Fiction in a Post-Truth Age

Pankaj Mishra

Two decades ago, the destruction of the World Trade Center plunged many novelists in the West into feelings of powerlessness and marginality. Fanatics of seemingly obscure background and motivation had set off colossal explosions in what Don DeLillo in Falling Man called the ‘narcissistic heart of the West’. Martin Amis was not alone in ‘considering a change of occupation’. Ian McEwan claimed to have found it ‘wearisome to confront invented characters’. ‘I wanted to be told,’ he said, ‘about the world. I wanted to be informed. I felt that we had gone through great changes and now was the time to just go back to school, as it were, and start to learn.’

This learning process could have begun with fiction from outside the West. Unlike the novelists blindsided on 9/11, and since, by the ferocity of political antagonism, writers from Asia, Africa and Latin America had always written from within, and often about, the experience of violence and disorder; they couldn’t remain oblivious to conflicts over food, water, land and identity.

After 9/11, however, amid Western preparations for retribution in Afghanistan, and then Iraq, facts rather than fiction – the facts of history, politics, sociology and, especially, religion – suddenly seemed crucial to re-education in the self-involved West. In the abrupt efflorescence of Western curiosity about far-off lands and peoples, I was one of those tasked with answering the puerile question ‘why do they hate us?’

Early in 2001, a few months after publishing my first novel, The Romantics, I had travelled to Afghanistan. I wrote at length, in Granta and the New York Review of Books, about the way the country had been ravaged by the Soviet Union, the ‘free world’ and Saudi-sponsored Islamic fundamentalists. I tried to describe this recent history from the point of view of the Afghans. Soon after 9/11, however, I found myself routinely invited by the American and European media to share my expertise on ‘terrorism’.

There were, back then, very few writers of non-Western origin in the Anglo-American press, and I often accepted the absurd role of a terrorism expert out of an uneasy sense of responsibility. Writers not previously known for their acquaintance with the Quran had suddenly become loquacious with interpretations of jihad and analyses of the Shariah, and anti-Islam agitators luridly colouring in a Muslim propensity for irrationalism were anointed as brave truth-tellers. More ominously, as bombs exploded across Afghanistan and the calls grew for war in Iraq, many British and American commentators relished their newfound bloodthirstiness, typified by Christopher Hitchens urging Nato to bomb Afghanistan out of the Stone Age.

I saw myself as one of the few mainstream writers resisting, however futilely, the further brutalising of a luckless country, and the demonising of Muslims. Everything I had absorbed, growing up in India, about the history of decolonisation told me that the Western venture in Afghanistan, fulsomely endorsed across Europe and America, was doomed to calamitous failure. But I could not share this belief with my editors, overwhelmingly white and male, in the West: poorly educated in the facts of imperialism and decolonisation, they seemed unaware that assumptions of perpetual Western hegemony had long been exposed to intense contestation from what W.E.B. Du Bois called the ‘darker nations’. I could only look on incredulous as the BBC screened a documentary about the globally beneficial effects of the British Empire, or the New York Times Magazine argued that the United States should establish a new empire of democracy and free markets.

My sense of wrongness had another source, too. I didn’t have faith in the ability of long-form reporting or op-ed commentary to convey complexity and nuance, as I had long been susceptible to D.H. Lawrence’s boast that the novelist is ‘superior to the saint, the scientist, the philosopher, and the poet, who are all great masters of different bits of man alive, but never get the whole hog.’

Much of what I knew of history, sociology and political psychology had originally been gleaned from novels. The splintering of society into a mêlée of self-seeking individuals; economic exploitation and material inequality; the corruptions of politics and the press; the inadequacies of liberal gradualism; the thwarting of revolutionary hopes; the impotent resentments of the low-born and socially insecure: all of these enduring pathologies, the staple of academic and journalistic work, were first anatomised in the novels of Stendhal, Balzac, Flaubert, Maupassant, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev.

