Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Truthiness or Dare (Do the Facts Matter?) with Guy Gavriel Kay and Marianne Apostolides

“Truth can be a hazy term…the very concept of objective truth is falling out of the world and lies are passing into history.” Martin Levin, books editor at the Globe and Mail, and moderator of a discussion about the place of truth in fiction and non-fiction writing between Guy Gavriel Kay and Marianne Apostolides, stated the great fear of many in the room in allowing wiggle-room around the terms “fact” and “fiction”. The three writers debated the topic with relish, with Apostolides holding firm to her position that she takes in her latest book, Voluptuous Pleasure: The Truth About the Writing Life , that language and narrative can both be used to question a truth in works of fiction, but that this strategy should also be the portion of non-fiction writers.


The discussion that proceeded from her claim was at times fast-paced, occasionally circular, but the participants kept the audience members constantly on their toes with close attention to the details of what was at stake and frequent references to a wide variety of literary works from across the modern and post-modern landscape. Although, at first glance, the stances that Kay and Apostolides each took regarding the definition and place of truth in writing, their discussion revealed that their positions were not quite so divergent on the essentials.


A continuing thread throughout the lengthy discussion was a recent book published by John D’Agata and John Fingal about the article D’Agata wrote that covered the 2002 suicide of a Las Vegas teenager, and Fingal’s subsequent work fact-checking that article. The book lies at the intersection of the debate between what is commonly perceived as non-fiction (factual) and fiction, defining and assigning a useful role to the truth in different works and the meaning of the phrase “artistic license”.


Apostolides argued her position, saying, “To me, the problem with non-fiction is because we’re caught…on these certain facts.” Kay, who frequently writes works of historical fiction, returned to his position persistently throughout the discussion that regardless of the semantic term used for the literary genre, be it fiction, non-fiction, theatre or essay, the reader needs to have an awareness of the author’s position. He cited D’Agata, who defended his article by claiming that the article he wrote had been mistakenly presented as journalism when in fact, it was theatre.


Perhaps unsurprisingly, due to his training in law, Kay dominated the discussion and provided consistent clarification of what exactly was being examined. At many points, he concluded his summarizing by pointing out that although Apostolides appeared to be taking a more radical position, they were actually in agreement. Apostolides emphasized and re-emphasized the idea that a good writer fit with Kay’s demands for an ethical writer, both being someone who makes clear their intentions to their reader. Kay phrased this same idea slightly differently; eventually managing to gain Apostolides’ agreement with the idea that everyone is entitled to interpretation in his or her opinions but not of the facts. And while both agreed that something that is true has a physical reference in reality, Apostolides added the important caveat that perfectly capturing the physical world in words is an admirable, but ultimately naïve and unachievable goal for writers.