The Art of Telling Liesby Alex Keegan
The Internet Writing Journal, May 1999
George Scithers & Darrel Schweitzer, 1988
I've just finished reading "The Twenty-Seventh Man" by Nathan Englander. I think it's the best short story I've ever read. Set in Stalinist Russia it tells of the last few days before their execution, of twenty-seven men, twenty-six "subversive" writers and a twenty-seventh man, a hermit, never published, on the death-list almost by accident. I don't know if the story is based on a real event and I doubt if there was a twenty-seventh man, and I know that every word of the conversations between the men, every action, is invented, made up, to be precise, lies. And yet after finishing the story I was emailing fellow writers saying buy this book, read this story, it oozes with "it", it resonates, it lingers, it makes you feel, it makes you sense a fundamental truth, let's you see.
Recently, on a web-board, I paraphrased a quote I once heard, that fiction was "illustrating the truth by telling lies". For this I was taken to task by one of the assembled literati that fiction wasn't lying, not lying, not really telling non-truths, it was a convention entered into by both sides.
Nope, I said, it's lying. It's not telling the truth. It is (in the just cause of seeking higher truths and delivering understanding) deliberate falseness: through exaggeration, through re-ordering time for the writer's convenience, through tossing out the chaff of life and shining a light on the wheat, through representing (but never copying) human speech, through unreal focus, a deliberate misrepresentation of reality, the dismissal of the humdrum, the denial of life's messiness and refusal to have a proper theme, or, where life has been too convenient and neatly plotted, toning this down lest the reader think things are too neat. I lie for a living. As Morris Zapp says in David Lodge's "Small World" -- "It's true. Novelists are terrible liars. They make things up. They change things round. Black becomes white, white black. They are totally unethical beings."
There was a time -- when novels were novel -- that authors actually worried about this truth stuff and would go to great lengths to give an illusion of fact to their fictions -- presenting their stories as found documents, and themselves as collectors and editors merely presenting these "true stories" -- Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe being one famous example. In this era Sleepers did much the same thing and the short-story "Bridges of Madison County" was prefaced with enough pseud to make us think the core was truth, then followed up by more lies, the author apparently going to seek out the last American cowboy, the male lead. Two fictions sandwiching an otherwise obvious fiction to lend a small story weight, resulting in a runaway bestseller.
In Fact & Fiction in the Novel, David Lodge writes of "imitating..." and "giving to fictitious character and events an illusion of reality..." of "exaggerating and deforming reality for literary purposes" of "crossing and recrossing the frontier between the two worlds (of fact and fiction) feeling like a double-agent, always vulnerable to accusations of treachery, always fearful of being exposed..." and, as he says, whenever facts and the needs of fiction conflict the good novelist will always choose the latter.
Like many writers starting out, when I began writing, I either looked to invent complex plots on other planets or wrote stories which were either completely autobiographical or close to it. The former were juvenile, the latter painfully dull. It was the "accident" of trying to write a few pages as a woman (Caz Flood) that set me free and let me discover the joys of real fiction, ie: lie your head off and get paid for it, a bit like being a politician, I guess.
There are lots of techniques of lying we writers employ. Viewpoint is a good one. We can choose to limit the viewpoint to a single character, or see the world through the eyes of two characters, three perhaps, or be Gods and see what everyone is doing, what everyone is thinking, what is behind every door. Unlike real life we can deliberately add tensions by "knowing" what lurks in the attic and crank up the reading-ratchet. In real life, if you say you know what everyone else is thinking, and can see through locked doors they ring for the men in white coats.
Robert Meredith & John Fitzgerald, from the Writers Digest Guide to Good Writing
Great novels and great short stories are often single-minded, deliberately blinkered narrow-narrow-narrow representations. Like in a family argument you may only get one side of the story, the side the author wants you to hear (certainly not the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth). Even when the author appears to present both sides, it's a sham. The good author wants you to feel an effect. He doesn't want you to be able to choose how you feel. You are being set up; it's why the story was written in the first place.
In a recent article on editing for theme, I made the point that we arrange for our characters to be of a type, to behave in such ways that their behaviour gives meaning. The accumulation of that meaning is the essence of the story, its theme. This is lying. It's a deliberate disregard for fairness.
We are trying to create a story with a powerful point. Contrary evidence is a real drag, it dilutes our story, weakens our proof, so like a corrupt cop we "lose" the counterbalancing evidence.
If we wish to highlight incompetence in US Embassies abroad, do we write The Ugly American and then put in the seventeen superbly run US embassies we've heard about? Yeah, sure, the check is in the mail, and of course I'll love you in the morning... Did Steinbeck know that every single migrant worker was a victim of the profit system? If he had found evidence that it wasn't so bad, would he have burned his manuscript? Of course not. He was writing a feeling, an impression, trying to reveal one facet of the truth as J Steinbeck saw it and felt it. He knew enough to know that he had one good shot at persuading, so why help the opposition by including contrary facts?
