Criticism: Truth and the Problem of Fiction

A cliché about fiction, popular even among LDS authors, holds that all fiction is a lie, which means, roughly, that all fiction is doubtable. This suggests that to one degree or another all stories are disreputable and misleading, some perhaps harmfully so while others merely require the willing suspension of disbelief. While there’s value in this disclaimer, I submit that the contrary idea–all fiction is true–holds greater value.

When I try to understand the position of the writer or reader of stories, Plato’s allegory of the cave in Book VII of the The Republic comes to mind. In Plato’s allegory, prisoners are shackled to a cave’s wall, tied in their belief to the shadows passing before them and the sounds of men behind them carrying the objects casting the shadows. We could say that because these prisoners merely see shadows of real objects and events they’re not experiencing reality, or truth. We could say the fictions they make about the sounds and shadows will necessarily be lies–we might even conclude they have no value at all.

But would this be right? The shadows really are shadows, so as shadows they are real, or true. The prisoners interact with the shadows, and so we could say their interactions are real interactions. Furthermore, the prisoners speak about the shadows, and though their speaking is only about shadows they speak about the light that both defines and causes the shadows, whether they know it or not. So it seems to me the truth of their situation is potent qua truth, even compared with the truth of their companion’s situation when he is dragged from the cave into daylight; even if everyone involved is unaware of just what truth it is their fictions reveal.

We may still consider this fellow who has been forced out of his old context a prisoner while his eyes adjust to the brightness. At this point, his faculties are confused. What are we to think of the story he makes about his condition (and he will make a story)? Then there’s the case of the man (same fellow as before, yet not the same) who, after having been dragged from his cave, and having experienced in progressing clarity an illuminated world, returns to the cave and sees more clearly the nature of images on the wall than he did when he was a prisoner. Will any narrative he makes be more “true” than the others’ narratives or even than his own narratives from an earlier period?

The difference in these stories lies in the difference between the truth of the storytellers’ situations as compared to the assertions the storytellers present as truth. The story of the prisoners in the cave is true in that their situation truly is, it’s as real as that of the prisoner forced from the cave, even if they completely misunderstand their circumstances.

Some will hold the traveled prisoner to be better informed and value more what he has to say; others will ridicule his stories just as Socrates suggests the traveled prisoner’s former companions would likely ridicule his insights. But the stories of everyone involved are true in that no matter what they say there’s the light containing their shadows, the truth informing their fictions. That such stories are true in ways their writers and readers aren’t conscious of means that sometimes as readers or writers we may not grasp right away how a story is true, and maybe in some cases we may not grasp its truth at all, but this ought not to trouble us. As Scott Momaday says of ancient pictographs in southern Utah, which he considers to be the first American literature, “We do not know what they mean, but we know that we are involved in their meaning.” In this single sentence Momaday’s language combines the angst of irony with the buoyancy of faith. A strong sense of involvement may produce the inquiry that sets us on the trail of meaning.

If we accept Paul’s metaphors in “For now we see through a glass darkly; but then face to face; now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known,” as being Mormon in outlook and also as being analagous to metaphors in Plato’s allegory, we may conclude LDS fiction is in roughly the same state as nonLDS fiction–struggling with relationships between shadows and light, and perhaps running behind the foremost of the nonLDS bunch in the effort. To catch up it might help to shed the “all fiction is a lie” cliché and adopt in its place the idea that all fiction is true. The former relegates fiction to a dimly lit space, at times even capping off the dialogue, while the latter allows for exploration and expansion proceeding toward, as Orson F. Whitney says, ” “¦ literature whose top shall touch heaven, though its foundations may now be low in earth.”

(Adapted from a post to the Association for Mormon Letters’s Discussion List)

4 thoughts on “Criticism: Truth and the Problem of Fiction”

  1. I love the way you write Patricia. Reading your posts makes me want to work harder on my prose.

    However, I prefer to think of fiction as a lie.

    I’m not sure that I can articulate why. Perhaps it has to do with not wanting to put on literature a burden I don’t think it can bear.

    Or perhaps it’s because I mistrust the patina of truth-telling that modernism place on literature and that post-modernism didn’t quit successfully scrape away and simply prefer to focus on the glass darkly.