I was led back to writing fiction myself in part by a disillusioning experience, as I saw how the dominant ideology, shared across the realms of politics, business and the media, was increasingly antagonistic to lived reality. The post-truth age has dawned murkily in a chasm: between the way an elite represents the world in which it is flourishing, and the way ordinary people experience that same world.

I was first confronted with this after reporting in 1999 from the Valley of Kashmir, then as now under a brutal military occupation by India. My carefully documented accounts of the massacre, rape and torture of Kashmiri Muslims flailed before an obdurate Indian consensus: that Kashmiris were being saved from themselves, with regrettable but never excessive force, by a democratic and secular nation-state, the morally prestigious legatee of Gandhi and Nehru.

In the West an even grander and slicker self-image thwarted examination of the ruling class’s humanitarian wars and ideological crusades. In the late 1990s, when I started publishing in Europe and America, writers and journalists commonly presented their countries as spiritual heirs of Athenian democracy, Renaissance individualism and Enlightenment rationality. (Their boosterism always reminded me of Herzog’s remark in Saul Bellow’s novel that ‘the visions of genius become the canned goods of intellectuals.’). A younger generation today, traumatised by blustering blonds in the White House and Downing Street, won’t remember the time when politicians, businessmen, think-tankers and journalists in London, New York and Washington DC defined, with supreme confidence, what the world was and should be. And, indeed, as Anglo-American experts shock-therapied Russia into capitalism, democratic India, communist China and many other countries seemed to be converging on a perfected Western model, which combined democracy with free markets and was capable of bringing individual rights and prosperity to all.

The role of slavery and racial capitalism in the making of the Western model – made inescapable in recent years by new scholarship and the Black Lives Matter movement – was elided from the stories insisting that the West was, and is, best. I tried to highlight neglected or ignored realities: the pogroms of Hindu supremacists, the long history of terrorist violence in Europe and America, the role of the state in the economic modernisation of East Asia. At the same time, I secretly longed to return to writing fiction, haunted by Nadine Gordimer’s remark that ‘nothing factual that I write or say will be as truthful as my fiction.’

Gordimer, who spent much of her life under an apartheid regime armed by the free world, never needed an education in the facts of history and geopolitics. She diagnosed a crippling – and truly global – psychological legacy of slavery and imperialism: racial and civilisational conceits on one side, and devastated self-respect on another. Insightful in her essays about a ‘dying white order’, she urged her compatriots, whose ‘ego’ had been massaged for too long by Western journalism, to contribute to a non-racial ‘order struggling to be born’.

Her complex art, however, could never be reduced to her opinions and aspirations. She neither punished nor honoured her characters for what they said or did. And her novels didn’t aim to provide sociological or historical data through a quasi-photographic reflection of empirical reality. They offered a kind of knowledge that only novels can: the states of consciousness of different people at different times.

They showed that, while literature cannot but engage with the facts of politics and history, it works in a separate realm, imaginatively unveiling what we didn’t know we knew: the bewildering diversity of our impressions, the tangled nature of our motives, the many inconsistencies of our thought and behaviour. Instead of offering a programme or conviction, facts or counter-facts, fiction shows the human truth – muddle and conflict – in every situation; and it enlarges our suspicion of the unfathomable strangeness and variety of life.

I continued to read novels with the compulsion I picked up as a child: to experience the world in the mysterious and exhilarating ways fiction makes possible, the repeatable miracle of printed words giving shape to emotions, and clarifying the look, smell and texture of things. Opening a new novel held the promise of exploring some shared Atlantis of the imagination – the place from which one writer after another would return with a private haul of images, memories and thoughts that, unknown one moment, seemed intensely intimate the next.

And I came to see more clearly the inadequacy of my own work. I had started my writing career in a later phase of what Gordimer, following Gramsci, called an ‘interregnum’ – a period of revolutionary upheaval inaugurated by decolonisation. This world-historical event – marked by the contortions of a dying white order and the eager assumption of power and wealth, along with all their corruptions, by the darker nations – became my subject in books and essays over the past two decades.

