Friday, July 14, 2017

Truth in fiction

More than any other collection of writers, the Russians evidently believed that to tell the truth is literature's highest calling, its primary aim ...
Wendy Lesser, Why I Read

My mind tends to turn a little fuzzy whenever the subject of truth, or often Truth, comes up in literary discussions. What exactly are we talking about? When Wendy Lesser says the great Russian writers were more committed to telling the truth than any other group of writers, what does she mean? And does she mean the same thing that others mean when they talk about truth in fiction?

So let us consider some of the possibilities.

Is it true because it's factual?

This one seems easy. Of course not. Even when it is based on fact, like All the King's Men or especially In Cold Blood, it is still fiction, and thus not fact. Lesser says as much when she writes, "One is allowed to make factual errors through a combination of negligence and good intentions." In other words, a writer of fiction can tell the truth even while straying from the facts.

Is it true because it's realistic?

Or put another way, must a story be believable to be true? We may be tempted to answer in the affirmative.  Certainly we can be turned off when a plot turns on unlikely coincidences or when a happy ending seems contrived. Such stories just don't ring true. Yet can't fiction be true even if its characters are talking animals or if the story involves time travel or aliens from Mars? Just how realistic does fiction have to be to be true?

Is it true because it's artful?

"Art needs to rest on truth, even if it does so counterfactually," Lesser writes. So something apparently must be true to be art. But is it artful because it is true or true because it is artful? Surely artfulness and truth cannot mean the same or why even talk about truth? But if they are different things, why can't you have one without the other?

Is it true because it's meaningful?

I like this idea, although it implies that truth, like meaningfulness, is relative. What has meaning for me may not have meaning for you (or may mean something else entirely). In that case, what's true for  you may not be true for me. I prefer the concept of universal truth, as rare as such truths may be.

Is it true because it's honest?

A better word could be trustworthy. "How do I know when the author of a fictional work is lying to me?" Lesser asks at one point. Elsewhere she quotes D.H. Lawrence: "Never trust the artist. Trust the tale." This sounds like something you either feel in your gut or you don't, sort of like when you are buying a house or a car. And again it makes truth relative.

Perhaps the best thing Lesser says about truth in fiction is this: "The truths in literature are incidental and cumulative, not global and permanent. In some moods I think that those are the only kinds of truth that really matter."

Excellent. Except that I still don't understand why the Russians were more truthful than anyone else.

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