The fiction of fiction is that fiction contains a “higher truth”
The true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths.— Bruce Nauman, 1967
It’s true and not true at the same time.— Bruce Nauman, commenting on above quote
Fiction is a con job. The long con.
The con is that writers can be more truthful by freeing themselves from the obligation to “fact.” Writers, just like everyone, may hold back from full disclosure when dealing with uncomfortable or embarrassing experiences. In fiction, a.k.a. an artfully constructed narrative, writers can be more open, honest, and truthful. Change the names, the places, the details, and this process magically creates a higher truth than what really happened by universalizingthe experience. [NOTE:See the opening of Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey: “All true histories contain instruction…shielded by my own obscurity, and by the lapse of years, and a few fictitious names, I do not fear to venture; and will candidly lay before the public what I would not disclose to the most intimate friend.]
In other words, lying about the base metal of facts is the alchemical process for producing the gold of truth.
This romantic idea, the power of the imagination to reveala higher truth, has always been metaphysical mumbo-jumbo bordering on a religious faith, the illusion that something that isn’t there is somehow more realthan the something that is there. Even in memoir, where writers supposedly expose themselves in order to tell the truth about their life experiences, the memoirist is always also being untruthful; telling is also not-telling, because when we select details, events, and people to include, we also leave out other details, events, and people as part of the shaping of a story. Indeed, the belief that our lives can be self-fashioned and told in causal, narrative nonfiction is itself a fiction: we’re altering, staging, and often just making it up. For some of us, lies are the only truth we have to offer.
So, the fictionof fiction is that fiction contains a higher truth; the made-up is more real than real. Hemingway: “All good books have one thing in common — they are truer than if they had really happened.” Lawrence: “Art speech is the only truth. An artist is usually a damned liar, but his art, if it be art, will tell you the truth of his day.” The boasting artist as magus, magician, creator of a world more real than the world, transcending die Augenblickeof a life into the permanence of art and beauty. The demented Dr. Kinbote’s description of John Shade’s artistic process in Nabokov’s Pale Fire:“I am witnessing a unique physiological phenomenon: John Shade perceiving and transforming the world, taking it in and taking it apart, re-combining its elements in the very process of storing them up so as to produce at some unspecified date an organic miracle, a fusion of image and music, a line of verse. And I experienced the same thrill as when in my early boyhood I watched across the tea table in my uncle’s castle a conjurer who had just given a fantastic performance.” Even in Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale,” the fancy cannot cheat so well, deceiving elf.
It’s a shakedown.
It’s the long con, pulled off by a sleight-of-hand man on an all-too-willing audience of rubes looking for some magic, a mystic truth to believe in.