But the questions left unanswered in my mostly sceptical accounts of the ‘rise’ of Asia kept growing: what, for instance, does the possession of power do to people deprived of it for centuries? The claims of people damaged by colonial violence, racial prejudice and material deprivation have never been more widely amplified. But how do the inner lives of the victims of history change when they gain professional and sexual freedoms that had been unimaginable? What does such change – unprecedented in its velocity and scale – mean to individuals in their most intimate lives, as sons and daughters, husbands and wives, lovers and friends? How does it alter their sense of self, and their relationship to their past?

The proofs of material success in countries such as India and China – high GDP growth, manifestly hectic consumerism – may seem indisputable. The characters in my new novel belong to an Indian generation that grew up just in time to benefit from an economic globalisation supervised by English-speakers. Often born in very modest circumstances, members of this generation now occupy, in middle age, senior positions in big tech companies, hedge funds and banks in Europe and America.

Underneath such ‘success stories’, however, lies another reality, in which personal liberation and fulfilment are unfinished and increasingly corrupted projects, and the dominant yet not fully acknowledged emotion is a sense of loss. It seemed to me that no genre of non-fiction could capture the momentum and complexity of such a dramatic transformation, the uprootedness and disorientation, or the feelings of confusion and self-betrayal, the profound moral trouble, incited by it.

I increasingly felt that only imaginative writing was equal to capturing the maddening ambiguity of such circumstances; that only the novel, a particularly supple and spacious literary form, could unite the frustratingly disparate modes, abstract and intuitive, sensuous and intellectual, of apprehending the world. The novel’s perpetual struggle for a fuller, more integrated consciousness has always been indispensable. Its invitation to a slow, silent and creative communication between writer and reader has become irresistible amid the organised mendacity and the clash of hot takes that make an extremely online public sphere so cacophonous today.

Many of the sources people used to trust to relieve their everyday perplexity before the world have been foundering. Cheerleading catastrophically ill-conceived wars, oblivious to a long-gathering financial crisis and helpless before its toxic political consequences, the so-called legacy media have undermined their superior claim on facts and become complicit in a larger breakdown of trust in democratic institutions.

If the public sphere is awash with false and misleading information, it is because the ruling class ideology that in the 1990s enjoyed a high degree of public acquiescence and the power to shape facts has been exposed as the illusion of an entitled minority. Russia has mutated into a routine menace, India has turned its back on democracy, China openly mocks it, and the Western model of globalisation seems unlikely to recover from the devastation inflicted on it by the blonds in the White House and Downing Street.

The gap between the experiences of ordinary citizens and the perspectives of politicians and journalists widened throughout the long years of crisis. One damaging consequence is that many more people today are willing to suspend their disbelief in the malign fictions of far-right demagogues, podcasters and YouTubers. Corrective modes of knowledge that rely on new enquiry rather than log-rolling and confirmation bias have yet to become authoritative.

There is more demographic diversity in publishing and media offices, as well as university departments, than when I started out as a writer. Yet diversity of thought remains a distant goal, and those who feel endangered by the very idea of it have moved fast to seize cultural capital from diminished legacy institutions, and to substack canned goods – the Enlightenment, classical liberalism, Western rationalism – on their stalls in an algorithm-fuelled marketplace of ideas.

The primary struggle of these intellectual entrepreneurs is for survival. Demographic changes at home, decline in economic and military power abroad, along with new ways of thinking, teaching and self-fashioning, have rendered obsolete many concepts, categories and identities derived from an insufficiently examined past. ‘What we possess,’ Alasdair MacIntyre warned in After Virtue (1981), ‘are the fragments of a conceptual scheme, parts which now lack those contexts from which their significance derived.’ No amount of refurbished Plato-to-Nato narratives about Western Civilisation can restore the confidence once held by a long hegemonic order.

