Lies, Damn Lies, and Alternative Facts

“Writers are liars, my dear, surely you know that by now? And yet, things need not have happened to be true. Tales and dreams are the shadow-truths that will endure when mere facts are dust and ashes, and forgot.” –Neil Gaiman

I hear this idea a lot from people, that fiction writers are all liars and that therefore we have it easy because we just make things up. And it’s hard in the current climate not to think about truth and lies and facts and alternative facts (whatever that means). But acknowledging something is a lie implies there are facts, that there is truth, a view of the world or a situation or a person that we can, if we don’t agree on it, recognize it as factual. (Maybe she meant counterfactual facts.)

Read Ursula Le Guin on alternative facts.

Writers lie for these reasons: to entertain, to instruct, to display, to explain the world as they see it. What a writer cannot do, and what our esteemed—and steamed-up—chief executive is doing, is create stories from a vacuum, from unprovable assertions, unrecognizable emotions, and unbelievable characteristics. What writers are required to provide in their lies is verisimilitude—the art of being believable.

I write, in Solo Act and in other places, about the city of Boston and it is my Boston. Sometimes I add a street where there is none, sometimes I describe the city as it was in 1969 and sometimes as it is in 2017. But I’m very careful not to put a 14,000 foot mountain within sight of downtown or set the Pacific Ocean on the city’s west flank.

There’s sometimes a tendency in fiction to go the other way, to overspecify and hew to a line of accuracy that would torture a research librarian. It’s one of the reasons I find it so hard to read someone like Tom Clancy, who is specific about the armaments and vehicles practically down to the millimetric measurements of the wheel nuts. It feels a foolish consistency and obscures the fact that the characters are so thin. For the interesting lies are all about characters, people, not the caliber of a machine gun.

On the other hand, I do cross my own line. In my latest novel, Hide the Cat, a character talks about wanting to visit the Uffizi. In Rome. Leaving aside the question of whether I knew the Uffizi was in Florence, two people came up to me after a recent reading to correct the story. But both of them, in different ways, understood that I might have put that misunderstanding into a character’s mouth as a way of displaying her ignorance or her innocence about other parts of the world.

For people writing crime fiction, the insistence on accuracy over verisimilitude quite often revolves around firearms. I know more than one crime writer who’s gotten a message from a reader to the effect that “Well you know your guns, so you must be all right.” Elmore Leonard famously had a character in one book click off the safety on a revolver, thereby generating all kinds of fervent commentary. He should have known that his readership, Westerns and thrillers alike, would comprise a disproportionate number of gun aficionados. And he never made a similar mistake again, hiring a retired Florida law enforcement official to read his drafts for firearm accuracy. (At least I think that’s the story—I could be lying.)

So, my point? Sure, sweat the details. But the whole damn story is big lie anyway. And what’s the mark of a good liar? That you believe him (or her). No amount of attention to detail, for example, will overcome a tendency to put people into situations their characters wouldn’t take on or transgress the laws of physics (unless you’re writing science fiction). And even then, you’d better make it believable. The last thing a reader wants is to mistrust you.

Of course we’re liars, for goodness’ sake—we’re making stories up. But our lies don’t hurt people, deny them humanity or basic rights, try to set a 14,000 foot mountain in the middle of Boston Common. We want to be good liars: good in the sense of competence, that our lies are believable, and good in the sense that our motives are clean. We are not lying to you for any other reason than to entertain. We are trying to give you something, not take away.

About Richard Cass

Dick is the author of the Elder Darrow Jazz Mystery series, the story of an alcoholic who walks into a dive bar in Boston . . . and buys it. Solo Act was a Finalist for the Maine Literary Award in Crime Fiction in 2017 and In Solo Time won the award in 2018. The third book in the series, Burton's Solo, came out in 2018 and Last Call at the Esposito in 2019. Sweetie Bogan's Sorrow was published in 2020, to thunderous pandemic acclaim. The sixth book in the series, Mickey's Mayhem, will come out in 2021. Dick lives and writes in Cape Elizabeth.
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17 Responses to Lies, Damn Lies, and Alternative Facts

  1. Well said, Dick! I also like to think when we write fiction we strive for a bigger truth, and are using fiction to tell it. I know that sounds a little high-faluting…
    The difference between us and the “alternative facts” crowd is that we acknowled our fiction instead of trying to pass it off as fact.
    If our readers understand what we’re trying to say, we’ve done it well.

  2. Heidi Wilson says:

    It’s a good thing we have the fantasy genre and the concept of “high concept.” I read this post and found myself thinking, “What if… there were a 14,000 foot mountain in the middle of Boston Common…?

  3. Julianne Spreng says:

    Thanks for the comment on Tom Clancy. I never really understood why I didn’t care for his stories…and you’re spot on. I’m sharing your post. It is subtle with gentle nudges.

  4. Kate Flora says:

    Well said, Dick. Nice to be reminded what we writers are about–creating authentic-seeming worlds in our fiction. I read your post, in part, as a reminder of how wonderful it is to spend time creating fiction and how far from wonderful it is to spend time reading news accounts of alternative facts.

    I am back at my desk, feeling like a writer, thanks to you.


  5. Excellent discussion of a distinction that makes a considerable difference. In all but fiction, I loathe liars. But when you lie to me about Elder and the people in his world, you are lying them into existence and I like knowing them.

  6. Skye says:

    Great focus on ‘alternative facts,’ and your books sound great!

  7. David Plimpton says:

    Thought-provoking post, but I have a slightly different take, because the writer as “liar” doesn’t seem to describe accurately the process of writing fiction. Maybe I’m too much into semantics, but here’s one definition of a lie:
    1. a false statement made with deliberate intent to deceive; an intentional untruth; a falsehood.
    2. something intended or serving to convey a false impression; imposture:
    3. an inaccurate or false statement; a falsehood.

    No 3. is the closest to what writers do, which is not to deceive. Even there, the story usually can’t be categorized as a falsehood, because it has its own reality and facts. To me, the writer uses story to create a certain reality, a character’s reality, for example, with which most readers can identify in some fashion. It may not be literally factual, like Tom Clancy, but whether it’s a character’s existential world, dream, belief, wish, hope, purpose, it lines up with your great Gaiman quote — it has its own measure of truth and is within the spectrum of reality, a version of reality with its own edifice of “facts”.

    • Dick Cass says:

      Interesting take, David. There seems to be a point at which “lies” and “truths” become slippery words . .

  8. Beth Clark says:

    I enjoyed you post and the ensuing discussion.

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