June 28th, 2017

Why writers lie

No real answer is provided in this Vanity Fair article, although the title [“Why Writers Lie (and Plagiarize and Fabricate and Stretch the Truth and…”)] would have you believe it will offer one.

This is the closest it comes, and the quote just refers to one person named Jonah Lehrer:

A Rhodes scholar and a best-selling author in his 20s, he fell in love with the sound of applause at book gatherings and with the sight of his e-mail inbox, crowded with invitations. He got busy, and he got sloppy.

So I’ll jump into the gap with my own theories.

Some writers—just like some people—are habitual liars anyway, in their lives as well as their writing. You might just as well say, “why liars write.”

But the profession of writing presents special hazards and temptations, even to those who are generally truthful. Fiction writers, for example, are so used to making stuff up that the segue into extending their imaginative powers to non-fiction might seem small and insignificant, even though it’s not.

Writers feel the need to churn it out, and some become desperate for material.

Some writers might actually lose the distinction between truth and fiction along the way. Memoirists, for example, often condense or simplify or combine incidents, and that’s not considered to be lying. But perhaps it becomes a slippery slope, and the writer starts changing more than that. Affer all, writers want to engage the interest of their readers. I happen to think that truth is stranger than fiction, but others would differ and might like to embellish their tales in order to make a better story. An embellished tale told too often can start replacing the truth, even in the storyteller’s own mind.

These are explanations, not justifications.

31 Responses to “Why writers lie”

  1. Ray Says:

    Remember Jason Blair at the NYT? He wrote interviews with people he had never met at places he had never been. He was promoted and the NYT published this fake news.

  2. arfldgr Says:

    Talk about well made and fortress like avoidance skills

    let me guess, you always get tricked by magicians

    you really have to break away authors from others and then list out why people lie? want the game theory answer? the moral answer? the biblical answer?

    this is a waste…
    how about for a change, lets argue why aliens in outer space lie, at least it wont be a derivative piece pondering the same question that people have asked for tousands of years and still ponder..

    China’s new 10,000-ton guided-missile destroyer enters the water on Wednesday, June 28, during a launching ceremony at Shanghai’s Jiangnan Shipyard.

    i wonder if they lied about that…

    i wonder if they been lying about our military might and our abilities compared to our adcersaries they favor?

    i guess when the fit hits the shan, you will find out, but not before, your too busy…

    I do not mean to give any fence of Mans Eyes or Eares such a Surfett, as by answer- … Falshods, so contrary to them selves, as may well show how evill Lies can be … that in all the most contrary humord Men in the World can remain ; that sure, – The Defence of Poesie: A Letter to Q. Elizabeth; A Defence of Leicester

    you have to call them falshods to find the writings you missed from our ancient past.

    So near is falsehood to truth that a wise man would do well not to trust himself on the narrow edge.
    Marcus Tullius Cicero

    For every man’s nature is concealed with many folds of disguise, and covered as it were with various veils. His brows, his eyes, and very often his countenance, are deceitful, and his speech is most commonly a lie.
    Marcus Tullius Cicero

    [note that journalism is new on the scene of politics and lies.. once the press became part of the political engine due to the world wars, they were no longer anything other than another arm of state!!!!!!!!!!!!!]

    and before yo udo this, you have to first answer their eduycation, you cant call it a lie if lies dont exist

    There’s No Such Thing As Truth
    [so everything is a lie]

  3. arfldgr Says:

    i suggest reading
    Russia is a lie

    Since our politicos are adirers, students of, and mimics of the soviets and their ways… why not learn about the lie from the soviets or ex soviets? (Cause thats not fun, nto entertaining, right? better to make things up and have people love bomb you for a wrong idea than not love you for a right one? )

    The lies start with simple facts. At first it was claimed there weren’t any Russian soldiers in Crimea, and then it was admitted that there were. At first it was claimed there weren’t any Russian soldiers in Eastern Ukraine, and then it was admitted that there were, but only because they had crossed the border ‘by accident’ – no – actually they were ‘on leave’ – and they only wanted peace anyway.

    This may sound absurd, but it’s strategy.

    Lying is an especially effective policy instrument when it is not coupled with self-deception.

