All good books are different but all bad books are exactly the same. I know this to be a fact because in my line of work I read a lot of bad books – books that are so bad they aren’t even published, which is quite a feat when you consider what is published.
And what they all have in common, these bad books, be they novels or memoirs, is this: they don’t ring true.
– Robert Harris, The Ghost
The title, The Ghost, refers to the art of ghost-writing
I picked up the Robert Harris novel from a charity shop some time ago, and packed it in my suitcase when going to Madeira with my family, assuming rightfully that I wouldn’t be the only one to enjoy it. It’s a book about a ghost-writer, hired to write the autobiography of a fictional former British prime minister.
As one does on holiday, I read The Ghost quickly and obsessively over two days. Sometimes I fall headlong into book and allow it to absorb me completely, and that’s what happened. A book can be a safe place in which you can hide. A sanctuary away from thoughts of reality and feelings of supposed to. This is one of those books which you can just devour like that, and I did. Although on reflection, I still probably prefer Harris’ Pompeii or Imperium.
This quote though, about bad books, stopped me. I scribbled it down in my notebook wondering, what does it mean for something to ‘ring true’. Apparently, historically it was a phrase used to describe the sound of an authentic coin when dropped. Nothing to do with bells. It’s recognition of authenticity. Authentic, of course, being the word we use to differentiate things in a market place of fakery, look a-likes, and marketing charades.
Who would really expect a ghost-writer of a prime minister to stick to the truth?
But actually, does one ever expect the truth?
Thinking about biographies of figures with power, I’m reminded of reading the Dalai Lama’s autobiography and how I was amazed at the detachment that he showed to his younger self. As I read, I despised the young Dalai Lama for being so unlikable, and I despised the older Dalai Lama for not writing about himself with more gentility. This is despite me having some awareness of Buddhist beliefs around attachment and impermanency.
One of the parrots was very friendly with… Master of the Robes. He used to feed it nuts. As it nibbled from his fingers, he used to stroke its head, at which the bird appeared to enter a state of ecstasy. I very much wanted this kind of friendliness and several times tried to get a similar response, but to no avail. So I took a stick to punish it. Of course, thereafter it fled at the sight of me. This was a very good lesson in how to make friends: not by force but by compassion.
-Dalai Lama, Freedom in Exile
The belief that a story rings true, I think, has much to do with a feeling of connection. You must trust the author, and the narrator, not to hide too much from you. But at the same time, some truths feel too harsh. The protagonist in The Ghost doesn’t claim to write the truth, he knows how much more profitable an untrue, but flawed and human story is over something boringly reserved and factual. He knows that a cohesive story can be much easier to believe than a disjointed and incomprehensible truth.
It’s easy to forget how much we love our own narrative
As we learn, we match things into the narrative that we understand. Everything needs to link together, and our minds are often happy to make the connections within our subconscious without our awareness. If you believe you’re an idiot, then you will identify the things in the world that prove your belief to be true – the things that ‘ring true’ – and unwittingly discard praise for your competency. You don’t need to consciously wander around life thinking ‘I am an idiot’. It happens easily beneath the surface.
In a way, the brain’s modules are like specialists in a movie production crew. The cinematographer is framing shots, zooming in tight, dropping back, stockpiling footage. The sound engineer is recording, fiddling with volume, filtering background noise. There are editors and writers, a graphics person, a prop stylist, a composer working to supply tone, feeling – the emotional content […] And there’s a director, deciding which pieces go where, braiding all these elements together to tell a story that holds up. Not just any story, of course, but the one that best explains the ‘material’ pouring through the senses.
-Benedict Carey, How We Learn
We believe that which fits with what we already know about the world.
It’s intriguing then how readily we suspend our beliefs for entertainment. Fiction requires us to accept the unreal, for just a moment. This though is where craftsmanship comes in. We struggle when a protagonist acts against our beliefs, consider Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, or the fictionalisation of a world that does not obey our understanding of nature, but we’re also drawn to these dark protagonists and impossible futures. I know too well the discomfort of watching science fiction films with indigent, squirming physicists. For a story to ring true, we only need to believe it for the short amount of time that we’re absorbed in it, but to be absorbed, we have to believe willingly. Beneath the fiction, there has to be something we see ourselves in.
My truth is different to your truth
Inevitably, if our fundamental beliefs are wrong, then our narrative we’re trying to make things conform to is going to be skewed.
According to The Psychotherapist, there are certain things I believe, because at some early point in my life it was convenient to believe them. She calls this magical thinking. I understand these ideas to be logical and reasonable, but they’re innate. They came prior to my obsession with analysis. They came before language. When she questions whether my magical thinking is based on anything substantive, it’s not so surprising that I develop a tight defensive feeling in my gut.
The narrow mind is always defensive, it’s a case of self-preservation.
I’m trying to pay more attention to the feelings that accompany my beliefs. Emotions acts as deep knowledge, and feel more concrete than can be written in words. I’m a bit apt to haphazardly believing them wholeheartedly to be the truth and the only truth when I’m caught by them intensely. When emotions drown you like a tidal wave, it’s difficult to have any other perspective.
We learn how to stay alive through trial and error and extrapolate. What ‘rings true’ is, at heart, is the sound of conformity.
On holiday I swapped The Ghost for Paulo Coelho’s The Spy. The similarity of the titles amused me. The two books though are very different stories. The Spy is a fictionalised account of the life of Mata Hari, an exotic dancer in early 20th century Paris, who was executed for being a German spy. She was escorted into a woodland by a couple of nuns, and then shot by a firing squad. Years later, the prosecutor of the case confided to a journalist that, “Between us, the evidence we had was so poor that it wouldn’t have been fit to punish a cat.”