The Lie Game

This summer my wife and I are hosting a college student from Nigeria. She’s bright, a wonderful house guest and a good conversationalist, but she doesn’t read fiction. I noticed this a few weeks ago. She’s been picking through my bookshelf downstairs (where I keep the overflow) and it’s always works of non-fiction, never fiction. My six year-old just discovered Harry Potter and we can hardly get him out of the big chair in the living room to take a walk around the block, but Kovie always has her nose buried in works of politics and social science. When I asked her why she doesn’t read fiction, she said that fiction isn't true so it doesn’t interest her.

I couldn’t disagree more. There are perhaps fewer lies in a single short story than in an entire shelf of books on politics or economics. Try as I might, however, I can't convince Kovie of this. Her comment and our subsequent conversations have caused me to do some ruminating on truth and the value of fiction in an education. The problem is that we tend to associate reality with factuality or empiricism, but this is really a post-Enlightenment view. Shakespeare never needed to explain why his characters spoke in verse or conversed with ghosts, but only a century or so later novelists like Defoe and Richardson felt compelled to present their fictions as diaries or a series of letters.

Part of this, of course, was that there existed no set convention for the fictional narrative in prose in the 18th century. The early novelists were like those old Hollywood musicals that had to contrive reasons for characters to break into song. Why would someone write all this down? To whom are they writing? Even though we are all supposed to be good little post-modernists now, a lot of people continue to segregate fiction from other kinds of writing with the claim that fiction is made up.

Just look how furious Oprah and a lot of others were a few years ago when it came out that James Frey fictionalized parts of his book A Million Little Pieces, or when the historian Edmund Morris fictionalized himself into his official biography of Ronald Reagan. The irony was that even though it contained lies, Frey’s book still evoked the truth of someone struggling with addiction. That's why it was so successful in the first place. It could be argued, too, that Reagan himself was a kind of fictionalized construction.

In An Actor Prepares, the great Russian director Konstantin Stanislavski speaks of the “poeticizing nature of memory.” One day the narrator of the book (a fictional acting student at the Moscow Art Theater) comes upon an old man lying in the snow after being struck by a streetcar. An anxious crowd has gathered and someone, a doctor perhaps, is attempting to assist the victim. Time passes and the student’s memory begins to change. He forgets certain details, but others become powerfully associated with the event. He recalls the intense color of the blood against the fresh snow, the fragility of the old man’s body and the looming metal streetcar, a woman piously crossing herself as others hurriedly turned away.

Stanislavski’s argument is that memory distills, edits and polishes the events it recalls. Over time it draws the truth out of them. In this sense, memory is a kind of artist, a maker of fictions. More to the point, though, reality is not actually a narrative; it's a voluminous assault of random and often unrelated impressions. Even so, shaping reality into a narrative is the only way we can make sense of it. If I ask a student to tell me the history of her day (which I often do to make this very point in class), she will begin by saying something like, “Well, I woke up, had something to eat, and then came to class.” I will then ask why she decided to start with waking up. Her day actually began one second after midnight. “But that didn’t seem important,” she’ll say.


The point is that we are unavoidably selective when we fashion our experiences into narrative. We highlight, omit, color and truncate. We write fiction. Without the tools of fiction we’d have to relate every boring minute of every boring day. With them, the truths of our lives come alive. I always find it curious that we have to painstakingly discipline students to guard against their subjective biases in writing history, setting up an experiment in a lab, or isolating variables for conducting social research. It's hard to convince students (most of whom don't read much) that fiction is no less a tool for making sense of reality than history, science, or mathematics, disciplines which they tend to privilege when it comes to truth-telling. But all tools have to be fashioned to do their work. Fiction is just a bit more user-friendly. Most people take to storytelling easily.

That's because we are all of us natural born liars.


Nothing beats good fiction!

Would you please reveal which of the three stories was not true? My guess was the first one but I hope I got it wrong and it's actually the third story that's a lie because I felt bad for poor Doug.
Professor Quest said…
I took that post down. Don't know why. Didn't like it, I guess. But the correct answer was number two, the one about Eric and his problematic love life. It was actually a short story I wrote once. When I do the exercise in class, the guesses are all over the place. It's a fun way to discuss "story truth" vs "truth truth."

Interestingly, stories one and three are "true" only in the narrow "truth truth" sense (i.e, they happened), but they've been so "poeticized" by memory over time that they may as well be fiction. I guess the point I try to make in class is that fiction is less a genre and more a mode for making sense out of the world -- not unlike science, history or math. We think in story form. That something didn't happen or that it happened differently is not particularly relevant because most of what we remember didn't happen the way we think it did.
It's a really amusing exercise and it totally proves your point that fiction is a form of truth-telling in which the truth doesn't matter that much. I have to admit I really couldn't tell the difference between the short story and the other two- they all sounded like fiction to me. I guess I ignored the fact that when we tell a story, even if it's a true one, we "highlight, omit, color and truncate" the events until the distinction between reality and fiction is completely lost.

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