    The political lie is only a lie if the liar doesn’t believe in it.

    see? your all wrapped up in TACTICS
    but your missing and always missing the STRATEGY

    Tactics is a staircase, Strategy is which stair case and where does it lead.

    so abortion is a tactic for eugenics..
    self extermination being better for the state post WWII, womens liberation is the strategy to adopt the tactic which was celebrated by Sanger, Rudin, soviets and nazis, the kkk, and others.

    and now the tactice has led to revealing the strategy!!
    each of the items that you thought were ends were tactical moves TO ends

    Feminist Mag Calls on White Women to Fight Supremacy by Aborting All of Their White Babies
    …White women: it is time to do your part! Your white children reinforce the white supremacist society that benefits you. If you claim to be progressive, and yet willingly birth white children by your own choice, you are a hypocrite. White women should be encouraged to abort their white children, and to use their freed-up time and resources to assist women of color who have no other choice but to raise their children.

    lies are a tactic

    the politicoes are above people
    so its a free for all of immorality while covering it from the people who have morals and care..
    and who are in the way.

    back to the ex soviet

    If you try to find a grain of truth in the Kremlin’s web of lies you will become its useful idiot – as happened to a well-known Russia expert on German television.
    First she repeated Putin’s lie that he hadn’t sent any soldiers to Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. Then she held on to that lie after Putin had admitted that the ‘little green men’ were indeed his soldiers.

    Moscow gladly rebuts its own lies as soon as they are no longer useful. The Kremlin doesn’t care what that does to its stooges – they will anyway string together some kind of explanation.

    ITS EXACTLY WHATS GOING ON NOW BUT WITHOUT EXPERIENCE YOU CANT IDENTIFY IT AS WHAT IT IS and so would be forced to either listen to someone else tell you, or make up something and claim THATS TRUTH.


    people who make up stuff and dont like long explanations and history, and all that… want truth. how? why? you havent wanted truth for 10 years and didnt like it!!! you wanted wit, short, entertainment…

    you never wanted to be accurate, truthful, factual, etc. / how can you hold the press to what you dont hold yourselves to?

    hey pot, your black, said the kettle

  4. huxley Says:

    “My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrustive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests. And it always does.

    That is one last thing to remember: writers are always selling somebody out.

    –Joan Didion

  5. huxley Says:

    For 30 years or so I kept journals. At some point I went back and read through them.

    I’ve got a good memory and I try to be honest with myself, but I was sure surprised how often what I remembered did not square with what I recorded when the events were fresh.

    The discrepancies weren’t huge. Usually they were remembering events out of sequence or in the wrong place or forgetting important details.

    According to psychologists this is not unusual.

  6. Mike K Says:

    Some of my favorite writers use a true story as background and tell a story using the true story as the scene. Most good writers, that I read, use real settings and create characters to tell the story. I have never been a fan of fantasy or even science fiction.

    Tom Clancy and WEB Griffin are example of my favorites. Hemingway told a true story in “The Sun Also Rises.”

    Bernard Cornwell writes novels about the army of Wellington in the Napoleonic Wars but his nonfiction book about Waterloo is just excellent.

  7. miklos000rosza Says:

    I’m having a little struggle with this business lately as for the first time I’m crossing over from writing fiction to a memoir… and at first was just trying hard to find the truth there inside my memory, admitting what I don’t remember clearly, and this has made the vignettes powerful.

    However, I’ve come where it’s extremely tempting to lie about a particular situation. It just makes a better story.

    And no one alive can refute me.

  8. Cornflour Says:

    I think it’s hard not to lie, and once the lies gets started, it’s hard to stop. Thoughts and words become a stream that uses up facts and feelings as fuel for a mind let loose. A mind completely tethered to reality is rare, and takes a lot of work. Even more rare is a culture that demands it.

    So, I think fake news is a return to our natural, primitive, vicious state. It’s also why I’m so frustrated by the recent growth in the political corruption of science.

  9. Sean Says:

    Maybe they just lie because they’re human, and the only thing special about their lies is that they write them down, leaving them vulnerable to fact-checking.

    Also, like huxley said, people always reinterpret our pasts in light of present emotional needs.

    “My memory says, ‘I have done this.’ My pride says, ‘I could not have done this.’ My memory eventually gives way.”

