Truth and Writing

“A writer’s problem does not change,” said Hemingway, addressing his fellow writers during the Spanish Civil War.* “He himself changes, but his problem remains the same. It is always how to write truly and, having found what is true, to project it in such a way that it becomes a part of the experience of the person who reads it.” This really suggests two problems, of course. First, the writer must “find what is true”; next, they must make the reader “experience” it. As academics (students and scholars) we sometimes confuse the two, mistaking the difficulty of the material we are studying for the difficulty of writing about it, but it is important to keep them separate. In fact, from day to day, in an academic setting, this idea of “finding what is true” is not as important as “writing truly” what we think. Let me try to say a few words about that.

Taking Hemingway at face value, and putting it in somewhat philosophical language, we can say that he proposed that the writer must, first, form a justified, true belief about something and, then, present it in writing in such a way that the reader, too, comes to believe it. For Hemingway, it is the truth that is to be “projected” in the writing. But what if we’re not as confident about war, love, or lion hunting as Hemingway appears to have been? What if we’re writing more to try out our ideas than to persuade our readers that we’re right?

I want to suggest that good academic writing less about making the reader experience your truth and more about getting the reader to to consider whether what you’re saying is true. When we’re reading a good novel (and, arguably, a good piece of journalism) we don’t want to be constantly asking ourselves whether what is happening in the story is true. We want the events — what Hemingway called “the sequence of motion and fact” — to present themselves to our imaginations almost as if they were actually happening. We want to know what happens next, not whether it happened at all. (The so-called “unreliable narrator” poses a problem for this simplified view, but not one that, given another post, I couldn’t deal with.) But in a piece of scholarship each fact is presented, paragraph for paragraph, in such a way that we can ask the two questions in Wayne Booth’s ideal Oxford tutorial: What is the author saying? How does the author know?

That is, instead of worrying about whether you are persuading your reader that what you’re saying is true, and, indeed, instead of worrying about whether it is actually true, in the moment of writing, just project what you think in such way that the reader can carefully consider whether or not it is true. Indeed, your writing should compel your reader, not to believe it, but to think about it. The truth of the claims you are making should seem important to you. The question of their truth should impress itself on the reader as a relevant one.

Not all writing is like this. Leaving aside novels, we often read stories without caring very much whether it’s true, or simply taking for granted that it is. When reading a popul0ar science book, for example, we don’t seriously consider the possibility that the writer may be wrong. We see our job as readers to be mainly one of understanding the material that we’re presented with. In the media in general, we read many of the stories mainly as an indication of what “agenda setters” want us to think about today. We don’t expect them to have particularly good reasons for for believing its true, but some strong incentives for suggesting the idea to us. Advertising is a good example of this sort of thing, too. Like propaganda, it’s a kind of rhetoric we know how to engage with, but our main concern is not whether or not it is “true”.

Academic writing is not so much the art of writing what is true as the art of presenting something in such a way that its truth may be discussed. Once the reader understands what you’re saying, they should wonder how you know its true. Reading on, they should of course be enlightened about exactly that.

*I originally said he was addressing journalists. But the remark was made in a speech at the American Writers’ Congress in June of 1937. Published under the title “Fascism Is a Lie” in Conversations with Ernest Hemingway, Matthew J. Bruccoli, ed. (University Press of Mississippi, 1986).

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