Nor will a besieged establishment’s loud existential fears of ‘wokeness’ drown out this simple imperative: that to live attentively in our times, when voices long suppressed are beginning to be heard, is necessarily to awaken to centuries of brutal history. There is no question of the urgent need for more scholarship about insidiously steadfast modes of injustice and humiliation, and for fresh ideas about how to rethink our past, and to chart our way out of the present into a liveable future.

But they won’t be enough in themselves, especially if they are reduced to a means of self-branding, hardened into postures, and emptied of their ability to disturb entrenched opinion. No matter how potent and compelling our facts and ideas, we will still want to explore our moral and emotional lives: the intimate realm where the individual stands shorn of vain ideology, full of contradiction and irresolution. We can be most precisely known, and vividly revealed, even through blindingly fast historical change, by imaginative literature. Fiction will continue to speak its truths in the post-truth age.

This piece was originally commissioned as a ‘personal essay’ by the Financial Times. I wouldn’t agree to remove the first five paragraphs, including the references to the editors and journalists who promoted Islamophobia after 9/11 and called for war, torture and a new Western empire, and was invited to withdraw it altogether. I suppose I should be grateful for being ‘cancelled’. It vindicates my decision to return to fiction.


  • 16 February 2022 at 9:13pm
    David Lobina says:
    New scholarship? The scholarship has always been there, it's just that it has rarely made it to the mainstream as it has in recent years, which is what the piece is mostly about. In relation to 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, for instance, what it is described here is most certainly not the media I was reading at the time. Z magazine in the US is a case in point, and I could point to many others - this is even truer in the case of some of the Spanish and Italian publications I read at the time, and still read now (as is usual the case, by "the west" here is really meant the US/UK media for most part).

  • 17 February 2022 at 6:29pm
    nlowhim says:
    Some good points here, especially about how fiction can speak better truth than non-fiction. Dare I say only some fiction, as much of it falls into the same ruts as those you mention non fiction falling into. And indeed reading a (good) book does affect the mind in different ways. Ways that a scroll through the online mass hysteria can never come close to. But again, you can’t let all fiction into this category. One need only read about how the US MFA workshops were corrupted in their early days by Cold War ideology. To that end, how about some contemporary novel recommendations that fit the bill? No Amazon affiliate links, I hope, though everyone has to eat.

  • 18 February 2022 at 3:23pm
    Seth Edenbaum says:
    The claim that we live in a "post-truth" age requires an earlier "age of truth".
    Nigel Biggar might say you're of the Devil's party without knowing it.
    I'd just say try again.

  • 18 February 2022 at 11:44pm
    R. B. says:
    "Yet diversity of thought remains a distant goal, and those who feel endangered by the very idea of it have moved fast to seize cultural capital from diminished legacy institutions, and to substack canned goods – the Enlightenment, classical liberalism, Western rationalism – on their stalls in an algorithm-fuelled marketplace of ideas.

    The primary struggle of these intellectual entrepreneurs is for survival. […] No amount of refurbished Plato-to-Nato narratives about Western Civilisation can restore the confidence once held by a long hegemonic order."

    I think it's fairly clear who's being described here (and the description is a good deal kinder than I'd be) but if so it's not at all clear why you'd characterize them as "struggling for survival." The soi-disant thinkers of the Intellectual Dark Web, the retro-liberal Enlightenment-mongers and so on, in fact have less reason to fear for their material security than almost anyone else in the fast-eroding institutions of journalism and academia, and hence are able to set themselves up as extra-institutional "entrepreneurs" as a matter of convenience or maverick positioning, relying on preexisting media and academic platforms for publicity, and with an ever-present safety net of re-employment in some wealthy backer's think tank or institute should things not work out. What they're struggling for is what you might call "legitimacy" or "prestige" or merely position in the war of ideas; not in any way their survival or even, really, their comfort.

    As someone whose material security has *actually* been imperiled by the rapid economic erosion of academic institutions and the hostility to genuine diversity of opinions, I think this distinction is worth drawing more clearly.