Lies, Damned Lies, and Teaching Fiction

There’s a quote, widely attributed to Mark Twain, which suggests that on the scale of relative falsehood, there are lies, damned lies, and statistics, each worse than the last.
This concept was brought to mind recently during a writing discussion, and I’m dedicating this post to explaining my thoughts on one much-regurgitated but fundamentally wrong nugget of writing wisdom: that all fiction is lying.

This post will be a lot more philosophical than the norm here on The Better Editor blog; if you’re looking for strictly practical advice on vocabulary use or acceptable style, it might not be for you. If, however, you’re interested in reading the musings of someone who studies writing for a living (as well as for the pleasure of it), then keep reading.

So: a lively and wide-ranging conversation on writing and writers was underway. It was democratic and egalitarian, the participants including the published, the self-published, the never-published, the dabbling. There were those who workshopped religiously and frequently, occasionally, and not at all. Those with no formal writing education and at least one graduate degree in writing.

One participant, excited about recently attending his first formal writing class, blurted out the following old saw (paraphrased by me): “But the instructor pointed out that all fiction is lying. All fiction is lies. That’s what we do.”

I cringed but said nothing. The conversation swirled and eddied, and moved on to other things. But that line stuck there, nagging at me, and nags at me still.

As a writer, as a some-time writing instructor, and as an editor, I think a great deal not only about the basics of the act of writing, but also about how writing is taught (and learned). I concluded quite some time ago that there are many things “wrong” with the process of teaching writing. Many of these things can’t be easily corrected, simply because the value of certain lessons (and their applicability) have to come to each writer individually. To coin a somewhat overused idea, a lot of this stuff can be learned, but it can’t necessarily be taught: each writer has to discover a whole series of ideas, techniques, and truths about writing in his or her own way, in his or her own time. They can be helped along, nudged, shown the way. But enlightenment can’t be delivered from the barrel of a gun, so to speak.

However, the opposite doesn’t strictly hold true: students of writing can be held back. They can be pulled down, led astray, or even broken if the wrong lessons are too often or too carelessly given (or if the right lessons are presented in consistently wrong ways). This idea, this two-bit precept that “all fiction is a lie” is one of these corrupting (and corrupted) ideas.

The problem is a matter of degree (and explanation, or follow-on). It’s true, in a very limited way, that “all fiction is lying.” But as someone else in this same conversation noted regarding a different topic, that’s an oversimplification, it’s “reductionist.” It’s a problem of adopting a simple binary absolute (‘this is true or this is false’) and (mis-)applying it to a situation where nothing is really black and white, but where the landscape is etched in fifty thousand shades of gray. Actually, to be more accurate, it’s forcing black and white absolutes onto a fully technicolor landscape. It requires each hue to meet a simple test using the most elementary criteria: is this particular tint of blue a black or a white? Is this shade of pink a white or a black? It’s not so much a fool’s errand as an inaccurate way to categorize existence.

We all have nuggets of half-wisdom that we rely on — call them little intellectual crutches that prop up parts of our belief systems in useful ways. That’s because they are, in fact, extremely useful — but they’re limited, and they have to be followed-up at times with lengthy explanation and justification. I’m fond of saying, for example, to the constant annoyance of some of my non-fiction writing colleagues, that “all writing is fiction.” Which it is.

But that statement alone is inadequate to someone not already familiar with my position, and it would be almost criminal negligence for me to say that to a stranger unfamiliar with the nuances, and leave them with no explanation.

What I mean is that all writing, from the most coldly clinical journalism and historical accounting, to the wildest fantastic imaginings, exists on a spectrum of fictional content. There is no pure fiction: no work is 100% fabricated, because within everything there are truths — the nature and reactions of characters, the language used, the settings and events that inspired it, and so on. If “truth” were an image editing slider control which determined every story’s content of “lie,” the purest fiction would rarely exceed 90%. Similarly, even the most “faithful” and “accurate” recounting of an event cannot be 100% true. It is inevitably part fiction if for no other reason than because it was written by an imperfect human being, unable to ever fully escape the constraints of subjective human observation. Any “truthful” (or “factual”) account will be partially fiction based on the details the author chooses to include — or omit. Its “truth” will be influenced by the subjects that are interviewed, and how they are quoted, by the sides of the story that are highlighted or suppressed, and other factors. The best reportorial writing would rarely ever contain less than 10% “lies” on our fiction content slider control. Let’s not even consider where memoir and creative non-fiction fall on this spectrum: that debate is, to boldly mix metaphors, a minefield in a teapot, and one that I have no interest in involving myself in beyond what I’ve written here.