  10. J.J. Says:

    In writing my memoir I tried to relate incidents from my life that I thought were interesting. Along the way I crossed swords (had major disagreements) with a few people. Naturally, they were wrong and I was right. 🙂 No memoirist wants to divulge all the stupid and embarrassing things they did or the times they were wrong – unless it puts them in a somewhat favorable light. So every (or at least most) memoir(s) must be read recognizing the selectivity of the events related. And that the truth of them may also be selective.

    I compared notes about our childhood with my younger brother. Ha, our recollections were nowhere near the same of the same events. In fact, when he read that part of my memoir, he said he must have been living in another family. Therein lies much of the conflict in the world. Differing perspectives. Same events can be seen totally differently by the observers – Rashomon like. He has lived his life according to conservative principles, yet is a dedicated progressive. A fact that I have pointed out to him on a few occasions. To no effect.

  11. JK Brown Says:

    Back on my high school paper, I was going to write a very dramatic and interesting exposition on juvenile justice and delinquency. Only after doing the interviews, I had little drama and a difficult time to make it interesting. Seems the facts aren’t always compelling reading. The inverted pyramid can be a stake through the heart of a writer who yearns for drama in their story.

    I was a junior in high school and it was a learning experience. Now imagine you’ve dreamed the impossible journalist dream, not to mention dropped a bundle on a J-school, only to discover just the fact lacks that emotional hook. Unfortunately, writing before getting to the real world rewards embellished drama so as to not harm their self esteem.

  12. AesopFan Says:

    IMO, the ones in the article mostly lied because they could (a) get something for doing it, and (b) get away with it.. up to a point, obviously, or they wouldn’t be mentioned in the article.

    Many of the novels published as “memoirs” such as the Irving faux-autobiography (interesting story, and the longest at the link) could have been sort-of-honestly marketed as “dramatic fiction” which is a familiar genre and makes for some good reading. Irving’s “frame” is no different from those in vogue in the 19th century especially.

    When he crossed the line into cheating, forgery, and insisting that it was all TRUE is when he got into trouble.

    IIRC, other now-outed liars did try to market their work as fiction, but the publishers wouldn’t buy them because, authenticity — or more to the point, the lack thereof.

    However, one extreme case cited here is of a white woman writing the soul secrets of a black teen dude – that plenty did accept it when presented as fact just proves that the readers perception of “authentic” is only skin deep.

    (See “The Education of Little Tree” for a less-obvious and somewhat more problematical fraud, which could have been legitimately published as fiction — the author’s life history is…complicated.)

  13. Frog Says:

    Why do liars lie, whether or not they are ‘writers’ ?
    For personal gain. Pretty obvious. It is an error to cloak writers in a special garb and assign them unique motives for lying.

    Pope John Paul II, now Saint, wrote a homily which contains “All human beings desire to know [footnoting Aristotle], and truth is the proper object of this desire. Everyday life shows how concerned each of us is to discover for ourselves,beyond mere opinions,how things really are. Within visible creation, man is the only creature who not only is capable of knowing but who knows what he knows, and is therefore interested in the real truth of what he perceives. People cannot be genuinely indifferent to the question of whether what they know is true or not. If they discover that it is false, they reject it; but if they can establish its truth, they feel themselves rewarded. It is this that St. Augustine teaches when he writes: ‘I have met many who wanted to deceive, but none who wanted to be deceived.’ ”
    Cornflour invokes a possible return to the Hobbesian state. But that was Hobbes’ creation, not a fact, even two thousand years before Hobbes wrote of it. St. Augustine died 430 AD, as a point of reference.

  14. Barry Meislin Says:

    ‘I have met many who wanted to deceive, but none who wanted to be deceived.’

    …is a most interesting quote.

    Alas, it would appear to be true—one would wish it to be true, in fact it seems self-evident—however, it is not always true.

    Actually, it seems that it seems very often NOT to be true (cf. the 20th century; cf. today).

    People often DO wish to believe the lies they are told (ah, but which people?….)

    Especially when such lies reinforce their own feeling of virtue and self-righteousness.

    And this may well be true of most of us—differing, perhaps, only in the degree.

    The question really ought to be: “How do people feel after they ‘wake up’ from being lied to?; that is, when they begin to understand/experience the consequences of those lies they’ve so much enjoyed; that is, when the consequences of their being lied to start to kick in with a vengeance?”

