Brain Pickings

From Mark Twain to Ray Bradbury, Iconic Writers on Truth vs. Fiction

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Why art exists, or what a stage magician can teach us about the fine points of literary make-believe.

Famous writers have previously shared insights on symbolism, reading, and writing itself. Underlying many of these meditations is a broader curiosity about the intricate interplay of fact and fantasy. To untangle that knotty relationship, here are a handful of iconic authors’ thoughts on truth, art, and fiction — culled from their finest nonfiction.

Fiction is a lie, and good fiction is the truth inside the lie.” ~ Stephen King in On Writing

Good fiction is made of what is real, and reality is difficult to come by.” ~ Ralph Ellison in Advice to Writers

Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.” ~ Mark Twain in Following the Equator

Playing around with symbols, even as a critic, can be a kind of kiddish parlor game. A little of it goes a long way. There are other things of greater value in any novel or story… humanity, character analysis, truth on other levels, etc., etc. Good symbolism should be as natural as breathing… and as unobtrusive.” ~ Ray Bradbury

The problem with fiction, it has to be plausible. That’s not true with non-fiction.” ~ Tom Wolfe in Advice to Writers

Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.” ~ Tennessee Williams in The Glass Menagerie

The reason that fiction is more interesting than any other form of literature, to those who really like to study people, is that in fiction the author can really tell the truth without humiliating himself.” ~ Eleanor Roosevelt in The Autobiography Of Eleanor Roosevelt

You should never read just for ‘enjoyment.’ Read to make yourself smarter! Less judgmental. More apt to understand your friends’ insane behavior, or better yet, your own. Pick ‘hard books.’ Ones you have to concentrate on while reading. And for god’s sake, don’t let me ever hear you say, ‘I can’t read fiction. I only have time for the truth.’ Fiction is the truth, fool! Ever hear of ‘literature’? That means fiction, too, stupid.” ~ John Waters in Role Models

Fiction that adds up, that suggests a ‘logical consistency,’ or an explanation of some kind, is surely second-rate fiction; for the truth of life is its mystery.” ~ Joyce Carol Oates in The Journal of Joyce Carol Oates: 1973-1982

The final belief is to believe in a fiction, which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing else. The exquisite truth is to know that it is a fiction and that you believe in it willingly.” ~ Wallace Stevens in Opus Posthumous: Poems, Plays, Prose

Art, though, is never the voice of a country; it is an even more precious thing, the voice of the individual, doing its best to speak, not comfort of any sort, but truth. And the art that speaks it most unmistakably, most directly, most variously, most fully, is fiction; in particular, the novel.” ~ Eudora Welty in On Writing

We have our Arts so we won’t die of Truth.” ~ Ray Bradbury in Zen in the Art of Writing: Releasing the Creative Genius Within You

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