Report on General Meeting, May 2023: Editing truth in non-fiction and fiction


At the May general meeting, Hugh Mackay kept 16 in-person and 14 online attendees mesmerised from 6.30 until a close was called at 8pm.

A versatile and thoughtful writer, Hugh spoke eloquently about the challenges of searching for ‘truth’ as a social researcher, a psychologist and a well-published novelist. Hugh spoke of the dilemma of the social researcher being reliant on others’ accounts of their life, their window of truth into their world. Like the protagonist in his recent novel The Therapist, Hugh spoke of being overwhelmed by ‘the things left unsaid’.

We listened captivated as Hugh gave the example of research into the falling birth rate in Australia. Several rational and plausible reasons have been expounded, such as economic convenience or wanting to focus on a career, but what about those who have been pitched into a solo life or those who simply don’t want kids? Research often fails to uncover the richness and subtleties of the human stories that contribute to these shrinking households and a global rise in loneliness and feeling of alienation.

When writing fiction, Hugh feels freer to tell things how he sees them, drawing from the reality of his own wells of experience. “The characters take on a life of their own, akin to truth being let off the leash.” He said that fiction authors often set out to achieve the same outcomes as social researchers: trying to explain us to ourselves. The metaphorical truth is embedded in our stories and novelists draw deeply from the creative mind, sometimes saying things before they know what they’ve said.

Hugh said his editors were more likely to propose changes to his fiction than to his non-fiction. In his research works, the editors were inclined to accept the data, facts and arguments, just making copyediting changes — whereas for his novels the editors proposed structural changes, redrawing of characters, additional chapters, changes in dialogue. Is the outcome better? Who knows. However, he is grateful to his editors for a few monumental saves from inconsistency.

Following the presentation, Hugh and the audience engaged in an animated discussion about the trends in our current society, whether old stories should be rewritten for political correctness (no!) and the impact of Covid on society.

Hugh concluded by saying it is imperative that organisations such as the CSE remain committed to discussing what is truth and how we can best preserve it.

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