The Serious Business of Lying and the Enterprise of Fiction

Battle of Borodino

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Ursula Le Guin objects to the idea that science fiction is predictive. In 1976, she wrote:

Science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive.

Predictions are uttered by prophets (free of charge); by clairvoyants (who usually charge a fee, and are therefore more honored in their day than prophets); and by futurologists (salaried). Prediction is the business of prophets, clairvoyants, and futurologists. It is not the business of novelists. A novelist’s business is lying.

— Ursula K. Le Guin, Introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness

Lying, you might say, is serious business. Even when it comes to fiction, when we like to be lied to. But why do we like to be lied to, those of us who read fiction and pay good money to see movies?

There’s a clue in the title of John Dufresne’s guide to writing fiction: The Lie That Tells a Truth. Fiction and film, at their best, package important truths in a tissue of lies. Some of these truths we already know before our fictive experience of them. Others we learn, if we trust the lies, when fiction happens to us. And often it is our capacity to trust the lie that makes us vulnerable to truths.

Some will protest that the novelist and the screenwriter do not lie. After all, we know “it’s only a story.” But since when has this stopped us from believing what we know isn’t so? Isn’t Le Guin onto something when she says,

In fact, while we read a novel, we are insane—bonkers. We believe in the existence of people who aren’t there, we hear their voices, we watch the battle of Borodino with them, we may even become Napolean. Sanity returns (in most cases) when the book is closed.

And in the thick of our believing, we don’t want to be reminded that “it’s only a story.” We’re like the lad whose grandfather reads to him in the movie The Princess Bride. He’s not as ambivalent as he pretends. And neither are we. If it’s a really good story.

Audio Post: A Commentary on Four Novels

This is my first podcast or audio post. It’s kind of an experiment—a discussion of four novels that I read the past week during a refreshing vacation in Washington and Idaho.

Here are the books with links to Amazon:

Now Reading “Little, Big,” by John Crowley

If you know the name Smoky Barnable, it’s because you’ve read all or part of John Crowley’s fantasy novel Little, Big, or, The Fairies’ Parliament. Or—less likely—you’ve only read about it. I suggest this is unlikely because you probably haven’t read about the novel unless you are a reader, like fantasy fiction, and can’t resist when the accolades for a book are in the order of: Read more of this post

Remains of the Day

The Remains of the Day, published in 1989, is Kazuo Ishiguro’s third novel. Born in Nagasaki, Japan in 1954, Ishiguro lived in Great Britain from age five and is a British citizen. And there can be no question that he is a British novelist.

This novel won him the Booker Prize. In an interview at the time of his award, Ishguro explained that he wanted to explore two themes, how ordinary people relate to people of influence and the effects of sublimating one’s own feelings for an ill-conceived ideal. His vehicle for this is a series of brooding ruminations by a British butler who has dedicated his best years in service to a wealthy Brit who was a naive Nazi sympathizer in the years leading up to World War 2. Read more of this post

The Sign of the Book, by John Dunning

Years ago I read John Dunning’s detective novel Booked to Die and realized I’d found a new author to stalk during my reading jags. The novel was the first installment in Dunning’s series featuring Cliff Janeway, ex-cop and second-hand bookseller, living, reading, and sleuthing in Denver. I watched for the sequel, The Bookman’s Wake, but somehow missed it (if memory serves). Almost ten years went by before there was a third installment. By then I had stopped monitoring Dunning’s authorial movements.

About seven months ago I stumbled across The Sign of the Book, #4 in the series. I reckoned I could get away with reading it without playing catch-up on #2 and #3. I was right. But I didn’t put this theory to the test until recently. Saturday was my first beach day of the summer. I brought the Dunning novel with me to Corona del Mar and enjoyed my re-introduction to the author and his detective.

To the degree that I can recall, Dunning is true to form in #4. I still like his style and will eventually get to his other series books. Dunning adopts the first person point of view, probably the trickiest POV out there. When reading fiction written in the first person, I have the tendency to ask periodically why the fictional narrator is telling me his or her story. First person point of view doesn’t work for me if there aren’t any clues about the speaker’s motive. The first-person novel is, after all, one long monologue—in this case, 513 pages worth.

Dunning makes it work. Only rarely did I take exception to the way he handled the speaker’s perspective on the mental states of other characters in the story. This novel impresses me as an exemplary specimen of first-person narration. It’s fitting that in the final sentence of the novel, Cliff Janeway remarks, “The mysteries of the human mind are far beyond my comprehension.” (I’m confident that quoting the last sentence is not a spoiler.)

The writing is intelligent, but The Sign of the Book is not literary fiction in the hifalutin sense. Each character speaks in a distinctive fashion that is consistent throughout. The best bit of dialog occurs in a courtroom scene. I was a little confused about the floor plan of an important building at one point in the story. But this was not as much of a handicap for Janeway as it was for me.

This isn’t comic fiction, but Dunning manages to amuse with his choice of words and the dialog at which he excels. Suspense comes in two forms. First there’s the plot and the mystery about who dunnit. But frequently along the way there are stretches of suspenseful action . . . or inaction . . . as well. And that’s critical to the success of a detective novel (in contrast, for example, to the sort of mystery fiction so masterfully crafted by P. D. James).

One more thing. Janeway taught me a new way to survive the monotony of waiting for countless hours with nothing to do. This could come in handy if I’m ever on a stakeout without my Kindle.


John Dunning is a distinguished author. Booked to Die won him the Nero Wolfe Award, and The Bookman’s Wake appeared on the New York Times list of Notable Books. Other detective novels of his have been nominated for the Edgar Award. In addition to awards, Dunning has readers. Drew Goodman, book sales manager at the University of Utah campus store, has gone so far as to include two of Dunning’s Janeway novels on his “Sacred Shelf of 10,” as of October 25, 2007.

Classic Mystery Reads:

The Films:

For the preview and Unbox rental for The Maltese Falcon, go here.

Quotes on Fiction

“. . . one discovers that an authentic sermon even within the confines of fiction [as in John Updike’s novel Of the Farm] can have a kerygmatic quality: one feels addressed, in a fairly direct way that collapses in part the illusions of fiction. Updike is able here to fix a receptive mood in which the reader is led to respond to the message as well as to the fictive situation.” —Robert Detweiler, “John Updike’s Sermons,” chapter in Breaking the Fall: Religious Readings of Contemporary Fiction

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