  15. AMartel Says:

    A writer of fact still wants to “tell a story” like a fiction writer. It’s more entertaining and memorable for the reader. That may mean require some faux facts. A story needs a hero and, of f possible, a villain which usually means more faux facts.

  16. Surellin Says:

    I just finished reading “Class”, by Lucinda Rosenfeld. The main character is an upper-middle-class New York progressive activist, painfully determined to do what is best for the world. And yet she does some rather shameful (and illegal) things. To a great extent she is seduced by that fact that she is doing these things for the greater good – at least at first. Must be tempting – especially if one comes out of the Marxist-lite progressive milieu in which the thought that the end justifies the means is always lurking.

  17. DNW Says:

    As has been pointed out, they lie for advantage, because they think it will make them better off.

    And the human experience, especially that of the weak when confronting a predator, tends to bear that out.

    A very fit, intelligent, and self-confident man, who considers himself pretty much invulnerable, independent, and capable of getting what he wants without too much trouble come what may, has little or no motivation to lie. His pride should get in the way.

    Barry Meislin [quoting Frog, quoting JPII quoting Augustine] Says:
    June 29th, 2017 at 4:25 am

    ‘I have met many who wanted to deceive, but none who wanted to be deceived.’

    …is a most interesting quote.

    Indeed it is. And I think that most people don’t want to be patsies. But, although they will not tell you that they positively want to be deceived and manipulated, they will indicate that there are as far as they are concerned, many more important things to them than knowing the truth … such as emotional satisfaction and “happiness”.

    My first encounter with this was in one of those “water cooler discussions” not so long after I got into the business I am still in.

    Apropos of exactly what I cannot recall, I asked rhetorically, (and with all the confidence in the correct answer which a relatively recent graduate with a background in legal history and philosophy would have) “Well what’s the most important thing in the world?”

    Secretaries’ and co-workers’ puzzled faces, eyes sent skyward peering into the distance for an answer … hmmm … ‘ Maybe …? ‘”

    “No. To know the truth, obviously!”

    Guffaws and snorts in response. Not so “obviously”, obviously.

    “Are you crazy? Who cares about that? I just want to be happy!” (and maybe “feel good”)

    Got a similar response when I mentioned “freedom” many years later while talking to a long-time mail carrier who delivered to our offices and liked to provoke politically tinged exchanges.

    She responded to the word with a snort, with sputtering raspberries/pretend coffee spewing lips, with scoffing laughter, and … something sarcastic about “Mel Gibson”. She then immediately decamped. Returning a few moments later, poking her head in the door, she capped it by saying something in an incredulous tone, like: “Freedom?! Freedom!!! Who cares about that???”

    Well yeah. Like man, what’s real anyway?

  18. DNW Says:

    My just posted remarks are a good example of how difficult it is to tell the exact truth.

    In the first example cited, something I have probably mentioned here before, I said my remarks were,

    ” ‘“No. To know the truth, obviously!’ ”

    But that is my recollection now, of standing in the doorway from the meeting room to the secretaries’ common office … the main hallway with it’s many open doors right along my right side.

    I certainly said the answer was “to know the truth”, or ‘what’s true’.

    The words “No” and “Obviously” are sentence reconstructions, of a statement delivered after what I recall were the puzzled reactions of those who obviously didn’t ‘quite grasp’ what I was aiming at.

    And, who I found didn’t appreciate it, once they did.

    It’s like trying to recall a childhood snowball fight, or an episode fisticuffs.

    I know because I got into it a few ago with a guy on a walkway leading into a dry cleaners.

    It was only after all the courtroom stuff was long over, that one day many months later, while half dozing, I recalled not only that he had made a nuisance of himself and effectively challenged me (well kind of), but that I had actually and with great and highly admirable self-restraint turned away from verbally engaging this quasi-human pest to go into the store, when he moved around to my left front, to confront me again. Almost blocking the entrance … well, sort of.

    Anyway, it proved to me the difficulty of accurately reconstructing events.

    I consider myself lucky to have gotten off basically with an admonishment to call the authorities in the future, as “cell phones are generally available”.

    Nowadays, it’s all “Pardon me!” and “After you!” LOL

  19. Frog Says:

    ‘I have met many who wanted to deceive, but none who wanted to be deceived.’

