Writing Authentically and Writing Truthfully are Not The Same

I’ve been thinking a lot over the last few weeks (okay, actually, longer than that, but particularly over the last few weeks) about writing authentic experiences and writing true experiences.

I’ve come to the conclusion that they are not the same thing and, misused, could be dangerously misleading to readers.

This is how I’m going to define these terms. Not everyone will agree with these definitions.

Authentic Writing: an accurate representation of an experience, for better or for worse, while withholding moral judgement.

Truthful Writing: accurate representation of an experience, for better or for worse, with authorial judgement on the morality of the experience.

Here’s what I mean by that, before people get up in arms.

We’re taught to think all judgement is wrong but the only way we learn and grow is actually through judgement. We judge whether a decision is right or wrong. We judge whether something is a ‘good’ idea or a ‘bad’ idea. We judge whether someone is a good match for us romantically, or not. We judge to grow. Decisions are made by weighing the benefits and disadvantages. Decisions are by nature, judgements. They can also be subjective.While as a society, we’ve judged murder to be wrong, you and your mom may disagree on whether your boyfriend is a good match for you. That’s judgement.

Judgement isn’t bad.

The differences between whether a book is authentic or truthful lay in the writer’s hands, but the reader is the one who receives those experiences. I’m thinking about a book I haven’t read but I’ve read all of the reviews of it lately. It’s a book blessed with a beautiful stunning cover so it’s likely to get picked up on shelf, but many reviewers are having a major problem with almost all of the book’s content, calling it slut-shaming, sexist, disgusting, etc. I haven’t read the book, but it got starred reviews from Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly…so someone liked it?

I haven’t read the book, but it seems to me to be the problem of an authentic book that needed to be a truthful book.

Yep. Uncomfortable and untimely erections are a part of teenage boy life (so I’ve been told). Yep, thinking about girls in sexist ways is something a lot of boys will understand and connect to. Yes, it’s extremely uncomfortable to read, especially since all of the reviewers and myself reading these reviews are female.

The main character’s initial ways of interacting with women, thinking about sex and the role of a girl in his romantic life, etc are uncomfortable and wrong and yes, I’m judging him. It’s not okay.

I’m okay with uncomfortable inner monologue and uncomfortable sexism between characters IF there’s a transformation.

The problem here is that there didn’t seem be authorial judgment on his character’s thoughts and behavior. (I don’t even WANT to touch the possibility that there WAS authorial judgment on his character…and that he found this acceptable.)

By withholding authorial judgement on his character’s inappropriate behavior in relation to women, the author is:

  1. allowing young readers to understand that this is an acceptable way to operate in the world
  2. codifying sexism into the category and genre
  3. In this case, as the book as being heavily marketed to boys, encouraging them to act this way in order to gain female attraction (as I understand it, the main character isn’t rejected by women at all. In fact, the opposite.)
  4. Because of the dreamy beautiful cover that I have a hard time believing boys will pick up off the shelf, I imagine girls will pick this up too. It’s even worse to think about the misogynistic language used by girls in the book being read by female readers.

In some ways, character development is intrinsically tied to authorial judgement a character cannot remain as immoral as he is at the beginning of a book, even if he represents an authentic teen boy experience. In this case, I think that withholding judgment was not a gift to the reader, but a judgement within itself.

This book is being published as Young Adult literature. While I dislike heavy-handedness in lessons, kids do learn from what they read. Reading is one of the ways that we grow and learn how to make decisions and relate properly to those around us.

Trusting a reader is important. Asking a reader to pass moral judgement on a character who is held up contextually as a hero is impossible. If the main character experiences no personal growth and succeeds in the task set out to him by the plot, how can we judge him morally? He was successful.

A truthful rendering of this character would have him failing at the task and experiencing personal growth where he realizes he can’t speak or think about women in the way he does. He might even become friends–in a way that is equitable–with a female without sex playing into the question at all.

Sure, is that going to happen in real life? Maybe not. Teen boys may not have female friends with whom they feel equal, do not want to have sex, and do not talk about those girls behind their backs in sexist ways. It’s a reality of our world. But by truthful writing, showing that this is possible and that it’s good would do a world of good for the readership.

I feel like this is rambling now. You see where I’m going with this? Probably not.

Authentic writing may be more factually accurate but may lack character development needed, especially in Young Adult literature.

Truthful writing may contain content that is less likely to happen ‘in real life’ but can quietly set standards and impart truths through character development.

This is not to say that your character says “I learned that by being less sexist, I have more friends and more fun and I see the world differently!”

Be more subtle than that.

But do have a sexist character be less sexist. Please.

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4 thoughts on “Writing Authentically and Writing Truthfully are Not The Same

  1. Stephanie Sinclair says:

    Yes, yes, yes! That was the problem. The MC was not challenged by the narration. There was no indication that what he originally thought was wrong. No reflection on how he used to view women. The only reflection was that he felt like he found himself.

    The problem is that the novel was never *about* how he treated women. So the end result of his self-discovery had nothing to do with how he later viewed women.

    I think you brought up a great point for trusting your readers and when a book and the character’s intentions are left too ambiguous, it does the entire story a disservice. I’m not saying it should be spelled out, but when you write a book with a very sensitive topic, the book would benefit from addressing the concerns it raises throughout the novel.

    Great post.

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