Writing fiction is just elaborate lying

You might have heard this before: writing a work of fiction is simply constructing an elaborate lie. Usually meant as a denigration, as in, why waste your time lying, when you could be writing non-fiction? You know, the truth? Not lies? In this view, fiction is a pointless game, and those who practise it are shallow and vapid, unlike the serious purveyors of non-fiction, who are engaged with the real world and its real problems.

This is wrong on so many levels. In the first place, on a purely technical standpoint, the primary intention of the liar is to deceive, but the reader of a work of fiction knows very well that what she is reading is a creation, and not a representation of actual events. In fact, many works that are nominally non-fiction are constructed to deceive. A liar doesn’t start off by telling you he is lying; therefore only non-fiction can be a lie!

Secondly, written fiction, like all art, tries to tell us a deeper truth about the world and ourselves. If it is well done, if the artist succeeds, we will recognise that deeper truth, conveyed to us by means of artifice. This, again, is the opposite of lying, where the aim is to convey a deep falsehood by means of superficial verisimilitude. The techniques might appear similar; both writer and liar will carefully observe reality so as to convey a plausible narrative; but then, to the untrained eye, the techniques of the surgeon and the butcher might appear similar. As with the writer and the liar, however, the surgeon is aiming for a very different outcome than that of the butcher.

And finally, the writer of what is nominally non-fiction is still engaged in a process of artifice; she does not aim to produce an emotionless recounting of facts as if she were a robot (and even if she did, there would still be the matter of choosing which facts to recount!). Most non-fiction writing is designed to be read (in the sense of needing to compete for the attention of readers) and therefore strives to entertain and sometimes to persuade, and these goals are at least somewhat antithetical to pure objective truth.

Our love of stories is perhaps one of the defining characteristics of our species. Every culture ever known since the dawn of time has told its stories. There seems to be some structure of the brain where if we are given a series of events, we naturally try to construct a narrative that ties the events together and explains them– even if the events are entirely random. This instinct to create structure out of chaos may be the legacy of a successful evolutionary strategy, and thus entirely practical– if our ancestors created a fanciful story about a natural phenomenon that enabled them to correctly predict when that phenomenon would occur, then they would be more likely to survive. And perhaps the compelling story made it easier for an unlettered culture to remember it and pass it on to future generations.

We no longer need to create myths and legends to pass on our knowledge, and so the anti-fiction brigade would have you believe that fiction’s time has passed. But our culture is more than just scientific facts. Our thirst for stories remains undimmed. The stories which resonate with us are passed on by word of mouth until millions share the myths of Hogwarts, the Discworld, and Westeros. And that is no bad thing.
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