I recently finished reading The Book of Night Women. It was an exceptional piece of writing. Marlon James (you can hear him here discussing the book) does a remarkable job of telling a story that feels authentic and urgent and important.
I should say at this point, that I have no idea what it was like being a slave in Jamaica. My own experience has been much more privileged, and very different. But as readers, we’re inevitably looking for authenticity, I think – judging on authenticity.
I wanted to think about that for a little while. I think when we read, we’re looking for a few things. One is for a world that feels real; for something that is internally coherent, that doesn’t self contradict. For something that doesn’t entirely contradict our own experience of human nature and the world. We want books to redefine and reshape our understanding of the world – but where the premises or outcomes seem so implausible that we can’t take them seriously, then the story loses something; it becomes less clearly a meaningful message about the world, and more obviously a construct created by someone else.
But even as we evaluate the authenticity of narratives, there may be some that we have no meaningful way of testing in detail. Where they pass the basic tests of congruence with human nature and reality, it still seems plausible to me that there are myriad ways that they could be meaningfully, profoundly ‘wrong’ – about the sociology of a particular environment, about the impacts and meanings of particular events. I’m not sure where to go with that; I just think it’s an interesting, and important part of how we read. If you’ve got any thoughts, I’d love to hear them.