This Is a True Story

Now all we have to do is figure out what the truth is.

Sherlock Holmes was a detective living at 221B Baker Street, London. Only there was no Sherlock Holmes and a bank has always been at that address. The statement is nonfactual. Except in The Hound of the Baskervilles written by Arthur Conan Doyle and published as a serial in 1901. There, within the world of the story, it is taken as fact. When Holmes tells Watson to meet him back at the house Watson doesn’t encounter a bank when he gets to 221B Baker Street. He encounters Holmes’ townhouse.

David Lewis in his 1978 essay, “Truth in Fiction”, suggests reading sentences in novels as either prefixed with “In such-and-such fiction…” or unprefixed. Unprefixed means that it happened in fact. Prefixed means that it operates as a fact within the fictional world of a story.

Storytelling is pretence. The storyteller purports to be telling the truth about matters whereof he has knowledge. He purports to be talking about characters who are known to him, and whom he refers to, typically, by means of their ordinary proper names. But if his story is fiction, he is not really doing these things. Usually his pretence has not the slightest tendency to deceive anyone, nor has he the slightest intent to deceive. Nevertheless he plays a false part, goes through a form of telling known fact when he is not doing so. This is most apparent when the fiction is told in the first person. Conan Doyle pretended to be a doctor named Watson, engaged in publishing truthful memoirs of events he himself had witnessed. But the case of third-person narrative is not essentially different.

David Lewis, “Truth in Fiction”, American Philosophical Quarterly, v.15 n.1, Jan.1978.

David Lewis’ view looks to the intentionality of the author in recognizing fact or fiction. The author-ity of the text is one of authorial pretense in pretending that fiction is fact. Or as John Searle said it, authors pretend to assert what they are saying. As to Lewis

His approach has two core ideas. The first is that we should adopt a pretense view of fiction. A fiction is a story told by a particular person on a particular occasion, and to tell a story is typically to pretend that one is relating an account of things that really did happen. The second core idea is the one mentioned above: stories are related against a background of (known) facts and beliefs, thereby ensuring that there is more to truth in fiction than is stated in stories. 

Kroon, Fred and Alberto Voltolini, “Fiction”The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

The pretense view of fiction is an author centered one. A more reader centered view is the make believe view. It sees texts as a prop in a game of make believe treated as a record of events, situations, conversations, and other story components that the community of players (readers) refer to in playing the game (discussions, book clubs, fan art).

Can fiction be used to express (more or less) universal truths? Yes, according to the cognitivists.

But learning factual truths is not what philosophers and literary theorists usually have in mind when they think of fiction as a means for the discovery, or communication, of truth. They have in mind truth that has deeper human significance, like the universals that Aristotle claims in The Poetics to find in the works of poets, or the kind of truth about human nature, for example, that Samuel Johnson finds in Shakespeare (“he has not only shewn human nature as it acts in real exigencies, but as it would be found in trials, to which it cannot be exposed”; Johnson 1765). Many philosophers thus embrace what is commonly called (literary) cognitivism, which claims that literary fiction can contribute to readers’ knowledge in a way that adds to the literary or aesthetic value of a work (Davies 2007; Gaut 2005).

Kroon, Fred and Alberto Voltolini, “Fiction”The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).

A movement, if it can be called a movement, has been about for some time now. There is no name for it and there is no comprehensible term for its genre. It has been called fictional nonfiction. It has its roots in New Journalism and creative nonfiction. It is true stories based on real world experience told using traditionally fictional techniques of narration and depiction. W.G. Sebald is a pioneer of this most sophisticated of literary move(ment)s. Sebald is an Austrian writer whose The Emigrants was published in 1992.

Sebald preferred the term “prose fictions” to “novel” and one of his editors called what Sebald wrote “creative nonfiction.” Critics have used the terms like “borrowing” and “larceny” to describe Sebald’s fictional representation of fact. “Fictional nonfiction” sometimes comes up.

