Lies & Truth in Fiction

Albert Camus said that, “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.”  This definition of fiction has been passed along over many years through numerous writing teachers as, “telling lies in the service of greater truth.”  I’m one of those writers who has adopted this definition and use it as a guide for much of my fictional work.*   Some of my writing, though, is purely for entertainment, and, if you can find some greater truth in it, congratulations.

I wrote a novel of historical fiction called Hangtown about the California Gold Rush, which included two actual persons who were in Hangtown (now called Placerville) in that time of 1850.  One is Heinrich Schliemann, who in the 1870s discovered the lost cities of Troy in Turkey.  The other is Charles Crocker, who years later founded the Central Pacific Railroad and became one of California’s (in)famous Robber Barons.  They were in Placerville in the early 1850s as twenty-somethings and would have known each other.  The former was an assayer and gold merchant, while the latter ran what we might call a general store.  In furtherance of the novel, I might have Schliemann say to Crocker, “You, sir, charge the miners too much for your pickaxes,” while Crocker retorts to Schliemann, “Scoundrel!  You give them too little for their gold dust.”

That exchange is a lie the author (me) made up.  I am using the verbal exchange because it furthers the story plot, which requires Crocker and Schliemann to be in conflict.  It’s plausible and moves the story along; therefore, readers of historical fiction—note that the word “historical” modifies the essential nature of the work, which is fiction—generally accept such dialog without wondering whether it actually occurred.

Recently, however, there has been a dust-up over a stage performer and sometimes journalist who used the definition of fiction—”telling lies in service of greater truth”—to justify lying about the behavior of a major corporation, perhaps to emphasize the bad practices of large corporations in general.  Specifically, Mike Daisey on NPR’s This American Life charged Apple Corporation with abuses of its Chinese workers who manufacture some of Apple’s components and products.  As Mr. Daisey later admitted, many of the details of his “exposé” were not true.  Yet he continued to justify them in part because they were good theater.  (Currently there are over 30 Google entries about this.)

Seems to me that the essence of this lie/truth issue is in the purpose of what’s being presented.  The “lying” was done on This American Life, a journalistic program which seeks to present the truth to its audience; Mr. Daisey on that program presented stuff he concocted to make for better theater.  To my mind, that is like selling knock-off jewelry as real because the buyer will be happier thinking it’s real.  No, of course it’s worse than that, because the reputation of Apple was damaged.  But what if Apple was perpetrating harmful labor practices, and as a result of Mr. Daisey’s “lies” and subsequent bad publicity, it did better by its Chinese workers and even workers in other countries?

Would that justify the lies if they actually brought about not only a greater but a better truth?  Whadja think?

[*NOTE:  Most of my fiction, including Hangtown, is not yet available, but will be soon.]