Dear Jon . . . (#24) Re: Getting the Alternative Facts Right

Dear Jon,

To address the question of your last missive, the how of my research is, I guess, like everyone else. I google. I input search terms into library catalogues. I scribble a lot of library classmarks on notecards and shlep through libraries. I get out books from libraries, and I frown over the books, and maybe even read them. I go to a place, mosey about, take notes, photographs. I ask someone about their experience of x or y or even z. I sit in a room, I play with words, and I allow some logic or some associative pattern to form. Sometimes I know what I’m looking for, sometimes I don’t, but the how, more or less, is simple enough. That isn’t to say it can’t be frustrating or difficult, but the basic processes are there. 

As to how much it matters to get ‘the facts’ right – this draws me to larger questions on fictionality, on truth, on metaphysics, on reality. The images that speed through the mind are mirrors, shadow-play on screens, theatre sets and empty Hollywood lots. Yes – to a certain extent, in certain ways, it matters.

Aldous Huxley died in 1963.

But if I write that Aldous Huxley died in 1975 or 1925 or 2012, then it matters if this is wrong. The reader gets to this line and, perhaps, stumbles. Is the writer mixing him up with another Huxley (there were so many)? Did the writer simply not have google or editors? Is the writer doing something else with history or facts that was as yet undetected? And if the writer isn’t attempting the latter, there may be a loss – if only a little – of faith in the writer, or at least a small fissure in what they were attempting to create. The classic model for fiction is Coleridge’s schtick about the suspension of disbelief (ignoring, for the moment, the postmodern penchant for audience participation, the writer striding out on stage, the actors speaking out of turn). 

Aldous Huxley died in 1964.

Isn’t unbelievable. It isn’t true, but it is within the realms of what could happen. Most people – I’d wager – wouldn’t blink at this. They probably don’t know when he was born (it was 1894), and who knows all the birth dates and death dates of writers anyway. Maybe they have the vague knowledge that Brave New World was written in the thirties. It isn’t unbelievable that Aldous Huxley died in 1964. Or that he died in 1970 (the death year of Forster) or that he died in 1943 (the death year of Woolf, Joyce), or even that he died in 1930 (the death year of Lawrence).

Thomas Hardy died in 1928.

Seems less believable than Huxley dying in 1970, or 1943 or even 1930. That Victorian grandmaster of tragic novels dying in 1928? And yet this has the virtue of being true. Thomas Hardy did die in 1928. His ashes were interred in Westminster Abbey, his heart was buried in Dorset, and Virginia Woolf went to the funeral where she thought of Max Beerbohm’s letter, just read, and her lecture to the Newnhamites about women’s writing. At intervals ‘some emotion broke in’. The procession to poets corner she found ‘dramatic, the ‘In sure and certain hope of immortality’ perhaps melodramatic'. The real surprises us all the time, even though we know the possibilities of the real are vast. That which can’t happen happens all the time. That which can’t happen can often be code for that which I don’t want to happen. A person dies and we deny, we deny, we deny.

Leonard Cohen died in 2016.

But it happens all the same. You know this. Elections are won or lost. Elections are called. Facts are believed or disbelieved. And why get the facts right or wrong, when really it seems to be simply a choice between alternatives. It is what you buy, what you’re willing to spend your belief-capital on, and how that advances or protects you. Or it is simply what you know on the basis of experience, as experienced through your idiosyncratic eyes, your ears, your brain with its own very individual whirring and dreams and desires. But that doesn’t make it any less true (if it matters) that:

Aldous Huxley died in 1963.


C. S. Lewis died in 1963


J.F. Kennedy died in 1963

All on the same day. There was an excellent episode of This American Life recently, called ‘Anatomy of Doubt’. It detailed the story of a rape, and how a police case unravelled, in large part, because those (two successive foster mothers) who knew the woman, Marie, did not believe her when she said she had been raped. The way she acted was not how people who have been raped act, in their view. Only she was raped. This is a fact. People behave in ways we don’t expect all the time. I behave in ways I don’t expect all the time. The world is relentlessly complex and the most complex aspect of it is the people who live in it, each a world unto themselves, with great tracts of space between. And how often is it, when we’re exchanging work with others that it is the quote-real-unquote things that are disbelieved? These often small, but sometimes large, things gesture at a discontinuity that exists between person to person. There are moments of connection, yes, but also startling disjunctions. And how we bridge that, how we make ourselves believed – who the fuck knows. 

I just tell the facts as I know them. After questioning, and measuring it against my own individual head and heart.