Lying about ‘The Truth of Fiction’

I don’t often feel the need to assert my view on the internet – hence my only putting poetry on this blog. However, a Freshly Pressed post today is, in my humble opinion, just begging for someone to say something sensible about it.

The article is about Truth and Fiction and can be found here:

Here’s the rub. I like the sentiment running beneath what is written and the premise is an interesting one. It’s kind of like self-help books and all the blogs out there telling You about Your life, and a million ways to improve it and be positive and actualise change in the world around You (and make a million dollars online after just a fifteen minute ‘meeting’). I like these blogs and books – people should strive to be happy and positive and to be the change they want to see in the world. I get the attraction. But it doesn’t change the fact that it’s predominantly bullshit.

And so is the post about Truth and Fiction.

Life is chaotic, accidental and, no matter how enlightened or actualised or internally-developed and self-aware you are, your ‘destiny’ is not really within your control all of the time. Similarly speaking, mixing ‘fiction’, the ‘real’ and ‘truth’ gets us writing nonsense like this:

“If a reader opens up a nonfiction book and peruses through the documented material, the story is real to him but no truer than a fairytale. Truth must be experienced, and we cannot experience truth in someone else’s reality.

The truth of fiction allows the reader not only to believe that the story has happened to the narrator, but to believe that it is happening to himself as well. Because if the story is not real, why, then, could it not be true for the reader?”

It’s inordinately sad to me that this sort of circular rubbish gets mistaken for solid argumentation. The fact that it got Freshly Pressed is, um, an added disappointment.

Firstly, nonfiction can be both real and true (by the writer’s definition of the words, even though I don’t like it). Just think of works like Ernst Becker’s ‘The Denial of Death’, Sigmund Freud’s ‘On Dreams’ or Schopenhauer’s ‘The World as Will and Representation’ (which I mention because it bears direct relation to the premise that ‘what is true is what you remember’ laid out in the post) or even Einstein’s seminal 1905 paper on relativity. All are undoubtedly real and all hold great truth-value for anyone interested in questioning our place, purpose or reality.

More importantly though, truth need not ‘be experienced’, as is immediately obvious in what is claimed next – that it can be got at through reading fiction. If it this is correct, and I think it is, we need to know what the difference between nonfiction and fiction really is, not just that there is some inherent ‘truth of fiction’. By creating two arbitrary categories called ‘true’ and ‘real’ the writer misses the only qualitative difference between reading fiction and nonfiction – the willing suspension of disbelief.

Of course we don’t believe that what is happening in the story is true, but we allow ourselves to be led on in the hope that we can make our own links between the world presented in the story and our own experience, thereby coming to something new about, or a different perspective on, ourselves and the world of which we randomly find ourselves to be a part.

It is the ability to suspend disbelief willingly that allows us to understand fundamental facts about our universe, like uncertainty and multiplicity, in new and more nuanced ways as well as allowing us to see dichotomies like ‘true’ and ‘real’ for what they really are: constructed. This is the advantage of fiction, that it allows you to explore what Stephen Johnson calls the ‘adjacent possible’ of your own world, and the author’s, through the simple act of reading. It brings you to realise that there are many truths and many different versions of what is ‘real’ (jncluding those presented by supposed nonfiction), none necessarily more or less accurate than your own which, in a paradox worthy of good fiction, makes your own version that much more accurate. That much more considered.

“For the time being, I gave up writing – there is already too much truth in the world – an overproduction which apparently cannot be consumed”  — Otto Rank

6 thoughts on “Lying about ‘The Truth of Fiction’

  1. I think when you stop recognizing the boundaries between reality and fiction and begin to believe your own bullshit, you are heading for (at the very least) a rude awakening. At worst, disaster. But hey, what do I know? Really enjoyed this one!

  2. Thanks Marilyn – I love your blog and am honoured that you took the time to write a response here. Another quote for you: “serendipity is not just about embracing random encounters for the sheer exhilaration of it. Serendipity is built out of happy accidents, to be sure, but what makes them happy is the fact that the discovery you’ve made is meaningful to you.” All from Stephen Johnson’s ‘Where Good Ideas Come From’ – a great read!

    • Thank YOU. Have you read any of the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde? Aside from being exceptionally clever and funny, he does a great job exploring the difference between the real world and the world of fiction … not the least of which is that in fiction, everything means something. No coincidences. But in reality? So much of life is random and coincidental. Our attempts to force meanings on things and events which have none gets us into trouble.

      Now, I’m off to look up Stephen Johnson’s book!

  3. Hmmm, I haven’t, but I like that idea. The best fiction sometimes seems coincidental, thinking Woolf and Joyce here, but that’s due to the writer’s (superb) craft, so I definitely agree! Will go off myself and look at that series, thank you again.

  4. A really interesting post, I will go and read the Paris Review piece now. Thanks for finding and following my blog, I will enjoy exploring your poetry over the coming weeks. SD

    • Thank you Sandra – to have a published and award-winning writer say that means a huge amount to me. I’m equally interested in your work, so we can keep mutual (virtual) tabs on each other 🙂

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