Facts and information vs story, a secular take

What interests me here is the last line of a review of this book which I found online and quote below: “…where the usefulness of information ends, the usefulness of the novel begins”. I believe it reinforces a point I hear @Christy make again and again about the difference and relative value of facts and history vs story.

Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows is a novel about growing up in a Mennonite family in which suicide is a recurring event told from the point of view of a sister coping with a much more successful older sister who is intent on killing herself and the effects on herself and her family when the older sister finally succeeds. Compared with Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar which I read last year, the resolution in this one is much more satisfactory from the reader’s point of view, and the reading itself much more upbeat. That is probably because it is written from the point of view of a survivor (Miriam Toews) rather than that of an authoress who goes on to kill herself (Sylvia Plath).

For context, here is an excerpt from the review I found on line when, like the reviewer, I went looking to learn more about the author’s sister which she lists in the acknowledgements at the end. The source is a review by Charles Finch which ran in the Chicago Tribune on December 24, 2014.

It was late at night when I finished “All My Puny Sorrows,” the heartbreaking, valiant, very funny new novel by Miriam Toews. Everyone was asleep. I slipped out of bed and went into the darkened living room, turned on my computer, and started to look online for the names in the book’s acknowledgments.

It didn’t take long. “All My Puny Sorrows” is about a writer from a Mennonite community near Winnipeg. Her name is Yolandi, and her beloved sister, Elfrieda, wants to commit suicide. Well, Toews had a sister, Marjorie Anne, and they too grew up in a Mennonite community, and now Marjorie Anne is dead, a suicide; like their father, and the father in the book, she let a train kill her.

For a half-hour I investigated Toews’ family, with all that sense of entitlement to other people’s lives that characterizes our age. I experienced the author’s grief secondhand, after having read her description of it firsthand. Finally I shut my computer again, feeling half-guilty. The purity of the experience of reading the book had dissipated. It was later than I had meant to stay up. We live within reach of so much information these days that I could have gone on searching forever: the Mennonites, barrel racing, Rotterdam, the pathology of multiple suicides within a family. But then sometimes, paradoxically, having so much information can seem to diminish or misdirect our comprehension of a thing like suicide, a thing like grief. As I fell asleep at last, what occurred to me was that Toews’ book was a bittersweet proof of this: that where the usefulness of information ends, the usefulness of the novel begins.

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Thanks for sharing this review, Mark. I had kind of a similar experience after watching the movie A Marriage Story. And like the reviewer, finding out how much of the movie was “autobiographical” in the sense of accurately representing historical facts of the screenwriter/director’s life did not really do much for me.

I think this is because stories invite us into empathy and light all these emotional and imaginative sparks, but when we decide to start separating out “fact from fiction,” it becomes a different kind of exercise.

It is interesting to me that multiple studies on children have shown that reading (good) fiction builds emotional intelligence, increases appreciation for differing worldviews, and makes children more sensitive to injustice and suffering. Some educators have argued against using historical fiction in education, because often the authors are projecting their anachronistic values and sensibilities on the historical situation to some degree, which they argue gets in the way of the “pure” history. Personally, I think there is no such thing as pure history, so the more relateable you can make it, the more likely kids will be to learn some lessons from it. And if authors take some artistic license and rearrange the bare facts a bit to tell a better story, well, sometimes that is justified. :slight_smile: What do a bunch of coldly factual dates and wars and rulers names really do for us as a human race anyway?


As a fan of Phlip Gulley’s fiction, I remember him writing something to this effect: There never was a story that a little embellishment couldn’t improve on.

I took it as a tongue-in-cheek line, embedded in a collection of humor-laden devotionals as it was (“For Everything a Season” - or maybe it was his “Front Porch Tales”; both wonderful reads). In any case, perhaps there is much more serious depth in that conjecture of his than I gave it at the time! Novels are powerful things indeed.


Reading this and rereading @Christy‘s post it occurs to me that even memory is not entirely historical, neither in the way it is stored nor in the way it is retrieved.

“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

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