Many stories, many truths

Once upon a time there was a man from Iceland who attended a conference in Canada.

The weather was, by any sane measure, awful. The temperature was borderline arctic. Snow covered everything.

But it reminded him of home.

So filled with nostalgia was he, and so primed by the resemblance to his birth country, which he had left many years earlier, that everything about the conference seemed more positive, more optimistic, and more uplifting than most publishing conferences he’d been to before.

So I went to Booknet Canada’s two day ebookcraft/Tech Forum conference combo. Did a talk.

Saw a bunch of talks I really liked. The Safari crowd especially did a good job, both Pablo Defendini’s one on digital comics and Liza Daly’s on markup quality in ebooks. Got a lot of thoughts on Pablo’s which I’ll write up whenever I get around to it.

Once upon a time there was a man from Bristol who whose health began to deteriorate. Breathing became more difficult. Sleep became next to impossible. Over two years nobody could figure out exactly what was going on and life became progressively more difficult.

Then he was discovered that construction work next door had caused the plumbing in his house to spring a leak resulting in a persistent colony of toxic mould. After moving to a house free of toxic mould and ditching some of the old furniture, he recovered completely.

Less than three months later, he attended a conference in Canada—the first conference since his escape from toxic mould. Well slept for the first time in two years, he saw this conference in a more positive light than any of the other publishing conferences he had been to before.

The talk I did was on social media. Not about social media analytics or social media marketing or any other stupid, fact-free bullshit like that.

The talk was about the joys of actually doing research into a problem before deciding how to tackle it, using the popular subject of social media as an excuse to stand up in front of hundreds of people and tell them most of their executives are greedy, destructive, and ignorant.

They took it rather well.

Once upon a time there was a country called Canada. Like its next door neighbour it had a large and dominant ebook retailer that had grown out of its book retail industry.

Unlike the rest of the world, its ebook industry wasn’t completely dominated by the big firm from its next door neighbour.

Then an Icelander came to visit. Having only experienced book markets who were completely and utterly dominated by the U.S. firm, he found attitudes in Canada to be friendlier and more productive than he’d experienced at other publishing conferences. Less time was spent on negative bullshit. Fear didn’t dominate publisher rhetoric. Even those visiting like him seemed to take a more positive outlook during their stay, preferring humour over fear.

Most of the advice out there on how to use social media to sell something is creepy and evil, and it is so in destructive and counter-productive ways. What’s worse, the very premise of the idea—infiltrating people’s communities as a shill with a mercenary product-selling motive—is fundamentally dishonest.

Those are not tactics you use if you see others as autonomous, sentient, self-aware, and feeling beings.

Once upon a time, an Icelander attended a book conference in Toronto, the home of an innovative powerhouse startup in publishing that democratised reading and writing in new ways.

Like a singularity bending time and space, this startup had distorted the publishing industry around it.

Through interacting with this new and alien entity, Toronto publishing people began to take a new outlook on the industry that was more forward looking and hopeful than those outside of the startup’s sphere of influence.

All of the above stories are true. Every one presents a series of facts pulled from real life.

One of the problems with most writing about research—posts, articles, and books that tell you the world is this way or that way and that this is caused by that—is that the world could well be this way and that way and neither being the cause of the other.

All of the stories can be true. All of the variables described can be interacting in the system in all of the ways narrated. Isolating something from the system removes it from the context that makes it work. It becomes inert, dysfunctional, and untestable.

In other words, almost everything you read is a story and none of them are true, especially the ones based on real facts and research. A story presupposes a single cause and a single effect and all too frequently they get them the wrong way around. It narrates a continuity of causation that presupposes perfect knowledge of the world. A story fabricates its own evidence for the singular truth it is promoting.

Which is cause and which is effect?

—Stephen Fry sells a lot of books because he has a lot of Twitter followers.

Or…

—Stephen Fry has a lot of Twitter followers because his work is popular and in demand.

A frightening number of articles and books that claim to be explaining how the world ‘really’ is, make the mistake of switching cause and effect, presenting a misbegotten jumble of ‘truthy’ facts as an ordered progression from cause and effect.

A story is a demand by a writer that you take their worldview as truth. It is a performance of what they want to believe is true, however subconsciously that desire may be.

There are exceptions. The novel structure is capable of presenting a multiplicity of voices, all interacting and interdependent, but nevertheless capable of presenting their own truths. You can write a ‘novel’ that isn’t a novel and a non-fiction book that is a novel.

If you want to present something that has the same truth dynamic as real life, you have to write something that is structured differently from regular blog posts, articles, essays, or stories.

Stories that sound true are almost always false. Especially the ones you want to believe. Stories converge on single ‘truths’. Reality is messy and divergent.

I went to Canada. Canadians are nice. We had fun.

One thought on “Many stories, many truths

  1. “If you want to present something that has the same truth dynamic as real life, you have to write something that is structured differently from regular blog posts, articles, essays, or stories.”

    Ha! That! How do you do that?

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