Fiction Is a Lie That Tells the Truth

Once upon a time

I write fiction. What Albert Camus said about fiction—that it is “a lie through which we tell the truth”—has become almost a cliché. A quick search of Google images for that quote reveals that, either word-for-word or in slight variants, it has been said also by Dorothy Allison, Tim O’Brien, Laura Groff, Khalid Hosseini, Neil Gaimon, and Stephen King. And many others not so well known.

Maria Popova, in her blog “Brain Pickings,” has a delicious compilation of iconic writers riffing on this theme. Such luminaries as Tennessee Williams, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Mark Twain weigh in. Others quoted by Popova include Tom Wolfe, Ray Bradbury, Joyce Carol Oates, Wallace Stevens, and Eudora Welty.

Mark Twain’s variation on the theme is interesting: “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.”

Mark Twain

This is an absolutely vital point for writers and readers of fiction. In my novels, because they are set in my version of the real American intermountain west and not in an alternate universe, if what I write is impossible, I have failed. The things that happen, my characters actions and reactions, must be possible in the setting I have created. Otherwise, readers will put the book down, probably forever.

At first reading, I found the second part of Twain’s idea—that truth is not obliged to stick to possibilities—hard to swallow. Can an impossible thing be, at the same time, true? I immediately thought of what the Queen says in Lewis Carroll’s marvelous novel, Through the Looking-glass:

“I can’t believe that?” said Alice.

“Can’t you?” the Queen said, in a pitying tone. “Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.”

“There’s no use trying,” she said; “one can’t believe impossible things.”

“I dare say you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

Are Mark Twain and the Queen right? Is the truth unhedged by possibilities? Dare we take as true impossible things?

In at least one sense, the answer is definitely yes. At one time, human flight was factually impossible. Yet, with time and the development of a sufficient science, human flight came true. What is impossible today may still be true at another time. Plato, you’ll recall, taught that a real thing is less real and less true that the “Idea” of that thing. To know the truth would be to know the Idea, not the real thing. An impossible thing in reality may indeed be possible in the world of Ideas.

Turning the issue on its head, what about lies? Are they, like fiction, constrained by possibilities? I would answer no. For an example, let me take a famous lie reported by Bill Moyers. On May 29, 2003, two months after invading Iraq “to destroy Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction” (another lie), President George W. Bush, in an interview with Polish Television (TVP), said, “We found the weapons of mass destruction. We found biological laboratories.”

At first blush, this lie would seem to be possible—although no weapons or labs had actually been found as of May 29, 2003, perhaps in the future they would be discovered. However, in fact, there were none, anywhere in Iraq. The CIA closed its investigation into WMD in Iraq in April, 2005, finding nothing. So at the time the President spoke his lie, it was literally impossible: WMDs did not exist in Iraq.

Thus, it would seem that the lie, like the truth, is not constrained by possibility.

Lying is claiming the truth for something untrue. Strangely, that fact might lead us to condemn fiction as “lying.” Indeed, the cliché says exactly that, without censure: Fiction is a lie that tells the truth. The facts of fiction, untrue in themselves, nevertheless must be possible, and consequently, the lie that is fiction reveals a deeper truth. Ralph Waldo Emerson put it this way: “Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.” Or as Bruno Bettleheim wrote, discussing the psychological importance of fairy tales, “The child intuitively comprehends that although these stories are unreal, they are not untrue.

If a thing is impossible, it may be true in some way or at some time, or it may be a lie. If it is possible, then it may be true, false, or fiction. And if it is fiction, the words of Tim O’Brien (interviewed by the BookReporter in 1998) apply:

A good piece of fiction, in my view, does not offer solutions. Good stories deal with our moral struggles, our uncertainties, our dreams, our blunders, our contradictions, our endless quest for understanding. Good stories do not resolve the mysteries of the human spirit but rather describe and expand upon those mysteries.

Before he died, David Foster Wallace (1962-2008) said this about fiction:

D.F.WallaceFiction is one of the few experiences where loneliness can be both confronted and relieved. Drugs, movies where stuff blows up, loud parties — all these chase away loneliness by making me forget my name’s Dave and I live in a one-by-one box of bone no other party can penetrate or know. Fiction, poetry, music, really deep serious sex, and, in various ways, religion — these are the places (for me) where loneliness is countenanced, stared down, transfigured, treated.

For “loneliness,” substitute in Wallace’s saying any of the human emotions and core experiences, and you can see the deeper truth that is fiction.