Truth and Truths

In his book, The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien writes about the Vietnam War (because he almost never writes about anything else). He discusses the difference between factual truth (the things that really happened in Vietnam) and emotional truth (the story of what happened that readers can actually take in). I think of this because I have been thinking about Emily Dickinson’s poem:


Tell all the truth but tell it slant —

Success in Circuit lies

Too bright for our infirm Delight

The Truth’s superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased

With explanation kind

The Truth must dazzle gradually

Or every man be blind —


I also think of this because of all the writers I love who have used fantasy or science fiction or even comedy/horror to tell truths that are difficult to communicate directly in a straight documentarian kind of way. Fantasy frequently helps us talk about religion and moral values: good vs. evil. Science fiction interrogates our fears about the uses and abuses of technology. Horror can illustrate a more manageable or more laughable version of social fears: vampires demonstrate class warfare, werewolves our discomfort with the wild vs. the domestic, zombies our feelings of incipient chaos. Perhaps all of literature is in part telling the truth at a slant so that it catches the light in a more meaningful way.


Emily Dickinson, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition. Ed Ralph W.  Franklin. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1998,