Sebald is known for his prose quality, his use of a non-arc form of structure, and a balance between fiction and nonfiction. His literary followers are legion, though not popularly known. They include Robert Macfarlane, Tejur Cole, Stephen Wackwitz, Alexander Hernon, Rachel Clark, Rachel Cusk, Ben Lerner, and others.

Geoff Dyer explains in the Guardian where this literary direction is located.

Frontiers are always changing, advancing. Borders are fixed, man-made, squabbled about and jealously fought over. The frontier is an exciting, demanding – and frequently lawless – place to be. Borders are policed, often tense; if they become too porous then they’re not doing the job for which they were intended. Occasionally, though, the border is the frontier. That’s the situation now with regard to fiction and nonfiction.

“Based on a True Story: the Fine Line Between Fact and Fiction”, The Guardian (Dec. 6, 2015).

The Guardian piece has statements by a variety of writers on the divide (and lack thereof) between fiction and nonfiction and well represents a powerful current literary direction. It is worth the read.

A seemingly magical thing about fiction, pure fiction, made up stories, is that they can be used to impart truth. Not facts, but truth, truth in the sense of (more or less) universal truths, morals, and the nature of being human and of the human condition. The cognitivists approach this view, gaze at it, and wonder.

Too, we have the paradox of fiction. Anna Karenina’s boyfriend is distancing himself from her if not ghosting her altogether. We have sympathy for her, pity even; we feel for her; after all she has many fine qualities of character and is ahead of her time to us today (though Tolstoy could not have imagined it). But she is not real. There is no Anna Karenina! How can we have sympathy for someone who is not real? Yet we do. We read for entertainment among other reasons and nothing is so entertainingly engaging as characters with whom we identify and sympathize.

Fiction can move us as much as fact emotionally.

We can distinguish factual truth and fictional truth. Now let us think of fictional truth as made up facts, as fictions masquerading as fact, as the fictional verisimilitude of what is factual. And of factual truth as a story made of facts (nonfiction) which actually happened in the world of reality that we share.

Writers quite often base their fictions on fact. Flaubert based Emma Bovary on a French woman named Delphine Delamar. Delamare cheated on her spouse, spent his money on frivolities, and ultimately incurred so much debt that she killed herself with poison. The case was sensational at the time and well known in France at the time of Flaubert’s writing. Yet no one confuses Madame Bovary as fact or anything other than fiction. Not all the story elements of Flaubert’s novel actually happened and Flaubert gives us much more detail than would be available to Europeans at the time.

A story made of facts happened. To deviate from it is to deviate from the truth. A story made of fiction may have actually happened, parts of it may have happened and others not, or several unrelated facts rolled up into one may have actually happened–or none of it may have happened at all! The fictional story may deviate from facts but the fact based story must stick to the facts as the facts actually happen.

Which would a storyteller prefer to write? A storyteller, mind you, not a writer, even a good one, with a keen interest in a subject matter. A storyteller, one whose primary interest is communicating a story that imparts its message and entertains and leads the story reader to ask questions about it, to remember it, and to reread it. Fiction is far more powerful for the sheer act of storytelling than is fact.

And so fictional storytellers are enormously more powerful than factual storytellers. A factual storyteller is limited to her facts. A fictional storyteller can deviate from facts, ignore some facts and include others, or make it all up from whole cloth. So long as the fiction is fact within the world of the story and the fictional facts are believably presented and have integrity vis-a-vis all other fictional facts within the story, the fact can be anything the writer’s heart desires unlimited by actual fact.

Whether the story seems contrived or convoluted is of course a matter of the writer’s artistic skill. I suspect Sebald’s followers and their readers find this to be an acute point. Staying so close to fact does at least tend to avoid contrivance or manipulation of the reader–to a point. That point is the point at which “truth is stranger than fiction” or that fiction becomes so improbable that it doesn’t seem “real”.

Novels are made artfully if they are to be literary. Is finding and telling the truth an art? If yes, that brings us no closer to a concise working definition of truth in fiction because we have yet to define truth.

Can fictional facts be truth? Can facts turned into fiction be truth? What, then, is truth?

Truth is the stuff of which fiction is made.

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