Truth and fiction

by isabelrogers

I was tweeting last night with some Americans: a Random House managing editor and a couple of other writers, one of whom is possibly a fictional octogenarian. Hey, it’s twitter. It’s rude to ask.

The talk got around to telling the truth, and what that means to a fiction writer:

“A little truth telling’s no bad thing in someone who fancies himself a writer, is it.”
“We must tell the truth at all times, or the fiction falls apart. Our fiction must be truthful or no one will believe it. The reader always knows.”

Leaving aside the beautiful and deliberate use of no question mark when really there was no question being asked (if you think twitter is slapdash, can say nothing of substance or have nuance you are WRONG) – do you? Always know, I mean? Isn’t all fiction, by definition, lies?

I think the ‘truth’ referred to here is the nod of recognition between humans. Our intersection of the parts of ourselves that mesh, not the bits that disagree. It’s not merely minutiae of daily habits. Anyone can write a list of things a character did over a day: some of them you will have done also, and some you won’t.

There are readers who insist everything must be real. I’ve talked to some. They’re quite dull. I suppose writers should take it as a compliment they are so convincing. I know the most frequently asked question is where do you get your ideas from? Neil Gaiman bats it right back: out of my head. I make it up. You are never going to persuade a dogmatic autobiography-hunter of your flair for invention. They focus on the wrong end, thinking the interest lies with how reality bleeds into fiction.

I don’t believe what makes great fiction is how much of a character’s life you can envisage yourself inhabiting, or how much you reckon the writer themselves leached in. It’s how much you believe that person is real, and believing makes you care. Unless you are a sociopath, in which case you would probably be better off reading a history of cardboard box design or similar. What are you thinking, trying to read a novel? Go away.

Sometimes a phrase shimmers above a page and drags your eyes back before you can read on. I like books that can do that. Poems do it too, if they are good enough. The subject can be wild fantasy, visceral murder or dog-walking. The subject is immaterial. (God bless Lady Bracknell, and if you didn’t read that last sentence in her voice I pity you.)

It is the connection you feel that will pull you in. This is the truth I look for in my reading. And every now and then, if I’m very lucky, I might sneak a bit into what I write too. For someone to find. And then things start to fizz.

PS. The people who made me ponder all this are Benjamin Dreyer (@BCDreyer), Duchess Goldblatt (@DuchessGoldblatt) and Rafe Posey (@ponyonabalcony). They are all on twitter and marvellous.