    This may have been true when the planet’s population was 100 million or thereabouts. But is it true for the vast majority of humanity when we total in the billions, ever more urbanized into ever more crowded places like NYC or Hong Kong? Close proximity, crowding, enhances the spread of contagious diseases, among other pathologies.

    In a recent comment elsewhere on this site, I first encountered “mimetic contagion”, coined by Rene Girard, who died in 2015. Those two stimulating words may contain the germ of explanation of the delusional aspect of the group-think we now encounter with ever-increasing frequency.

  20. DNW Says:

    “Frog Says:
    June 29th, 2017 at 12:20 pm

    ‘I have met many who wanted to deceive, but none who wanted to be deceived.’

    This may have been true when the planet’s population was 100 million or thereabouts. But is it true for the vast majority of humanity when we total in the billions, ever more urbanized into ever more crowded places like NYC or Hong Kong?”

    You are not alone nor the first to imagine that might be so.

    “Artists” have been saying so for some years, eh?

    We can place aside all the “lie to me” romance songs of the past and refer to something a bit more developed and more culturally current.


  21. T Says:

    “Some writers might actually lose the distinction between truth and fiction along the way. Memoirists, for example, often condense or simplify or combine incidents, and that’s not considered to be lying.” [Neo]

    This is precisely what has always bothered my about docu-dramas. I make the distinction between a docu-drama and, say, a movie, because the docu-drama purports to have some greater basis in reality than a movie. As a result, viewers walk away with the idea that George Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Bismarck, etc. actually said what the writes oftentimes invent the person as saying.

    Of course, this is also a comment on the intellectual level of the viewing pubic (as with actors playing soap-opera villains who are treated unkindly by the viewers in public).

  22. Esther Says:

    My husband, long ago, worked as a diplomat in the state dept. He said that in situations which were not recorded at the time of a meeting or event, most of them, the procedure was to write a detailed brief immediately afterwards. The longer time passed, the less accurate the information.

    Understanding and using the information, a different issue.

  23. Doug Purdie Says:

    You might want to ask why newspapers and magazines print headlines that mislead readers about the article’s contents. I guess the simple answer to that one would be to hook readers into reading the actual articles and maybe get an eyeful of advertisements along the way.

  24. Brian E Says:

    Gonzo journalism and it’s tamer cousin advocacy journalism, certainly created the rationale by which journalists justified stretching the truth.

    While Thompson claimed a distinction between his brand of journalism and lying, I’m not sure his successors maintained the distinction.

    Is asking the question “When did you stop beating your wife?” a lie when used to put your target on the defensive?

    Thompson said in “Better than Sex: Confessions of a Political Junkie”:

    “There are a lot of ways to practice the art of journalism, and one of them is to use your art like a hammer to destroy the right people — who are almost always your enemies, for one reason or another, and who usually deserve to be crippled, because they are wrong. This is a dangerous notion, and very few professional journalists will endorse it — calling it “vengeful” and “primitive” and “perverse” regardless of how often they might do the same thing themselves. “That kind of stuff is opinion,” they say, “and the reader is cheated if it’s not labelled as opinion.” Well, maybe so. Maybe Tom Paine cheated his readers and Mark Twain was a devious fraud with no morals at all who used journalism for his own foul ends. And maybe H. L. Mencken should have been locked up for trying to pass off his opinions on gullible readers and normal “objective journalism.” Mencken understood that politics — as used in journalism — was the art of controlling his environment, and he made no apologies for it. In my case, using what politely might be called “advocacy journalism,” I’ve used reporting as a weapon to affect political situations that bear down on my environment.”


  25. Mrs Whatsit Says:

    Allegedlly true stories that depart from reality may not always be lies. Memory is a strange and shifty thing. I have four siblings. We’re close in age and shared many experiences that now, decades later, lead to reminiscing when we get together. It’s absolutely amazing how different our recollections are, and how vehemently certain each of us is that the others’ memories are wrong!

    Like Huxley, I kept journals for many years. I recently had occasion to look up an entry for a particularly significant and painful event that I’ve been mulling over, and sometimes talking about to a friend here and there, for 40 years. Lo and behold, nor only had many of the particulars shifted in my memory, but the heart of the experience — its traumatic nature – had also changed. At the time, I wrote about what I now recall as a terrifying event with self-deprecation and humor, more as an embarrassment than a trauma.

