Monday, January 24, 2011


It's been common, especially recently, for people to justify fiction -- perhaps more than any other art or form -- by its resemblance to reality. Even its unreality has been justified by a relation to a "deeper truth." As in, we lie to tell the truth.

And yet the term "fiction" derives its meaning precisely from its difference from reality. Literally the only thing we know about fiction is it isn't true.

How, then, did "realism" come to dominate storytelling? And how long can such dominance possibly persist?

Is the obsession with truth a defense against feelings of shame over the "work" of fiction being so very unlike work? Or simple narcissism?

I have spoken several times about the fundamental silliness of using fiction or poetry as a means of discovering truth of any sort, because of their fundamental weaknesses as methods of producing knowledge.

If we don't produce knowledge when we write fiction, what do we produce?

Perhaps entertainment first and foremost. Most self-styled authors seem to consider entertainment secondary. But I consider it, as a reader and a writer, thoroughly primary. It is the one thing I know I can and should do. Which is not to argue that everything in a fiction should be subordinated to crass grabs at attention. Such things are rarely even really entertaining. 

This is terribly abstract I suppose but it seems urgently important to me. Share your thoughts.


  1. I don't normally associate the expression of truth in fiction or poetry with realism. I think of realism merely as an aesthetic method, not something than necessarily privileges truth over non-truth. Have no idea if that's the right way to think of it.

    Poetic knowledge is, I think, a very real thing. One develops a knowledge of a history of tropes. That history is usually radically idiosyncratic due to both selection and one's own method of reading, but I don't think that devalues the knowledge itself. A memorable trope is in itself highly idiosyncratic, and I'm not sure it could even be understood outside of the process of one's own troping against it.

    I'm using the word 'trope' to indicate something that I can't quite put in words. . . it's figuration, but like figuration combined with the will to live past death. A literally impressive (impressed into one's mind) trope is an extreme exertion of force against the general decay of language, and I guess poetic knowledge consists of knowledge about the thrust of the trope itself as well as the cognitive "newness" it pulls one into.

    Any truth must be social, must be externally verified. A system for doing this exists for poetic knowledge, I think, but it exists in a mode separate of the facts-and-analysis-based mode of Western discourse. Everyday Western discourse seems to operate on description and correspondence: a statement is a truth if it accurately describes/corresponds to our reality. Poetic discourse operates on . . . escape and abundance, maybe? With the goal being to escape the inevitable rot of language and introduce a new fullness? I dunno. . .

  2. At the risk of being a self-promoting douche, this is a question I already tried to answer awhile back.

  3. Little time to talk here at the moment. I do see the value in Mike's comment that fiction is first about entertainment; but I note that he also shies away from actually treating as such. I don't know that one needs to lie to tell the truth in fiction; everybody knows it didn't happen, but that doesn't mean it isn't true. I personally avoid fiction that is written mostly to entertain. It bores me. Rather I think there might be a productive creative tention between entertainment and truth-telling in a fictional paradigm.

  4. "it didn't happen, but that doesn't mean it isn't true."


  5. truth and existance or occurrance to not have a one-to-one existance. Things that don't happen specifically can still happen generally, and be illustrated with specifics. For instance, I read some novels with an intention of trying to understand the black experience in my city. The books didn't describe my city or any specific historical occurances, yet they were true and powerful and taught me things that helped me in my work.

  6. I'm just not sure that's a useful definition of "true." People use it that way a lot, I'm familiar with the usage, but I don't find it very persuasive. Seems like actually "persuasive" is the word, not "true:" after all, if you're learning from a fiction, then you didn't have the information to evaluate whether or not what you were receiving was even "generally" correct. Often it probably wasn't, as in most cases. Fiction that appears "true" to us is more likely fiction that appeals to our prejudices -- one of many reasons I don't like "true"-seeming fiction.

  7. non fiction is usually fiction too. It just pretends to be non-fiction; but it usually doesn't past the test, if tested. On the other hand, fiction doesn't have to appeal to our prejudices to be sucessful. The authors I read were very well read in the black community and they shook me up very well when I read them. I actually learned a lot. I was not merely persuaded; I was informed. I was formed by what I read. The fixed stars by Brian Conn is fiction but he doesn't merely appeal to my prejudices or persuade me. He offers me alternative ways of thinking of things. The idea that there are alternatives is not new, but it does inform my thinking about things now that I have seen his ways of thinking about them. This was not a prejudice but a dawning awareness of the possibilities. It is the suggestion of a truth.

  8. I guess I would concede this; that both fiction and non-fiction provide information. Whether it's true or not is in the mind of the reader, finally, and truth is not what I am looking for. I am looking for useful information, which I can then use to challenge, support, or color my perceptions of the world. Truth is a whole other matter, and here I would make reference to the yogis of the last several thousand years who say, basically, "I will tell you things that are approaching truth, but can never be true in and of themselves because they are language only. The truth you must go within and experience for yourself. Then you will not need words." Nothing beside inner experience qualifies as truth. Still, fiction need not merely entertain; it can inform, as well as the author can or is willing to, inform us about what they know or discover.