I wrote some thoughts about truth and prevarication in personal nonfiction yesterday, and, primed for the topic, found myself on the train to work reading an essay in The New York Review of Books about the essays of George Orwell, "Such, Such Was Eric Blair", by Julian Barnes, in which he discusses the question of the truth, or lack of same, in Orwell's account in "Shooting An Elephant", about his days in Burma.
As Barnes says, of Orwell:
...he taught us that even if 100 percent truth is unobtainable, then 67 percent is and always will be better than 66 percent, and that even such a small percentage point is a morally nonnegotiable unit.
Then Barnes sets out doubts, about the elephant, about a hanging, even about the wretched school so vividly described in "Such, Such Were The Joys". The elephant was shot, but had not killed a man, and the consequences to Orwell were negative and damaged his reputation. The hanging was a "composite", that dreaded journalistic crime that got Janet Cooke sacked from the Washington Post back in 1981. And the school wasn't as bad as described.
The school I won't discuss: our experiences at school, or in a family, can be horrible and completely different from the person we sit next to at lunch, or our sibling, so different that conversation about what happened may be forever impossible, outside of novels or intimate essays.
But the other two.... According to Barnes, David Lodge (one of my favorite writers, as it happens) argues
...that the value of the two Burmese essays does not rest on their being factually true.
Except that it does. It may not rest solely on the facts, because it also rests on prose and structure. The facts are not sufficient. But they are necessary. That one percent does matter. Even if your readers, even if they are as astute and thoughtful as David Lodge, want you to trade truth for something they think they value more.