    So, which is true? Did I downplay an experience that had actually scared me badly way back then, as a way of surviving it and moving past it, so that its true nature only became clear in hindsight? Or did my memory enhance and embroider it over the years, adding drama that wasn’t really there? I don’t know. I could try to find the longlost friends who were with me when it happened and ask for their recollections – but who knows if their memories are any more reliable than mine?

  26. Frog Says:

    In the armed services, those are called ‘after-action’ reports, and are also generated immediately.

  27. DNW Says:

    ” … who knows if their memories are any more reliable than mine?”

    Well, if they are, it was probably because theirs were not suffused with emotion. And thus in some sense, missing the real meaning of it.

    Visual memory is usually pretty good for most people I think. Allowing for changes in perspective and size.

    The general geometry of Grandma’s house, the angle at which light came through the dining room windows, the kind of brick, are all probably remembered.

    But then it’s not perfect; one may tend to simplify.

    You can probably draw the floor plan of your childhood house pretty well.

    Assuming however it had something more complex than a simple gable, or shed-type roof, can you accurately draw the roof lines, or even the elevation? Huh … was that board and batten wood trim above the brick belt, or was is overlap?

    Thanksgiving memories and context: Those acorns I recalled being carved into Grandma’s dining room hutch, turned out to be brass, acorn shaped door handles. It was some kind of leafy and flower scroll work that was carved into the door panels, along with surrounding bands of Viking-like interlacing.

    Geez. Where is the truth in an attempted recounting of such a thing?

  28. Ralph Kinney Bennett Says:

    The points Huxley made yesterday are exquisitely on the mark. After 56 years as a newspaper and magazine reporter, writer and editor, and as a keeper of (sometime) journals, I am painfully aware of the games memory plays and of the mistakes “trained observers” make when they rely solely on the facts as they recall them. From time to time I have taught writing seminars in which I always emphasize the importance of what I call the “Infomed Memory.” Never trust your memory. Inform or re-inform it. Go back and check. Now more than ever, we have the resources to do so. Even on something as inconsequential as a talk given at a high school reunion, I have learned to part the veil of nostalgia by doing some (sometimes tedious, but usually rewarding) research. What was the actual ticket price of the movie you saw on that date back in 1958 when you were worried whether you’d have enough change to buy her a sundae after the show? Was it sunny? Cold? Rainy? The day of that long-ago picnic? Going back to get the facts is humbling, surprising, entertaining. Worth the doing. And, yes, sometimes it really screws up that splendid story you had so firmly developed in your mind. Most humans are natural story tellers, but not so natural at retaining the facts with exactitude. Through all my years as a lover of literature I have found no rival to Samuel Pepys for an embarrassing and even painful honesty about himself and an amazingly detailed picture of the world around him. But the prodigiously researched and annotated version of his diaries which we now have show that he, too, made common recollective mistakes re names places, events.

  29. Big Maq Says:

    ” I happen to think that truth is stranger than fiction, but others would differ and might like to embellish their tales in order to make a better story. An embellished tale told too often can start replacing the truth, even in the storyteller’s own mind.” – Neo

    Reminds me of pubis deceivious and his “flight 93” case.

    It is like the childhood experiment of whispering a phrase to the next kid in the circle. When the end of the circle is reached, the phrase was nothing like the original.

    “flight 93” is that end of circle result, a summary of what had been swirling around and embellished.

    Writers cannot help but infuse their own point of view into what they write. If they have an incentive or an agenda, it becomes a much more conscious effort to highlight / embellish what they want, and to downplay or ignore anything contradictory.

    In today’s fragmented media, attention is the coin of the realm, and one gets attention by being dramatic, shocking, and / or controversial, etc..

    Ultimately, it is each of us who make a daily choice what to consume. Do we give it to those telling us the truth, or do we give it to those telling us information we want to hear, baiting us with their “entertainment”?

    IMHO, entertainment and bubble cocooning are winning out, so far.

  30. Big Maq Says:

    Should be “telling us ‘information’ we want to hear”.

  31. Ymar Sakar Says:

    What Flight 93 case, the one for Trum?

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