Writers discuss truth versus fact in literary arts

Melanie Reimer

Staff Writer

On Monday, four distinguished literary artists gathered to discuss the ethics of literature in an event titled The Good Writer: Literary Ethics & the Literary Artist. Located in Chambers Hance Auditorium and co-sponsored by the Vann Center for Ethics and the English Department, the panel discussion tackled issues regarding the role of truth in literary art.

The forum began with an introduction of the panelists, which revealed the high degree of talent and insight that sat before the audience. The first introduction went to Amy Bagwell, a poet and mixed-media artist based in Charlotte. Bagwell is the founder of The Wall Poems of Charlotte, an organization that seeks to increase access to poetry by creating poetry murals in public spaces.

The next artist, Jeff Jackson, is an author and playwright from Charlotte who has received numerous acclamations for his works. His latest novel, “Mira Corpora,” is a finalist for the “Los Angeles Times” Book Prize.

Two of Davidson’s own professors participated in the discussion. L. Lamar Wilson, Visiting Assistant Professor of English, is the author of “Sacrilegion”, a collection of poetry that won the Carolina Wren Press Poetry Series award. He specializes in multiethnic American literature as well as queer theory and race and gender studies. The final panelist, Alan Michael Parker, is the Douglass C. Houchens Professor of English at Davidson. He is the author or editor of 15 books and has written over 200 poems and stories, and has received an extensive list of awards and acclamations, including three Pushcart Prizes and two inclusions in Best American Poetry.

In his introduction, Parker admitted that he liked to tell stories as a child, which often got him into trouble. The time he spent in his room and the library as a consequence for his bad behavior ultimately led to his interest in books. This anecdote initiated discussion about the role of lying in literary works and the degree to which it is considered ethical.

Wilson pointed out that the word “lie” misrepresents the work of literary artists. Instead, they agreed that the obligation of an artist is to seek a “greater emotional truth” rather than stick to hard facts. Bagwell argued that “the truth is more interesting than facts because facts change with time.” She referenced the historical view of the earth as a flat surface in order to demonstrate the way in which facts change as human understanding develops.

The panelists did not overtly define the term “greater emotional truth”; however, their discussion suggested that the truth they seek in their art is the accurate representation of an experience, identity, or narrative. “We are all existentially trapped in our own circumstances, and art is a way in which we can expand ourselves… and have empathy for different situations and people,” Jackson stated. Naturally, the conversation drifted to the ethical limits that artists face when representing an experience that they have not encountered themselves.

Wilson offered a unique perspective, explaining that his cultural identity and literary interests motivate him to give voice to the African American community, rather than just to himself. “I try to speak back to history and give voice to that experience,” he remarked. Later in the discussion he added that he tries to “articulate the truth of what it feels like to be an outsider by looking at other narratives” other than his own.

The artists agreed that the most important ethical component to a piece of writing is that it taps into a “genuine” and “authentic” feeling. Jackson posited that the boundary between authentic and artificial is located between “imaginatively entering someone’s identity and literally claiming someone’s history, race, or experience as your own.” Furthermore, Parker argued that the artist cannot “lay claim to a wisdom without investing time and wrestling with it.”

The forum concluded with a question posed to the audience: “Why do we assume poetry is true, and should we hold it to that expectation?”

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