    Of course, in any of these discussions we run into the larger problem of how people react to and what they think of the terms “truth” and “lies.” I ran into that problem during the AML List discussion.  

    Posted by William Morris

  2. Thanks for the compliments, Boss!

    However, I prefer to think of fiction as a lie. 

    Yes, because after all, preference is everything ;-}!

    On one level I agree with you, since if asked (about my fiction or other ideas) I’m inclined to answer, “I know I’m wrong, the point is to become less wrong.” I could cast this idea in “positive” language: “I know I’m right, the point is to become more right.” But where my personal struggles with truth are concerned, I prefer the emphasis on wrongness. Helps me keep perspective. Maybe what you’re reaching for in your statement above about fiction is perspective.

    Of course, in any of these discussions we run into the larger problem of how people react to and what they think of the terms “truth” and “lies.”

    Also agreed. On one hand we define truth as that which comforms to fact or reality. This definition permits us to muse endlessly upon how our “truths” conform to reality and to produce in the process absurd, indefensible, even manipulative or poisonous fictions.

    On the other hand, Truth (with capital T) also means, “the supreme reality,” that to which little “t” truth attempts to conform. We all dally in the ironic tension between the two, the tension between what we truly believe is going on and what Truly is going on. Line upon line, precept upon precept, now I see through a glass darkly and all that.

    My point is that capital “T” Truth, universal truth, includes little “t” truth, though perhaps not in the way little “t” truth intends. For example: Decades ago in jr. high I was taught as absolute truth the idea that human beings are the only creatures on Earth endowed with intelligence. This little “t” truth was false all along, but the fact that people asserted the idea means something, tells a potent Truth about the makers of such a fiction, though of course back then we weren’t aware of just what Truth we were telling on ourselves. The narrative to discuss such Truth had yet to develop; it is still developing.

    Do we really believe all fiction is a lie? Whenever we approach excellent fiction by such writers as Shakespeare, Dante, Dickens etc., do we ask, “What lie about human nature is Shakespeare attempting to illustrate in this scene between Laertes and Claudius?” “What falsehood is Dostoyevsky getting at when his character Lametov blurts out to Roskolnikov, “˜Perhaps it was one of these future Napoleons who did for Alvona Ivanova last week?'” Do writers of excellent fictions set about their business thinking, “What lie shall I write today?” IMO, that really would be looking darkly through the glass.

    Posted by P. G. Karamesines

  3. Hi Patty! Your sister, Lora, sent me this way! Enjoyed your article. It got me thinking of a couple things. For instance, do we know whether the Savior’s parables were strictly “true” (i.e. were the people mentioned in them real? Or were they stories the Savior invented for the purpose of helping the spiritually un-blind to “see Truth”?) Writer Anne Lamott once said, “You can tell a deeper form of truth in fiction.” That’s my Truth as well.

    It also reminds me of C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, where hell is portrayed as an ever-expanding town of empty streets and houses: empty  because the neighbors are so quarrelsome with one another, that they move to another house and street rather than attempt to get along; and so hell’s empty neighborhoods grow and stretch on for mile after mile as far as the eye can see, with its inhabitants continually picking up and moving away from one another. Is it an accurate rendition of the actual place called hell? Probably not. But oh, what Truth it contains! And like the Savior’s parables, this fiction is useful in conveying Truth.

    Anyway, those were some of my thoughts. Looking forward to reading more of your articles (loved Pictograph Murders, by the way). –Teri in NC 

    Posted by Teri Anderson

  4. Hi Teri!

    It’s been years! Nice to run into you here, and thanks for your kind words. Please feel welcome to continue to visit and comment at A Motley Vision.

    Yes, the Parables–are they less true if as events they didn’t actually happen? Christ didn’t seem troubled by the question. BTW, the etymology of the word true seems to arise from original meanings like “having or characterized by good faith,” “faith” or “covenant,” or “trustworthy,” all of which lean toward a rather different emphasis from the usual meaning of true as it’s commonly used today as an absolute, i.e., “Conforming to fact or reality.”

    Very interesting subject, Truth. God’s iceberg.



    Posted by P.G. Karamesines

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