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Good literature tells us truth without raising the noise level

Start with the Richter scale, a subject that arose during the panel discussion this past week at the 2008 UND Writers Conference, billed "Revolutions." Writers Salman Rushdie, Peter Kuper and Alexandra Fuller were the panel members tackling quest...

Start with the Richter scale, a subject that arose during the panel discussion this past week at the 2008 UND Writers Conference, billed "Revolutions." Writers Salman Rushdie, Peter Kuper and Alexandra Fuller were the panel members tackling questions related to that broad topic with a mix of personal observations, tenets and experiences. Three different ages (Rushdie turned 60 last year, Kuper turns 50 this year, and Fuller turns 40 next year); having grown up in three different countries (Rushdie in Pakistan, Kuper in the United States, and Fuller in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe); and primarily writing in three different genres (Rushdie, novels; Kuper, graphic novels; Fuller, memoir and literary nonfiction), they found much about writing to agree upon. One large point of agreement was that societal "noise" muddles truth; good literature, on the other hand, reveals truth.

Although not unique, their perspective on truth came with a sense of affirmation for literature and contrast to the day-to-day bombardment of information (infotainment) we experience, a perspective enhanced by an anecdote Kuper told. At one point while living in Mexico, Kuper received many calls from friends after an earthquake registering 6.4 on the Richter scale was reported to have struck in his general vicinity. However, at his house, the quake had been no more than a blip, a momentary tremble that was not remarkable in the least. He was taken aback by all the worry on his behalf, actually finding it both puzzling and ridiculous.

Rushdie expanded upon Kuper's anecdote with a few facts about the Richter scale. Each whole number on the scale reflects an amplification of quake movement tenfold. (Think logarithm, base 10.) One Internet source explains it this way: If a seismic wave magnitude 1 on the Richter scale releases the energy akin to detonating "6 ounces of TNT," a "magnitude 8 earthquake releases as much energy as detonating 6 million tons of TNT."

Of course, in the context of Kuper's remarks, the actual seismic experience was not as seismic as the inflated story that caused his friends to worry. Kuper saw the experience as a metaphor for modern-day attitudes toward truth: The exponential nature of the coverage was greater than the earthquake itself.

Put another way, if the facts don't make for a powerful story, pick a different set of "facts." Blur the lines; pump it up. (Find a way to include Britney Spears.) Raise the general noise level until there is no discernment about what is important, even though, as Kuper said, "Not everything is 6.4 on the Richter scale." The price we end up paying for living without discernment, Fuller added, is that "noise finally makes us all nuts."

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Interestingly, the initial question to the panel was whether literature should lead to political change.

At first the panel was bothered by the notion that literature "should" do something. However, as the discussion progressed, the panelists returned to the idea. Rushdie gave a series of examples, including the influence 19th- century writer Charles Dickens had on child labor laws. And, of course, there was Rushdie's own experience of having the Ayatollah Khomeni issue a fatwa calling for his death because the Ayatollah considered Rushdie's 1988 novel "Satanic Verses" to be blasphemous.

For that matter, Kuper had parodies he'd written for a foreign magazine confiscated by U.S. customs, and Fuller's memoir of growing up in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe pointed up the racist sense of privilege common to white families in Africa. It became clear that whether or not literature causes political change, writers rarely avoid the collision of the personal with the political in their work.

The writers on the panel agreed that good literature "brings the news" by illuminating culture in its complexity, challenging the dominant culture without raising society's noise level: In short, good literature tells the truth. Like it or not, the subversive nature of literature is really the subversive nature of truth.

Ahlin teaches English as an adjunct faculty member at Minnesota State University Moorhead and is a regular contributor to The Forum's commentary pages. E-mail janeahlin@yahoo.com

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