Telling the Truth in Fiction

I used to work in a bookstore. One day, an older gentleman came in looking for our non-fiction section. This question becomes something of a joke to anyone who works in a bookstore; every part of the store that isn’t fiction is non-fiction, after all. I didn’t question the man though, merely told him where Fiction was and explained our various other sections. I didn’t ask for an explanation but he offered one. He didn’t read fiction, you see. You never know who was writing fiction. Fiction is a bunch of lies. It could be written by someone in prison and you wouldn’t even know! I don’t remember quite how I responded but I was polite and didn’t point out that a great deal of non-fiction is written in prison too, from Pilgrim’s Progress to Mein Kampf. Or that you usually can find out whether or not an author is in prison.

About 90% of the reading I do is fiction, so obviously I don’t agree with that man. I know that fiction consists of made-up stories. Yet, I don’t think that means fiction is made up lies.

It was Tim O’Brien in his novel, The Things They Carried, that defined the idea of truth in fiction for me. In this novel about the war Vietnam, O’Brien tells a story that concludes, “That’s a true story that never happened.” (I’m paraphrasing from memory because I don’t have the book in front of me but that’s the gist of it.) O’Brien’s books frequently address this conundrum of fiction. “A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth,” he says.

One of my favourite regular customers at the bookstore was an older Australian fellow. He was tall and jovial and always ready with a smile. I recommended The Things They Carried to him and he bought it. The next time he came in I asked him eagerly what he thought of it. “Be careful what you recommend to a vet,” he told me softly. “It made me cry.” That novel made him cry because it was fiction about truth and he knew it. It was fiction but it mirrored his real life experiences. For him, those so-called lies spoke truth.

I’m fascinated by this idea of truth in fiction. By the power fiction has to share truth that we might not ordinarily say.

In his introduction to Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card writes this:

“Why else do we read fiction, anyway? Not to be impressed by somebody’s dazzling language – or at least I hope that’s not our reason. I think that most of us, anyway, read these stories that we know are not “true” because we’re hungry for another kind of truth: The mythic truth about human nature in general, the particular truth about those life-communities that define our own identity, and the most specific truth of all: our own self-story. Fiction, because it is not about somebody who actually lived in the real world, always has the possibility of being about ourself.”

This is it, isn’t it? This is why we read fiction. This is why we write fiction. When the truth may be too real, too raw, too painful, we can speak it in fiction. What we can’t say for ourselves, we can put in the mouths of a made-up person. Writers whisper it on the pages of novels and short stories and we, the reader, know it to be truth.

In a preface to The Fault in Our Stars, John Green writes:

“Neither novels or their their readers benefit from attempts to divine whether any facts hide inside a story. Such efforts attack the very idea that made-up stories can matter, which is sort of the foundational assumption of our species.”

I thought this was very interesting. I understand Green’s thought here – as an author, it is often downright unhelpful when readers want to insert your own life into a fictional story. I agree with Green that fictional stories have their own power and they do not need to be shored-up by real life. They are real life, albeit the real life of people who don’t exist.

Yet, at the same time, I understand the human desire to connect fiction to a real person. When we read a story that resonates with us, we want to know whether it’s true. So we look to the author’s own life to see how much of it is “true” and how much of it is “made up”. But the thing is, the truth of it is the resonance we felt. That is a true feeling. And no matter how talented a writer may be, they can only share that emotion with us because they’ve felt it themselves. Maybe not in the same circumstances as their character but at some point, they’ve known it. The emotion expressed is true, even if the circumstances and story around it are not.

Some writers walk this line more precariously than others. In Michael Ondaatje’s most recent novel, The Cat’s Table, he writes a story about a young boy named Michael who travels by ship from Sri Lanka to England in the 1950s. It doesn’t take an ace detective to learn that Ondaatje was born in Sri Lanka and moved to England in 1954. Although Ondaatje makes it clear that the novel is a work of fiction, it was obviously a deliberate choice to give his main character his own name. It provides a layer to the novel which would not have been present had the narrator been called Robbie or Steve.

In The Four Loves C.S. Lewis writes:

“Friendship arises out of mere Companionship when two or more of the companions discover that they have in common some insight or interest or even taste which the others do not share and which, till that moment, each believed to be his own unique treasure (or burden). The typical expression of opening Friendship would be something like, “What? You too?” I thought I was the only one.” “

I believe this to be a beautiful and true thing that also applies to the written word. When we read a book and we fall in love with it, we are also forming a friendship with the author. With the author who expresses something we knew to be true about ourselves. “What?” we say, “I thought I was the only one.”

Fiction tells us the profound truth that we are not the only ones. Fiction tells us that we are not alone. That is the truth.

Check back here tomorrow for a non-fiction Book Review.

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