Books I've Read

Is That a True Story?

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

I’ve just started reading The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. I haven’t finished the book yet, so I don’t have a commentary on the story. But something struck me BEFORE the story started. And knowing what I think I know about John Green and his novels, he’s someone with experience dealing with this subject: the concept of “How much of this story is true?”

If you’ve read any of his other books, you know they’re YA contemporary fiction. I’d go so far as to say literary, but honestly, I’m not entirely sure what that term even means anymore. I just know his books entertain me, but they also make me think. About big, deep, and meaningful subjects. I’m also a sucker for a clever turn of phrase, and his books are full of those too. In his book Looking for Alaska we follow a group of students in a boarding school. From what I’ve read on blogs and articles about the book, the story is loosely based on (perhaps inspired by is the better phrase?) his own experiences attending boarding school.

I’m the type of person who reads every page of a book, from the copyrights and ISBN numbers in the beginning through the acknowledgments at the end. A few pages into The Fault in Our Stars is a note from John Green. To paraphrase, he says:

  1. This is a work of fiction, not a true story.
  2. It is not only useless to speculate about the true-ness of a story, it’s damaging. To do so implies we cannot find worth nor learn anything from fiction.

Think about that for a minute, especially point number two. Chew on it. Now. Think of your favorite works of fiction.

Somewhere along the way it seems we, as a collective, have decided fiction is merely a useless made-up story. For entertainment and not much else. Why have we decided this? It’s definitely not true. Even gory horror novels tell us that evil can be defeated, and if it can’t, we should fight it anyway. Romance novels show us love exists in a hundred million different ways. The Lord of The Rings taught us that deep down, we all want the same primal things: to be safe, to be loved, and to survive. It also taught us that power is corrupting.  Harry Potter taught us about friendship, that we should be strong when faced with adversity, about not judging others based on what we see on the surface, and that those of us with the smallest voices still have it within us to do great things.

Why are we tossing these insights aside because something is made up?

I mean, let’s take a look at something like the Bible. Now, there are those out there who argue it is a work of fiction. There are those out there who say it is living word. I know my own beliefs on this subject, but I am not here to discuss them. What I do want to point out is whether you see Jesus as savior, as a prophet, or just as a dude who existed a few thousand years ago, he taught people using parables. Stories. Big, important lessons, actually.

I’m not saying today’s authors are the equivalent of Christ. They’re not modern-day prophets (hey, maybe some of them are, but I think that’s the kind of thing you don’t know straight away). But authors are essentially doing the same thing: talking about big, important things using story to illustrate their point. Or even little, important things. All fiction, no matter how reality-based or fantastical, is rooted in something real. But the stories themselves are not.

So when we open up our favorite books and discover they have depth, let’s not try to find the “true story” in the pages. Let it be. The made-up story is just as amazing.

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9 thoughts on “Is That a True Story?

  1. I just started The Fault in Our Stars yesterday. I skimmed over Green’s words, thinking of them for maybe 5-10 seconds for a totally different reason.

    Reading this is truly a revelation. I love this. As a horror enthusiast, I cheered at the below: Even gory horror novels tell us that evil can be defeated, and if it can’t, we should fight it anyway.

    As a reader, I cheered at the totality. Books helped me make it through the toughness of my childhood. It didn’t matter that the stories weren’t derived from true stories; the truth was in the hope they brought me. Regardless of whether anyone else feels fiction is silly or “just a story,” I will always be grateful to those “just stories” for helping me get to where I am today.

    I’ll also be grateful, today, for the chance to reflect on all this as prompted by your gorgeous post.

    In short, YES!!!

    • Thanks, Deborah. I’m glad it resonated with you. Books have helped me throughout life too, for both the problems I might have been facing or to remind me my joys were worth celebrating. So I know how exactly how you feel. 🙂

  2. You make a great point, there! Unfortunately, I think that the volume of books that ARE sold as “based on a true story” has made people inclined to look for that, in a book, when it’s just not necessary.

    • I think so too. So when we read a contemporary novel that rings true, we assume it must be “based on a true story”. Sometimes I can understand wanting a story or character to be real, I’ve definitely felt that before. But you’re right, it’s not necessary for the story to have meaning.

  3. I loved that book, I read it pretty much nonstop over a weekend. That note at the beginning hooked me. I immediately thought, without ever having read anything else by the author, “This guy gets it.” I also love how accessible he is to his fans. His website has a forum that you can only read if you put in a code (it’s from the acknowledgements in the book), where he will discuss any questions anyone has about the book. But he asks you not to share the code with people who haven’t finished the book, to avoid spoilers. I think it’s wonderful for teens to be able to connect like that. I wrote a letter to an author in 7th grade, and I was so excited when she wrote me back a few weeks later – now you can talk to the guy in almost real time!

  4. I love Jesus’s parables. I also enjoy Aesop’s fables, Grimm’s fairy tales, and the beautiful Native American tale of the bluebonnet (my favorite folk tale; hey, I’m a Texan). Stories are powerful because they represent life and our deepest, dearest principles. I agree entirely with you, Erin! Well put.

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