On Fact, Fiction and Truth ‹ Literary Center


I have often heard authors say that fiction is only a lie. George RR Martin said that “we write about people who never existed and events that never happened…[a]All of these things are essentially wrong. Norman Spinrad characterizes these fictitious lies as distinguishing the genre from “biography, history or reportage”. The list of writers with this view goes on and on. There’s even a fiction writing group, for which I had the pleasure of being a guest speaker, called the Pocono Liars Club.

It is not difficult to understand this perspective. As a novelist, I do do things for a living. But I believe that the job of the author is to speak emotional truths, and the best way to do that is rarely to relay facts and figures or repeat events as they happened. Journalism and documentaries feature prominently and often use the same toolkit as fiction, however, fiction is particularly suited to truth because humans have storytelling ingrained in our DNA. We understand the world best through stories, and stories are an amazing way to get to something that’s closer to a universal truth.

Technically, fiction writers must contend with the difference between realism and verisimilitude, or the quality of appearing true.

In college, I became obsessed with the quote from Don Quixote, “Facts are the enemy of truth.” I stenciled the words on my backpack and had many conversations with friends, acquaintances and curious passers-by about what exactly it meant. Two decades later, as I waded through the quagmire of a media landscape in which “alternative facts” are a thing, I come back to what I think Quixote was trying to convey: did the evidence or proven information affect the truth? With so many people across the political spectrum eschewing science in favor of ideology, perhaps it is only in fiction that we can find a common understanding of reality.

When we want someone to really understand something, we turn it into a story. Public speakers often break down their information into anecdotes or elaborate metaphors. Bible writers record Jesus preaching to the multitudes using parables of invented characters and situations with which his audience might relate. For thousands of years, preachers, teachers, parents, and anyone who wanted to communicate clearly and effectively have used the sugar of fiction to get the medicine of their message across more easily.

Not only are human beings wired for history, but stories of the “fake” actually bring us together. Stories are the connective tissue that allows us to travel beyond the boundaries of not only our homes and countries, but also our bodies and brains to exist in a character’s mind and see their world. through his eyes. Fiction promotes critical thinking as well as empathy according to recent research in neuroscience. The more a reader is emotionally moved by the content of the story, the more they are influenced by it. Storytelling is a powerful agent of transformation, and these shifts peel back the layers that cover core truths.

Consumer attitudes and company policies are changed by a variety of factors, empathy being one of them. Popular culture and the media influence people, change hearts and minds, and, if you believe the arc of the universe bends toward justice, change the lives of ordinary people. Whereas five years ago I remember a popular black author lamenting the fact that his white readers felt that a book with a black character depicted on the cover was not intended for them, today it seems unthinkable that a publisher wants to “bleach” a cover to make it more appetizing for “mainstream” readers. This is exactly what happened to black science fiction author Octavia Butler, a writer who has influenced just about every black SFF writer I know. The original cover of his novel Dawn featured a white depiction of a black character from the book (plus a white human portraying a literal alien character).

And you don’t have to visit a previous century to see that happening. Depicting colored characters in white on book covers is a fairly common occurrence that affects everyone from Ursula K. LeGuin to NK Jemisin. Luckily, now that I’m walking down the science fiction and fantasy aisle of my local bookstore, there are plenty of black and brown faces gracing the covers. Less than a decade ago, such sites were extremely rare. Greater truth has set in, once it reassures readers of all races that every story can be one they will enjoy.

We find out what it means to be human and send it back to our readers.

Technically, fiction writers must contend with the difference between realism and verisimilitude, or the quality of appearing true. To me, that’s the difference between the truth and what comedian Stephen Colbert would call the “truth.” Real life is real, whereas reality TV, for example, is “truthful,” full of scripted conflict and over-the-top shenanigans meant to entertain and display an enhanced version of the participants’ lives.

When I first started writing historical fiction – especially historical fantasy – I struggled to know exactly how much to hold onto the story. my novel, The monsters we challenge, takes a real person from the past, Clara Johnson, convicted in 1920 for the murder of a police detective who broke into her home, and fictionalises her life. The purpose of the exercise was to use his story as a springboard to investigate the times, the community – Washington, DC -, the legacy of the Red Summer Riots and the resilience of black Americans. The line between truth and truth blurred as I worked to bring the setting to life authentically and also to maintain respect for the real person I was writing about, even as I sent them on an adventure. magic that she never took in reality.

The appearance of truth with the perceived distance of fiction allows a writer to dive deep into topics in a way not so well suited to journalism. And within those depths, relatable emotional truths can be found. Scientists have shown that the human brain lights up the same way when someone reads about an activity as when they actually participate in it, so if we’re all just ghosts inside our machines material, then our experience of truth and so-called lies is virtually the same. If the emotions you feel when you read about an event are the same as when you experience that event, then it stands to reason that there is some kind of inescapable truth in the stories we tell.

So, for my part, I will not call myself a liar. As a writer, I believe I am many things: a miner in search of gems of authenticity, a student of human psychology, an observer of natural phenomena, an inventor, an advisor for my characters, a chef, an architect, an interior designer, a programmer, the list goes on and on. The hats we wear are vast, and the skills we need to master and approximate can be bewildering. But it’s all about the pursuit of truth. We find out what it means to be human and send it back to our readers.


The monsters we challenge by Leslye Penelope is available now via Redhook.


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