My first published work — a free-verse poem titled “My Favrit Animal,” published in our school yearbook when I was in kindergarten, praising the kangaroo for its ability to “jump hi” — contained academic dishonesty. The central thesis was not true.
I confess: The kangaroo was NOT my favourite animal. It was my second-favourite. My #1 beast at the time was the pangolin — a rat-shaped, baseball-bat-sized mammal from East Africa and Indonesia, with a body completely covered with scales of thick, bony armour and an insanely long tongue. I don’t know why I liked pangolins, but I did and still do. Not as much now as before, though; my favourite animals today are the skunk, the dragonfly and the Ikea monkey.
Anyway, back in kindergarten, when pondering my literary assignment, I realized that most people had never heard of the obscure and unheralded pangolin, which might make it difficult for readers to connect emotionally with my poem. I was a 5-year-old with burning literary ambitions, unwilling to let the truth stand in the way of my lust for fame and artistic immortality, so I shamelessly “sold out” and wrote about the popular kangaroo, hoping my hypocritical ode would be embraced by pro-kangaroo readers. It was, making me the undisputed poetry superstar of kindergarten class, but I now regret and repudiate that work. Pangolins, forgive me.
Even now, my writings can be accused of dishonesty. In these blog postings, I’ll often take a real incident from my life and, for the sake of humour, exaggerate things or, for the sake of readability, over-simplify things. In comedy, it’s hard to know where to draw the line between jokes and lies. David Sedaris, a great American comic essayist, was recently accused of making up incidents in his humour. The response to this accusation? A big collective yawn. Nobody was outraged, nobody demanded an apology or money back. I still enjoy his stuff as much as ever.
If I confessed to you that the Ikea monkey is not really one of my favourite animals, that I just mentioned it for a cheap laugh, would that make you stop reading?
Outside of humour, though, things are different. James Frey and Jayson Blair are two examples of non-fiction writers who suffered scandal and lost sales when Frey’s “autobiographical” A Million Little Pieces and Jayson Blair’s journalism for the New York Times were shown to be fantasy disguised as non-fiction.
In my true crime books (Hidden Harvest and Tip And Trade), I stick to provable facts only — partly out of fear of being sued, but mainly out of a duty to give my readers the plain truth. When writing true crime, you often work on scenes that could be improved by some exaggeration or over-simplification — but I feel that would pollute the historical record, so I don’t.
Lies are more than a literary issue, of course. If you ask people for the word they associate most with “lies,” a lot would say “politicians.” I agree and, someday, would like to ask a politician’s spouse this question: When a politician talks in his or her sleep, do they tell lies even then? In the Canadian experience, the only time you can be sure a politician is telling the truth is when he is deep in another drunken stupor.
In addition to politicians, those con-artists of democracy, there are other jobs — used car sellers, lawyers, insurance adjusters, TV evangelists, energy lobbyists, climate change scientists, stage actors — that are also, in some people’s minds, associated with lies.
The field of human society most filled with lies is, of course, romance. Heterosexual men and women barrage each other with misinformation; the “battle of the sexes” is a Cold War of secrecy, spying and deceptive propaganda. (Gays play the game too, but I’m going to over-simplify and leave gays out of the rest of the discussion.)
Let’s start with the men. I read a study that claimed to prove that men who were “sexually successful” tended to be more dishonest, about two key subjects, then men who were less “sexually successful.” Men who do well with women, according to the study, tend to exaggerate: A) how much money they earn, and B) the intensity of their attraction to the woman they are after — sending her a message like: “I own half of Facebook and you are a Goddess.”
More male dishonesty is displayed in the very first stages of the courtship ritual. When a man wants a female stranger or a casual acquaintance to become a potential lover, he will often try to steer things in that direction by pretending that a level of intimacy between them already exists. When a man at a party or a bar approaches a woman he doesn’t know and, acting as if they do already know each other, smiles and makes a comment about the music or the food or the crowd, he often doesn’t have any strong feelings about the music or food or crowd. What he does have strong feelings about — the chance of being naked with this woman — is something that he will, if he’s smart, keep silent about until later. If a man is more honest than smart, he’ll be frank and upfront about his lust for a woman — “I just gotta say, gorgeous, I want you so bad” — until, at the end of the night, he goes home, alone except for his porn.
Women are more subtle than men about lying, but no more honest. In high school, I learned that if a girl likes a boy, she will often avoid the boy and look away whenever he looks at her. If he talks to her, she may say little and then leave. If she tells a friend that she likes the boy, she will be furious if that friend tells anyone else. A girl’s attraction to a boy must be concealed at all costs! Why? No idea.
While men do wear some items of clothing that give a false impression about our body shapes (e.g. suit-jackets give us fake shoulder-muscles and a tie looks like a huge, brightly-patterned penis), women take this kind of deceptive self-packaging to a whole other level. High-heel shoes, girdles, Spanx, special bras, nail polish, glue-on eyelashes, hair treatments, hair removal, coloured contacts, make-up, shiny metals and jewels to catch the eye, etc. — it’s a wonder some women even recognize themselves in the mirror. The over-all effect is often stunning and appreciated by men, but, in my opinion, female beauty needs no deceptive decorations.
And that’s the naked truth. (I mean it!)