” Other people seemed offended, as if he’d lied to them by writing this fictional novel. At last he said something along the lines that he found it troubling that no one seemed to have faith in the imagination of an author anymore, in the notion that the truth it tells is different from but (at least) equally valid to factual truth. In my more codgerish moods I feel like there’s something very insidious going on, as if our culture is engaged in an aggressive and hostile, albeit mindless and unplanned, campaign to paralyze us spiritually by training us to think that every thought and opinion we have has to be authorized. Compare a letter that Flaubert wrote once; I’m composing this in my office, natch, so I can’t check the source and I’m probably bungling it; but the drift was that he had at some previous point written a story in which he had described some particular type of scene that he’d never actually witnessed, and after the story was published he had the chance to observe such a scene in real life, whereupon he found that it matched up with his fictional description; the quote is something like, “Once it reaches a certain level of discipline, the soul doesn’t make mistakes.”

    By the way, if you want to read a novel about a wealthy white person giving away a fortune because of class guilt, but by a vastly superior writer (not that I _hate_ poor Eggers), check out The Needle’s Eye by Margaret Drabble. It’s also one of the few top-notch novels I’ve ever read that manages to describe life in the suburbs (albeit London suburbs) without being snooty, or sentimental, or ironic, or any of those other duck blinds behind which hacks such as myself hide.

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