But to return to the topic at hand: this idea that some teach (and some learn) that “all fiction is lies.” It is an oversimplified and largely fraudulent conception of fiction, and instructors need to move away from it and try to prevent their students from picking up this idea and clinging to it so strongly.

Fiction is fabricated — that’s the very definition of the word, after all. But it’s not about lying, any more than physical “fabrication” — crafting a part in a metal shop, for example — is about “deceit.” Both are really about creating something where there was nothing before.

The best fiction is really all about the truth. And any fiction that’s any good at all is trying to get to the truth. What truths? It doesn’t matter — there are so many to choose from. But there is, in actual fact, no fiction of lying (excluding perhaps the most odious of political and religious propaganda).

If you teach your students simply that fiction is lying, or your students come away with this as your core message when you meant something altogether different, then you need to improve your teaching imagery. Try these for a start:

All writing is a mix of truths and lies scattered across a base of truth. It’s the writer’s task to work on the page with a broom, sweeping the intermingled piles of truth and lie back and forth to keep the reader interested. But at some point it’s necessary to sweep away the lies and leave the reader facing the bare floor of the truth that the writer — and the reader — both knew was there all along.

The writer is a craftsman, working with the tools of language to manipulate both truth and lie to reveal the greater truth. Writers are sculptors, working the stone with sharp chisels and hammers to remove the pieces that get in the way of the work of art beneath. Writers are cabinet makers, combining unremarkable pieces of lumber into remarkably useful objects, their function and beauty only revealed after a great deal of careful sawing, planing, sanding, staining, and assembly.

That’s the sort of thing that instructors need to teach. Not that “all fiction is lying.” That’s simplistic foolishness, similar to saying “birds are dinosaurs.” Birds aren’t dinosaurs — they’re birds. They might descend from dinosaurs, but a bird is no more a dinosaur than a human is the small rodent-like animal from which we’ve descended.

No instructor can be held ultimately responsible for the lesson every student takes away. When I teach expository writing to college freshmen, one of the units I invariably use is “Q/P/S”: quotation, paraphrase, and summary. The lecture, discussion, and exercises address these concepts (their definitions, differences, and similarities) and challenge the students to use the techniques effectively. One sample passage I’m fond of using is from Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction, where she discusses “specific, definite, concrete, particular details” (I only have the 6th edition at hand; it’s on page 75). While the exercise is about summary, and the quote is primarily about using the best details to the best effect, experience has shown that usually a student or two will initially come away thinking that the message was ‘use better details to lie more convincingly.’

This is a side-effect I’ve come to accept. In the sample passage (roughly 200 words long)  the word “fiction” appears only three times; the words “true” and “liar” are used once each (and “truth,” “lie,” and “false” not at all). Yet some fraction of students absorb the wrong message, believing that I am not teaching them better techniques for integrating sources into their academic essays, but that because of my choice of material for examples I am encouraging them to lie more convincingly. This is, as I interpret it, a matter of the students’ predisposition (and their inability to focus on the actual lesson). But because I am aware of this unwelcome side effect, I make sure to counter this misconception before sending them off for the day. If I didn’t, the effect would be the same as ending class by stating “All fiction is lies. Class dismissed.”

Be kind to your students, then. If, for whatever reasons, you must teach them overly simplified concepts like “all fiction is lies,” then take the time to explain to them exactly what you mean. Make sure that they don’t absorb the wrong lessons. There are too many people in the world with too many misconceptions already. It’s always been the job of the fiction writer to change the way people think, and break down the barriers to deeper understanding. Don’t hold back future writers by allowing them to misunderstand the nature of their own chosen profession. Teach them about lies, but use only the truth.


About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small business meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
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