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Does Fiction Lie? — The Liar’s Club

Chapter three in a series on Book and Art Business 101 wherein I show how the solid logic of art business sold me on self-publishing. If you’re too busy for the whole series, download your copy of my Cheat Sheet for Book and Art Business 101. 

Before I discovered poetry on my own, I had told stories to friends and family, but the power of oral storytelling had yet to connect to the literary part of my brain.

In my elementary days, the name they called me more than anything was “liar.” Lying Lance.


Now on occasion I deserved it, particularly several instances in which I smooth-talked my way out of detention — a golden tongue like a golden sword can get you into as many troubling situations as it can rewarding ones — but it took college for me to realize that fiction and exaggeration isn’t lying at all but a way of conveying the truth of both emotion and theme through a trick of light.

But don’t take it from me.

If you want to know if fiction lies, ask Tolkien:

The heart of Man is not compound of lies,
but draws some wisdom from the only Wise,
and still recalls him. Though now long estranged,
Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Dis-graced he may be, yet is not dethroned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned,
his world-dominion by creative act:
not his to worship the great Artefact,
Man, Sub-creator, the refracted light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build
Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sowed the seed of dragons, ‘twas our right
(used or misused). The right has not decayed.
We make still by the law in which we’re made. 

Evil it will not see, for evil lies
not in God’s picture but in crooked eyes,
not in the source but in malicious choice,
and not in sound but in the tuneless voice.
In Paradise they look no more awry;
and though they make anew, they make no lie.
Be sure they still will make, not being dead,
and poets shall have flames upon their head,
and harps whereon their faultless fingers fall:
there each shall choose forever from the All.
— from Mythopoeia by J.R.R. Tolkien

Fiction bends the truth not as a hammer bends steel. A lie may do that to the truth — particularly in places where power and money play a role. But not in fiction. I was always struck by the title of Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club. I find it an apt description for the class of creative writers — called liars when we care about the truth probably as much as, if not more than, anyone in the artistic field.

Fiction bends the truth as a reverse prism will bend light waves: refracting the details of specific colors together, uniting them back into the brilliance of white light. Fiction exaggerates quite literally: it “heaps up” details that you might stand higher atop the heap of them than you could using any one of them alone, normal, unspectacular. That’s where journalists who talk about “autobiographical fiction” miss the point. I don’t believe such a thing as autobiographical fiction exists — there is memoir and there is fiction, period. Anyone who asks if a specific character quirk relates to a real person has already missed the point of fiction. See, the point of fiction is not any one detail — the color of this car at the time of this murder committed by the name of this murderer. The point of fiction is the mass of details, taken together: innocent bloodshed and the mourning implied. Fiction bends the truth that we might see through it to something else, white light in our little cave rather than motley colors scattered dimly among the crags. They called me a liar when really I was after a bigger and broader truth.

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They called me a liar when I was a teller.


And here was the other piece, the same piece that supposedly discredits even the best Wikipedia article on the internet: Wikipedia is free and open and self- or community-published and therefore susceptible to lies whereas encyclopedias are expensive and closed and traditionally published and therefore marked by credibility. I know of several instances where the same author has written the same thing on Wikipedia and in traditional print and the print version of the same text is seen as more credible and therefore more true. Certainly the medieval monks who passed down these traditionally published classics we treasure so dearly cared about textual gloss — about “glossing over” the details — so where did we go wrong?

Our culture has believed until now that traditionally printed fiction’s acceptable. Oral fictions are lies.

photo from Homini:)

What helped cement the false name of Lying Lancelot in my mind, what helped me believe the lie that fiction lies is this blue collar, Southern Illinois word “bullshitting” — their words, not mine.


My father’s a blue collar carpenter, the son of another carpenter who built a large majority of the houses in our county, the son of my great-grandpa who gave up the German style of farming for cobbling. The sort of drywall hangers and painters and electricians and roofers and woodworkers I grew up around spent their lunch breaks doing what they call “bullshitting.” Which is, of course, telling true stories that have happened with a certain level of exaggeration.

The point of this act, of course, IS NOT the details of the story. The point was conveying the emotion and the absurdity of the situation. Some of these stories have elements that need no exaggeration like the tale of how my uncle one-timed a squirrel through the neck with a nail gun or the time my grandpa saved his own life by riding a piece of plywood down from a three-story roof as if it were a parachute or the time my father cleaned out our chimney of bats using firecrackers like depth charges — wicks cut, lit and dropped as one. Bullshitting, proper, is meant to inspire, give courage, and teach lessons to the men around the campfire. The point of the squirrel story, for instance, wasn’t the impossible shot, but rather this lesson: make bets you know you can win nine times out of ten. Even if the impossible happens, you’ll win in the long run. To this day, I still bet against anyone trying to hit anything with a nail gun other than a board at point-blank range.

And that applies to amateur writers and their odds in the traditional market: make bets you know you can win 9 times out of 10.

Don Price, the senior English teacher, connected bullshitting with poetry and combined with my performance background and my mind that had to explore and experiment with all contingencies. I began to write possessed by a Muse and a Fate and a Fury.

The abode of my spirit was quite literally crowded with inspiration. A crowd had commandeered the controls to my scribbling hand.

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And that’s the most important part, especially early on.

I was called a liar often early on. And for good reason: I was a compulsive liar as a kid. But that was only because I had a gift that needed honing just like those of you who have asked me questions. I’ve know painters who were called vandals and sculptors who were called ransackers (or a more unsavory equivalent) and photographers who were called voyeurs.

Don’t hate them for calling you a name. People just need categories for thought and you don’t fit into the categories they have unless they’re negative. They need to call you a liar because they can’t see far enough to the full-length novels you’ll write. They need to call you a vandal because they can’t see forward to that gallery full of works you painted. They need to call you a ransacker because their minds aren’t patient enough to imagine you carving The David out of the meat of a marble slab. They need to call you a voyeur because the alternative is you’re seeing a world through your camera lens that they have only dreamed of seeing. You see what they ignore.

And so they need a reason to ignore what you see.

Sure, call me a liar. But I discovered who I am.

And that lead me to find out where and how to sell what I write. More on that in the next post.


Don’t have time for the whole series?

That’s okay, I made you a…


Here’s our outline for upcoming posts:

  1. Intro
  2. The Gateway Drug: Poetry
  3. Does Fiction Lie? — The Liar’s Club
  4. Where and How to Sell What You Write
  5. From Daydreams to Written Dreams
  6. Rejection Slips
  7. Any Money Makes a Professional Writer
  8. Quarterly Assignments
  9. Making Good Money… in a shadow career
  10. Kinfolk and Advocates or “How to Build a Platform”
  11. Draconian Contracts
  12. Author Earnings
  13. Succeeding for Others
  14. Blaze a Trail All Your Own

lancelot tobias mearcstapa schaubert monogram

cover image by Delphine Devos



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