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Fiction and Truth

By Angela Elwell Hunt 

Hi. I’m Angela, and I’m a bookaholic. My addiction began in the first grade, when reading “See Spot run” didn’t bring the same rush I’d felt in kindergarten. I began sneaking books from the shelf in the hall, took to reading them with a flashlight under the covers.

I had advanced to the heavy stuff by the time I was ten. That was the year I discovered Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, which weighed in at a hefty 1054 pages. I found the Civil War epic in a box of books left behind by whatever family had rented the house before we arrived. In that same box I unearthed Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, set in nineteenth century England. After reading Jane Eyre—twice—I discovered a tattered copy of The Nun’s Story, a novel written by Katherine Hulme and set during World War II.

As invasive as kudzu, these novels reached into my young heart and shaped it. I admired Scarlett O’Hara, but learned along with my heroine that love isn’t moonbeams and roses—it’s caring for people in good times and bad. From plain and shy Jane Eyre I learned the value of honor and self-sacrifice; from Sister Luke I learned that obedience to God is more important than dogged deference to man-made religious rules.

All three of those novels, and dozens like them, used fictional characters to teach me real life lessons. Though I knew the stories were invented, I trusted the authors to present me with solid truths.

I was twenty-five before I realized that my addiction could become my livelihood. With training, practice, and the right opportunities, I could create my own characters and invent my own worlds by writing my own books.

I explored the definition of novel and learned that while it may take many forms, a novel is a microcosm of life itself. By painting a picture of human beings engaging with the world, a novel implies life is like this. In his Handbook to Literature, Hugh Holman says that no matter how varied the novel is in form, “it has always submitted itself to the dual test of artistic success and imitative accuracy or truth.”

In other words, a novel should be both effective and real.

Obviously, not everything in a novel is actual. The characters are invented, events are fabricated, entire solar systems can spring from an author’s imagination. But the emotions should be genuine, characters should be authentic, and a novel’s message—yes, all novels have one, whether or not it is evident—should be true.

Granted, the truth of a book’s theme is often a subjective judgment. But the novelist who utilizes history or known facts in her work is responsible for giving a truthful picture of the events she describes. A writer may fabricate a character or even dialogue, but she may not mislead the reader. If a novelist must take liberties with truth, these deviations from fact are usually noted and explained in an author’s note.

And therein lies my problem with The DaVinci Code. The book obviously passes the effectiveness test—though Dan Brown’s writing may not be the most literary work in print, I knew the novel had piqued our national curiosity when the UPS man lingered at my door to ask what I thought of the book. But does The DaVinci Code pass the test of truth?

A lawyer friend recently reminded me of the instruction legal eagles routinely give juries about a witness’s truthfulness: “A witness who is willfully false in one material part of his or her testimony is to be distrusted in others. You may reject the whole testimony of a witness who has willfully testified falsely as to a material point.”

At a “material point,” the novel claims—and the characters accept—the existence of an organization called the Priory of Sion, a secret society supposedly founded in 1099. But this organization was invented in 1953 by Pierre Plantard, a man who had been imprisoned for fraud. Later, in court and under oath, Plantard admitted he’d made up the story about Jesus having children with Mary Magdalene.

On his website, Brown states that “if you read the ‘FACT’ page [of the novel], you will see it clearly states that the documents, rituals, organization, artwork, and architecture in the novel all exist. The ‘FACT’ page makes no statement whatsoever about any of the ancient theories discussed by fictional characters. Interpreting those ideas is left to the reader.”

But every novel has a subtext . . . the author’s beliefs inevitably seep through the story. Mr. Brown’s message—or at least one of them—seems to be trust nothing you’ve ever learned. In fact, on his website he proposes that when his book contradicts recorded history, we should ask, “How historically accurate is history itself?”

The novel claims that history was written by the “winners,” but the early Christians, many of whom were eye-witnesses to Jesus’ ministry and paid for the privilege with their lives, were not on the winning side. When the gospels were recorded in the first century, these men were society’s outcasts, yet their testimony rings with truth and continues to resonate in hearts and lives.

On his website, Brown says, “Religion has only one true enemy—apathy—and passionate debate is a superb antidote.”

I’m all for passionate debate, but in spiritual matters I have to believe deception is a far more insidious enemy than apathy. An apathetic man may refuse to vacate a carbon monoxide-filled garage because he doesn’t care if he lives or dies; a deceived man will stand in that deadly space and convince others that the unseen danger doesn’t exist.

That’s why I’m hooked on being a novelist--because along with the joy of creation comes the responsibility of upholding truth.

Copyright 2006 © Angela Hunt



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