I once heard an urban legend from my English teacher: Salman Rushdie, the famous British Indian novelist and essayist that authored The Satanic Verses, once sat in one of her classes. He raised his hand and told the class that “there is no such thing as a reliable narrator.”
The idea of reliable narration arises in many works of literature and many stories. Until we are given reason otherwise, when reading a work, we usually have to believe that a narrator is trustworthy and credible until we are given reason otherwise. A “reliable narrator” is defined as someone who is accurate and impartial, so by contrast, an unreliable narrator is untrustworthy. Salman Rushdie, even enjoys deliberately making unreliable narrators because they are “a way of telling the reader to maintain a healthy distrust.”
And not every unreliable narrator has a debilitating mental illness or is on drugs. In fact, few are. There is no such thing as a reliable narrator because every narrator has a self-interested agenda to sway their audience. There is no such thing as a reliable narrator because every narrator has been molded by their circumstances and experiences, and their retelling of events is often distorted by past circumstances and experiences. Every narrator wants you to trust them. Every narrator wants you to believe them.
So am I a reliable narrator? No! Absolutely not. I, too, have certain political biases, personal values and beliefs that make me a poor and unobjective re-teller of events. Often, I will seek out humor in my stories, and that leads me, whether subconsciously or consciously, to distort or omit certain details essential to the truth so the story flows better. In each and every one of my stories, writings, or articles, I am not an unreliable narrator because I want you to trust me. I want you to believe me, and I want you to be on my side, even if I don’t consciously acknowledge it. Those tendencies make me inherently as unreliable as the next narrator.
Then, however, there is also the question of intent. Are narrators intentionally being untrustworthy and unreliable? Most of the time, they aren’t. People who retell false, vivid memories rarely intend to be untruthful. They retell those memories because they believe them, and are confident that they happen. But perhaps that Very few people consciously try to manipulate and sway the opinions of others. The best narrators and manipulators do it subconsciously, without even trying, and that makes it confusing for all of us as their audience. Should we be more skeptical of the narrators who are the most compelling, as well as the most convincing?
Whether you agree or don’t agree with the idea of unreliable narration, a fundamental fact to keep in mind is that we all have motivation behind writing what we write and telling the stories we tell. That means that what makes us unreliable isn’t completely our Achilles heels: we have to believe a story or idea is worth telling. Something we write about has to be meaningful enough for it to be on our minds.
And that begs a deeper question, too: how much do we really crave trustworthiness and reliability? How much do we crave honesty in our stories, rather than wanting interesting and compelling stories for us ourselves to share? We look for comforting lies, not inconvenient and complex truths. It’s in our nature, so what can we do about it?
First, it is very few people’s roles in societies to be truth-finders and fact-finders. Most of the time, it’s not our jobs. We have different roles, and sometimes it’s important to believe narrators of stories no matter how untruthful they may be. I once wrote that it’s more important to be kind than to be right, and I stand by that fully in standing by any narrator, regardless of what underlying self-interested motives they may have. I believe we ask the wrong question when we ask whether a narrator is reliable or unreliable, because in doing so, we also become reliable readers. Then, we have to tackle the question of why we’re unreliable readers or listeners of a story, when it becomes our job to find the truth and how a narrator may have distorted the story.
In asking the question of whether a narrator is reliable or unreliable, I think we miss the point. A first person narration will always be about the narrator, and less so about the events being narrated. Psychologists and therapists care little about verifying their patients’ accounts of what actually happened. They care about their emotions and how they feel, and in this view, perhaps we as a society can do better. We are not truth-finders, not judges of reliability, nor gods. We are human beings in community and in relation to each other. Focusing more on the narrator more than the events is how most of us can strengthen those bonds.
In psychology, the Rashomon effect, also known as the Kurosawa effect, refers to when one event is given contradictory interpretations by many different people involved. The term originated from a 1950 Japanese film, Rashomon , where a murder is described differently by four different witnesses. but each witness describes their version of events in such a compelling way that the audience believes all of them. The effect is not because any of the witnesses are lying: they happen because each of the witnesses has personal experiences, expectations, and biases that determine how they interpret what happened. Each witness has a different truth, and each should be believed accordingly. And that’s not something we only see in the witnesses of a 1950 Japanese film: we are all subject to the Rashomon effect, and as such, we are all unreliable narrators.
Every truth has mutiple realities. The best of the unreliable narrators are the ones we trust and believe the most. Narrators can be and almost always are unreliable, and regardless, we love so many of them. If you don’t believe me, look a little longer the next time you look in the mirror.
Originally published at https://www.theodysseyonline.com on December 17, 2018.