Fiction is a Different Kind of Truth

by Jim Denney

“All good books have one thing in common — they are truer than if they had really happened.”
—Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway'sDeskKeyWest-Sepia

Ernest Hemingway’s writing desk in his home in Key West, Florida. Image: Public Domain

I’m a fan of Lawrence Block and Stephen King, but there’s something these two fine writers have said that sets my teeth on edge: They’ve called fiction a “lie.”

Two of Block’s books for on the craft of fiction are Telling Lies for Fun & Profit (1981) and The Liar’s Bible (2011). (Despite the titles, I highly recommend them to anyone studying the craft of writing.) In Danse Macabre, Stephen King said, “Fiction is the truth inside the lie.” Clearly, King’s focus is on the truth, not the lie, because he goes on to say, “Morality is telling the truth as your heart knows it.”[1]

Neil Gaiman made a similar statement: “Stories may well be lies, but they are good lies that say true things, and which can sometimes pay the rent.” Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner, said, “Writing fiction is the act of weaving a series of lies to arrive at a greater truth.” And Kurt Vonnegut, in the preface to Mother Night, said, “Lies told for the sake of artistic effect . . . can be, in a higher sense, the most beguiling forms of truth.”[2]

Why would a practitioner of the art of fiction slander his art by calling it a “lie”? Granted, fiction is an account of events that didn’t actually happen — but does the nonfactual nature of fiction make it a “lie”?

The dictionary definition of a lie is “a false statement made with deliberate intent to deceive.” Fiction does not try to deceive anyone. The reader knows a novel or story is not a factual account and approaches it in a state of (as Samuel Taylor Coleridge termed it) “willing suspension of disbelief.” Without intent to deceive, there is no lie.

I have a high opinion of stories and the people who write them — and I have contempt for lies and the people who tell them. I’ve been lied to by people who tried to deceive me, manipulate me, or steal from me, and I don’t like it. But I love being entertained by a good story.

“The basis of art is truth, both in matter and in mode,” said Flannery O’Connor. “The person who aims after art in his work aims after truth.”[3] Great fiction can’t lie. Fiction, in order to function as entertainment, must be true. Sure, the reader knows it isn’t factually true — but the reader expects it to be true in a deeper way. As novelist Emma Donoghue has said, “Stories are a different kind of true.”

Orson Scott Card’s short story “Lost Boys” first appeared in the October 1989 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. The first-person protagonist of the story, Step Fletcher, represents many aspects of Card’s own life. Card himself didn’t realize how much of his own personal truth, including his emotional pain, was woven into that work of fiction until some months after he had written it.

Much of the pain of that story centered on Card’s own real-life son, Charlie Ben, who was severely afflicted with cerebral palsy (and who died more than a decade after the story was published). At the time Card wrote the story, he thought he was writing a simple ghost story featuring a fictional boy named Scotty. Instead, he had inadvertently told the truth about his repressed grief over his real-life son, Charlie Ben. In an afterword appended to the story for its initial publication, Card reflected:

In all the years of Charlie’s life . . . I had never shed a single tear for him, never allowed myself to grieve. I had worn a mask of calm and acceptance so convincing that I had believed it myself. But the lies we live will always be confessed in the stories we tell, and I am no exception. The story that I had fancied was a mere lark, a dalliance in the quaint old ghost-story tradition, was the most personal, painful story of my career — and, unconsciously, I had confessed as much by making it by far the most autobiographical of all my works.[4]

Great writers don’t lie — they reveal the truth through fiction. Their stories are morally, emotionally, humanly true. Great fiction is convincing. It touches a responsive chord of truth within our souls. Fiction must resonate with eternal, universal, spiritual truths, or the reader will throw the book away in disgust.

When a writer sits down to compose a story, he or she should reveal reality, not spin a lie. One of the best storytellers who ever lived was the One who called Himself the Way, the Truth, and the Life. If we want to convey Truth to the world, I can’t think of a better way to do so than by telling a good story.

“Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” —Ephesians 4:15

__________________________________

battle-before-time-cover-1

 

Note: Battle Before Time, the first book in my newly revised and updated Timebenders series for young readers, has just been released in paperback. Click this link to learn more.

And if you’d like to learn more about how to write faster, more freely, and more brilliantly than you ever thought possible, read my book Writing In Overdrive, available in paperback and ebook editions at Amazon.com. —J.D.

 

[1] Stephen King, Danse Macabre (New York: Gallery, 2010), 430.

[2] Kurt Vonnegut, Mother Night: A Novel (New York: Dial Press, 2009), ix-x.

[3] Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose (New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1961), 65.

[4] Orson Scott Card, Maps in a Mirror: The Short Fiction of Orson Scott Card (New York: Tor, 1990), 119.

Advertisements
This entry was posted in Jim Denney, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Fiction is a Different Kind of Truth

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s