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What makes a novel lie

A great novel fabricates a probable and absorbing story, it distorts real events, manufactures entertainment, it invents pace and conflates many real humans into a few characters, but still it has to tell us truths

Fiction need not be factual, but it should never be fake.
Fiction need not be factual, but it should never be fake.

About two years ago, a serious man and I got into a public spat that unfortunately did not escalate into a fistfight. The quarrel began during a panel discussion after I said that the “literary novel" today is a warning to readers that they are going to be bored by self-absorbed memoirs, activism and sociology lessons masquerading as stories. And a story is, very simply, something that is fascinating.

For most of human history that has been the definition of a story. Zia Haider Rahman, a British citizen of Bangladeshi extraction, argued that there are many other things in a novel that are more important than an entertaining story, like the facts of life. A man in the audience asked him why he bothered writing fiction then. “Write non-fiction." Rahman thought the question was foolish, so he said, “That’s a rhetorical question, right?" The questioner did not know what a rhetorical question was, so that was that.

The question was reasonable, and it has a simple answer. A writer has a story to tell, which may be based in facts but cannot be entirely factual, hence he presents it as fiction, a form that also allows many features that journalism does not. The more interesting question is, why do facts matter so much to modern novelists and literary referees? Almost every novelist is flogging the “facts" in their fiction—the almost facts, spatial facts, political facts, historical facts, marital facts, private facts. And critics tend to celebrate the “facts". Even “imagination" these days has come to mean not creation, but a brilliant literary interpretation of facts.

In our high-strung, political times, have novelists come to believe that a story in itself is unimportant, that fabrication is frivolous? Do they assume a hierarchy of literary things in which they rate fiction lower than facts?

Didn’t Svetlana Alexandrovna Alexievich, who won the Nobel for literature in 2015, once say, “…document in art is becoming increasingly interesting while art as such often proves impotent"? Most novelists do feel terrible when they discover great facts through hard work but have to offer them up as fabrication. Also, are novelists themselves in the spell of the “takeaway" neurosis of our age that has conditioned the reader to view time as an investment and expect something useful from reading, like knowledge, rather than mere literary experience?

Readers do appear to value facts in fiction. At the Jaipur Literature Festival a few months ago, Richard Flanagan, who won the Man Booker Prize in 2014 for The Narrow Road To The Deep North, told me a story that he has related many times. He was on stage in California with an American novelist, who explained in great detail how she researched her novel, how she set up numerous interviews and how she collected hundreds of documents. When Flanagan was asked by the moderator how he had researched his novel, he said, “I’m Australian, we’re a bit lazy, we just make it up." There were 2,000 people in the audience, he said, and there was the silence of disgrace.

For a novel that derives some of its power from the alleged psychopathic brutality of Japanese soldiers, the author interviewed only two former Japanese soldiers, a confession that might diminish the novel for some readers. But Flanagan did widely advertise one of the two interviews. Slapping was a common form of punishment in the Japanese war camps, and Flanagan, as part of his slim research, asked the guard to slap him (after the third slap, he thought “the room was spinning" but it was just an earthquake that had struck the region).

Flanagan told me that research is overrated in a novel. What he uses are not facts but a simulation of facts. The literary worth of the novel is in the intuition of the writer, and his ability to make conjectures of emotions he has not personally experienced. But not all novels can get away with simulation of facts.

When I began reading Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son, which won the Pulitzer in 2013, I felt lucky to enter the physical spaces of North Korea through a literary work of high order, but then I read his interview, in which he said he had visited North Korea only once. “It’s an unverifiable place," he said. “But to the fiction writer, the myth, the legend, the fables are all powerful tools to create a psychological portrait."

I had to downgrade his book to fantasy, which is not the same as fiction. As an Indian who had read clownish stories set in India by expatriates, I could not waste any more time on a book that a North Korean would find preposterous. In a novel where a whole nation is a character, the author’s grasp of the society and its daily objects cannot be on the level of a foreign correspondent’s.

Fiction need not be factual, but it should never be fake. A novel is fake not when it lies but when at its core it is not true. A great novel fabricates a probable and absorbing story, it distorts real events, manufactures entertainment, it invents pace and conflates many real humans into a few characters, but still it has to tell us truths. A man before sex, Amos Oz tells us, is different from a man after sex. If you don’t cry at your mother’s funeral, Albert Camus tells us, the world will destroy you when it gets a chance. If you recount the stories of your ancestors without the arrogance of interpretation, Gabriel García Márquez showed, all our histories would resemble magic. We understand the truths of our times not only through the facts of journalism but also through truths that we did not know existed, but the moment we read, we accept them immediately as though we always knew them.

As sacred as facts are to journalism, authenticity is the heart of a novel, especially a novel that can be considered art. Many complex things go on in a work of fiction. You cannot convert journalism into fiction by just lying about a few things. A few years ago, when it came to light that Truman Capote’s iconic work of journalism, In Cold Blood, was fabricated in parts, The Guardian did something foolish. It included the book among the 100 best novels written in English. As In Cold Blood was devised as journalism by its celebrated author, it did not go into the minds of the characters. And that is exactly where fiction can go and journalism is not permitted. In Cold Blood had no voice, no point of view, no living conscience. It was fabricated documentation, and as a novel, mediocre. Fiction is the least important definition of a novel.

Manu Joseph is a journalist and a novelist, most recently of The Illicit Happiness Of Other People. His Twitter handle is @manujosephsan

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