Should we believe everything we read if it claims to be non-fiction? by Jo Carroll

I come from a travel-writing perspective. Which means that my writing reflects the world as I see it. For instance, I'm sure there are plenty of people who visit Cuba and find wonderful food. In contrast, I had a surfeit of rice and beans - the monotony broken on one occasion by a plate of pasta with ketchup (that was a low point). My food-reality is just as valid as anyone else's (so please tell me where you found fab food in Cuba ...). We are both telling our own truths.

So, having established that my reality is as justified as yours, does that mean all travel writers should be believed? You have to take it on trust that I don't make anything up - although I do place greater emphasis on one event over another, if that makes a book more entertaining. So I've taken pages to describe my encounter with a tiger in Nepal, which was all over in seconds, in contrast to the lazy days wandering around Pokhara, looking at the lake or sipping mango juice. Does this make it look as if the tiger monopolised my thinking for weeks? When my heart stopped going pit-a-pat within hours and it became nothing but a great story?

Stepping back from travel writing - we can rightly ask comparable questions about the political bumf dropping through our letterboxes at the moment. Some of it can easily be dismissed as being away with the fairies. But much of it is probably believed by the man or woman who wrote it. He or she slaved over a keyboard, twitching a noun here and a verb here, to make sure everything from leaflet to manifesto is an accurate account of the aspirations of a candidate or party.

And here I pull back from the word 'truthful'. There may or may not be writers who deliberately peddle untruths. But I would suggest that many political writers, often drawing on the same evidence, reach contrasting conclusions. The NHS is or is not safe with such-a-party. The housing problem can/cannot be solved by investing in local plans. School standards will/will not improve by giving teachers more discretion in the classroom.

I know, this blog is not about politics. But it is about writing. And all this stuff (yes, it feels like stuff, when it plops through the letterbox) is written by someone who, hopefully, is as committed to accuracy as I am, and possibly does his or her best to highlight political excitements while sliding over less enticing realities of decision-making. And it is for us - the readers - to read between their lines and try to work out how much waffling about they've used to pad out the eye-grabbing headlines. And maybe wonder if any have thrown in a bit of fiction, just for fun.

Then make a decision - and get out there and vote.

You can find out more about the tiger here, or drop by the website here to find links to more of my travel writing.


Jenny Woolf said…
Don't most people read travel writing in order to have a little daydream? I know that I do. If somewhere sounds really nice, though, I investigate it for myself.
Bill Kirton said…
On the political point, I found myself wondering this morning how any voters could be swayed by the things spouted by politicans, political wannabes, spin doctors, et al. As far as possible, I'm avoiding reading or listening to any election coverage because it, so transparently, has precious little to do with the truths of what will happen if they get in power - and it's depressing. I'll vote - of course I will - but it'll be based on my own values, not the ever-changing fictions of politicos. They all insist that 'on the doorstep' they're constantly hearing about x, y and z, but I bet the thing they hear most is 'Bugger off'.
Lydia Bennet said…
We all use 'spin' in our work, if it was just like life it wouldn't be so exciting to read! dead jealous you've seen a tiger!
Susan Price said…
Bill - what you said. And Valerie, I too am jealous of the tiger. But not altogether certain I'd want to get up close and personal with one.
JO said…
I was far too close and personal with the tiger than was sensible - but it makes a great story!

And Jenny - yes, we read travel writing for the escapism, but because it can tempt us to pastures different it's essential that writers don't make too much stuff up!

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