Originally posted on my old writing blog February 2012.
A few weeks ago I made a wondrous discovery: as a professor I can order books gratis from publishers for ‘consideration.’ The revelation led to the equivalent of an alcoholic blackout where I order a dozen annotated novels, anthologies, and theory books. This morning heralded the arrival of the first of those, a short book called The Twentieth-Novel: An Introduction by R.B. Kershner. Although the Preface is not particularly brilliant, Kershner’s description of fiction (no matter the form) as “an elaborate and sustained falsehood” caught my eye.
I’m sure I’ve heard that description before; there is something vaguely familiar about it. But for some reason I can’t stop tumbling it over in my mind. Falsehood. It’s such a strange word. The connotation veers toward the negative and yet I think of fiction as anything but negative. It actually made me think of Galaxy Quest when they try to explain to the alien race what actors are. The aliens can only connect that actors are liars.
Does that mean that we, as fiction writers, are the creators of lies? Fundamentally, yes. We spin falsehoods and construct worlds that are only real within our minds. However, I think good fiction is something more than that. Fiction, at its best, be it literary or genre driven, contains some grain of human truth.
My students can tell you that I have a slight obsession with archetypes. There is something endlessly fascinating about the way humanity constructs these traditions and reinterprets them. Perhaps my fascination stems from the truth that resides in archetypes–we create and nourish them because we on a basic level need these elements in our lives. We need heroes and villains, tricksters and shadows, gardens and forests. Their meanings takes us into a deeper understanding of ourselves, a truth that lies within us.
In my British Lit class right now we are discussing The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The novella has been reinterpreted relentlessly. Certainly the plot is interesting, but I think it is more than that which draws us to it. Stevenson, in his sustained falsehood, is questioning the truth of human nature, duality, good and evil, and redemption. While we may not take potions and push the boundaries of science, do we not all question the light dark that exists within us? It is that appeal to the truth of our nature that sustains our fascination with this story. That Stevenson captured such complexity in such a concise manner is one of the miracles of writing and talent.
One of the quotes that I keep with me in the forefront of my brain is from Atwood’s The Blind Assassin:
“You want the truth, of course. You want me to put two and two together. But two and two doesn’t necessarily get you the truth. Two and two equals a voice outside the window. Two and two equals the wind. The living bird is not its labeled bones.”
The last line is the one that I cannot forget. It haunts me and reminds me why I do what I do.
The living bird is not its labeled bones.
We are not all definitions or classifications. We are blood and flesh and hope and pain. Fiction then is not just a sustained lie, it is the art of giving flesh to bones, flight to dreams. As writers, we may be the conjurors of lies, but sometimes we have the gift of seeing truth, of speaking the truth when politics and society cannot or will not.
I don’t know about you, fellow writers, but I enjoy having my pants on fire.