It's commonplace for a teacher of writing to come across a piece of not-very believable writing, to make that point clear to the aspiring author only to hear the protest, "but it really happened". Patiently we have to explain we are NOT in the truth game, we are in the believability game. And not only that, the inner truth (constructed from lies) must have a purpose, unlike huge chunks of apparently random, lousily-plotted life.
Imagine a true story you are going to fictionalise -- a wonderfully exciting thriller, a woman stalked by a contract killer. She does X Y and Z to stay alive and at the last minute, finally cornered by the bad guy and about to die, she is saved when a lump of ice drops off an over-flying 747 and kills him. Who cares if it's true -- aren't we disappointed? We are disappointed because we don't want endings which are dropped from the sky. We want this story to end with the heroine overcoming her fear and finally besting her tormenter, or the hard-bitten cop from scene three to burst through the door, or maybe, the killer to take pity. What we need is something not just believable but rounding-out, satisfying, and completing, not a mere "end".
Real life is rarely so neat and satisfying, which is why we devour books, TV and films -- so in our heads we can create the order and satisfactory "fix" we rarely get from reality.
When my paraphrasing of the statement "Fiction is telling lies to illustrate the truth" came under fire, I was told that this was just a crude commercial fiction how-to sort of remark. Real writers, serious, literary writers didn't lie, they merely presented elegantly. This telling lies stuff, that was for hacks.
Some of my quotes here are from various Writers Digest handbooks and I can almost hear some "real" writers out there rubbing their hands in glee, desperate to speak, See? See? Commercial, yeek! I mean, obviously, anything from the Writers Digest How-to Machine can't be about art, right?
As an introduction to basic and intermediate skills I've always found the Writers Digest handbooks to be clear, precise and devoid of mumbo-jumbo, so much so that I'd recommend them to anyone in their first two years of serious writing, whether their ultimate goals be literary or genre-blockbuster.
In his book The Art & Craft of Novel Writing, Pulitzer nominated Oakley Hall wrote: "Truth over facts! If the novel stems from actual events, the writer tries not to be bound by the circumstances of those events. Truth is more important than facts, and fiction deals with what should have happened rather than what did happen. The novelist will take the haphazard and disconnected items of real life and organise them into an orderly sequence to produce a significant whole. Plot reassure the reader of order in a chaotic world. If the inner connections are missing in life, and they usually are, art must supply them."
And now a true story. When my first book, Cuckoo, was published, I went to see my agent in London and spotted a very interesting book, hard-cover, an expose of dirty tricks by the British Secret Service. My literary agent knew the author and we all met, where I was told (and believed) that the secret agent's revelations were only the tip of the iceberg, but no way would he live to be an old man if he tried to publish some of the things he knew. With my writer's instincts I wondered if I could fictionalise these "truths". Over the next month we struck a deal, began to talk, and then -- utter truth this -- the man disappeared.
My route to serious riches was temporarily road-blocked and it occurred to me that if my real-life secret-agent had somehow been removed from the scene (for knowing too much) wouldn't that put me and my family in jeopardy? Hadn't he already started to tell me some very heavy things?
Well I'm not dead yet but we did go through a period of funny clicks on the telephone line and being convinced we'd seen that man, that car before. About six months later, still no news of the real-life spy, I began a novel based on these experiences. In it the spy disappears and then all number of bad guys are after the novelist and he doesn't know what it is he's being chased for.
And the huge, invented secret, the fiction? That MI5 were planning to kill Princess Diana in a fake car accident... I wrote 15,000 words and a synopsis and two publishers said "No, too far-fetched, never happen, unrealistic, don't be silly, this is England..." The second rejection was November 1995. I had crime books to write..
Then, in Paris, 1997 real-life tragically intervened, and Diana did die, in a car accident. Of course there were conspiracy theories. One very real reason for the theories is that life never delivers us such perfect solutions. It never wraps up things so neatly. That only happens in fiction.
So truth and fiction collide and I'm not now a millionaire. More next month, (spooks permitting).
British Crime and Literary Fiction Author Alex Keegan is publisher and editor of the British literary magazine, Seventh Quark. He is
creator of the five Caz Flood novels: Cuckoo (Headline Books, St. Martin's Press), Vulture,
Kingfisher, Razorbill (Headline Books) and A Wild Justice (Piatkus Books)
which all feature feisty female private investigator Catherine "Caz" Flood. Cuckoo was published in the U.S. by St Martin's Press, and
was nominated for an Anthony Award as best first novel.
His prize-winning short stories have been featured in numerous publications including Mystery and Manners, BBC Radio 4, Blue Moon Review, Southern Ocean Review, and The Atlantic. He is a Contributing Editor for The Internet Writing Journal. His blog can be found here.