Neil Gaiman has famously pointed out that fiction writers are professional liars, but that we lie in the service of truth. The idea is oft quoted. Oft quoted but rarely examined. I’d like to think about it now.
The idea is not original to Gaiman, as I’m sure he would be the first to acknowledge. No less a figure than Anton Chekhov, the playwright, short story writer and essayist, wrote in one of his many letters, “The aim of fiction is absolute and honest truth.”
To examine this idea in reference to ‘the novel’ would be too complex an undertaking for a blog post. To look at it in terms of the short story might be more manageable and more fruitful.
The aim of fiction is absolute and honest truth.
As a medium for the kind of honest lying Gaiman refers to and Chekhov perhaps best exemplifies, the short story is out and out the most useful and efficient. I’m not alone in holding this opinion. In fact I’m in very good company indeed.
Edgar Allen Poe ~ arguably the progenitor of the modern short story ~ said that a writer concerned primarily with beauty should turn to poetry, but one wishing to reveal truth with clarity and intensity should turn to the ‘short tale.’
Poe was clear that in this case the short story is superior to both poetry and the novel. He wrote in a review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales, published in the May 1842 edition of Graham’s Lady’s and Gentleman’s Magazine, that as the novel “…cannot be read at one sitting, it deprives itself, of course, of the immense force derivable from totality.”
It’s worth noting, in terms of story as a vehicle for the expression of truth, that in Poe’s time his points of reference were primarily folkloric and mythological. He and his contemporaries, while busy inventing the modern short story, had at their disposal the Bible, the great works of fairy tale, folklore and ancient myth.
As the novel cannot be read at one sitting, it deprives itself, of course, of the immense force derivable from totality.
Edgar Allen Poe
The folkloric tradition is interesting for a particular reason. We tend to think of this vast body of storytelling as kin to the literature we call ‘fantasy’ because it makes bold use of similar motifs. But fairy tale has more to do with truth than almost any other human endeavor aside from science. Much, although not all, modern fantasy*, less so. And of course, in the evolution from fairy tale to fantasy epic, the fairy tales came first.
The dwarves and elves and wizards and what not that populate the entirely imaginary worlds of modern Western fantasy literature are all derivatives of Tolkien’s Middle Earth, which, in its every last detail, he derived from Norse and Teutonic mythology. But the stories of fairy tale and myth are not escapist journeys to other, alternative worlds-out-of-time. They are absolutely about this world, now.
The whole purpose of myth is the exemplification of truth. Its purpose is to speak to the understanding of the individual within society and society within the world. Myth, even in the modern world, is the psycho-social model which enables us to understand who we are and what we should and shouldn’t do. Its best trick is that it is metaphorically descriptive, rather than dogmatically prescriptive. Myth is therefore flexible, adaptive and useful. Its bastard cousin is religion, which is essentially mythology misunderstood, and much less useful.
So, this is the kind of truth we’re dealing with when we say that in fiction we lie in the service of truth.
Back to Poe.
In his critique of Hawthorne’s tales mentioned earlier, Poe was critical of the the former’s use of allegory. He wrote of allegory that it is the kiss of death “…to the most vitally important point in fiction – that of earnestness or verisimilitude.”
Allegory is a common conjurer’s trick used to deceive the minds of children, as is the case in the thinly disguised Christian apologetic of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series. Its aim is to impose a dogma, a belief, a fixed idea, as it is determined by the author; rather than to reveal the truth beneath the day to day surface of things, as it is experienced by the reader.
If the wonder-tales and folk traditions which inevitably informed the imaginations of Poe and his contemporaries ~ Gogol, Turgeniev, Chekhov, Daudet, Flaubert and de Maupassant ~ seem hardly to represent examples of ‘verisimilitude,’ that is only because of their antiquity. In essence, the girl who cleans out the ashes, the orphaned children lost in the forest and the young woman evoking the jealousy of her stepmother, all established a relationship with the listener/reader’s real-world experience no less true than that of Emma Bovary or Yermolay Lopakhin.
‘Verisimilitude’ needn’t be confused with the ‘kitchen sink drama’ that arose in the 1950s. That was an attempt to fuse storytelling with an almost documentary degree of realism. I believe Poe, however, is writing about that sense of immediate recognition and relationship which brings the reader closer into the heart of the story, to the truth.
Poe pretty much laid down the laws that govern the writing of short stories. Those laws still hold. He has been criticized for his functional approach and yet it is damnably hard to write a good short story in any genre without following his advice.
For example, again from his critique of Hawthorne, he suggests that the writer of short fiction should conceive “…with deliberate care a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out.” Having determined this effect, she should then invent “…such incidents…combine such events as may best aid him in establishing this preconceived effect. If his very initial sentence tend not to the outbringing of this effect, then he has failed in his first step.” And what better advice for the short story writer than this: “… there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design.”
And this design, this desired effect, whatever the specifics in a given tale, is always ‘verisimilitude’; that is, a metaphorical illusion of reality that reveals a truth otherwise unknown. This is the work of Gaiman’s honest liar. Namely, to draw the reader to experience a truth that cannot, perhaps, be described and communicated directly in the simple, practical language of the everyday.
Well, we’ve come full circle, so why not end with a reference to Neil Gaiman’s The October Tale, from his Calendar of Tales. This story is a perfect example of both the technique of the short story described by Poe and of the expression of what I have called ‘the storied truth.’
The story appears in his collection, Trigger Warning, which no doubt is available from all good bookshops. Here, he explains how he came to write it and then reads it to you. Now how about that?
The October Tale
* I am referring here only to the Tolkienesque ‘fantasy epics’ and not by any means everything that booksellers place on the ‘SF and F’ shelves in their stores. Much of that is rich beyond the dreams of avarice in storied truth. Just to be clear.
# If you are interested in reading Poe’s review of Hawthorne, you may do so here.
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