“Truth” in Fiction – Pillars and Cantilevers

In a number of posts (Book Review: “The Retreat” by Mark Edwards, Book Review: “Follow You Home” by Mark Edwards, Conventions in Disaster Movies, “Greenland” – A Very Good Disaster Movie, “Flight 90: Disaster on the Potomac” and Remembering Air Florida Flight 90, and “The Day After Tomorrow” – Climate Change Meets Disaster Movie) I have mentioned the term ‘pillars of truth’. In my previous post, a review of the book Her Last Breath, I also put forward an additional idea, ‘cantilever of truth’. In this post I will discuss these concepts in more detail.

I first came across the concept of ‘pillars of truth’ (真実の柱 – shinjitsu-no-bashira) when I interviewed Hideo Yokoyama in 2009. Yokoyama is the author of Climber’s High (aka Seventeen in English). This novel is partly based around the the JL123 plane crash, with the focus being on how the crash is covered by a local newspaper. As Yokoyama was a journalist who covered the actual crash in 1985, there is a temptation to assume that the book is in some way based on his experiences. It isn’t (as I also discuss in more detail in my book Dealing with Disaster in Japan). However, there are elements of fact/truth in there. Not just in terms of the crash itself, but also in terms of human behaviour, for example. This is what Yokoyama calls ‘pillars of truth’. These ‘pillars’ are important, Yokoyama says, as it allows readers to ‘flip’ the unbelievable parts in between so that the whole story appears believable.

Me with Hideo Yokoyama in Takasaki in 2009

The idea of ‘pillars of truth’ can also be extended to movies (Climber’s High itself has both a TV and movie dramatization), and, I would suggest, to documentaries and media news reporting too. I discuss this more in a chapter ‘Truth and Limitations: Japanese Media and Disasters’ in a forthcoming publication. I have also discussed the concept of ‘pillars of truth’ in relation to movies in my article ‘Disaster Narratives by Design: Is Japan Different?

As Nye (1966:145) points out, while both works on history and literature can seek understandings of the reality of the past, ‘[t]he reader agrees to what critics have called a “willing suspension of disbelief”’ (Nye 1966:149). However, the dividing line between fiction and non-fiction is not as great as we often like to think it is – something that Yokoyama was also keen to stress early on in my interview with him.

One issue with the idea of ‘pillars of truth’ is that is suggests that the truthful elements are introduced in a relatively regular fashion throughout the output, allowing the story to balance above it. However, as I discussed in my review of the book Her Last Breath, perhaps there is at least another model. This is one that I call ‘cantilever of truth’. Within this model, the truthful elements are loaded heavily to the start of the output (although there may be references back to it later on too), so that the consumer (whether it be reading or viewing) is drawn into the content and does not become concerned with the more unbelievable elements later on. In many respects, this is perhaps something that is visible in disaster movies (especially Hollywood ones rather than Japanese-language ones), for example, as much as the ‘pillars of truth’ and is something that I will need to consider further as I do future analysis in this area.

Getting the balance right is also something for me to consider in writing my own novels, although I do prefer the ‘pillars of truth’ model for this.

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