LYING: In Life and In Fiction

LYING: in Life and in Fiction.

In the short book Lying (2013), neuroscientist Sam Harris covers myriad ways lying is never right. He writes that lying “needlessly damages personal relationships and public trust” and reflects a human tendency to “behave in ways that are guaranteed to make us unhappy.” In 2013, Harris believed there was still truth.

Today’s culture has descended into a danger zone that embodies an intentional move to discredit truth.

Truths have become equivalent to lies. Assaults on truth are accompanied by marketing’s idea that lies are truths if they are repeated enough. The difference between truths and lies collapses when “truths” are merely ideas with the most circulation. Truth becomes a power game. The winners are those who get to define truth– the gatekeepers of social media or those who control information distribution, like totalitarian governments that ban books and the rights of citizens to freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

In cultures where political and marketplace lies cloud essential truths, the creative writer shines a light on truth. The fiction writer weaves a different kind of lie, the creative lie. The creative lie may distort facts, meshing them into unified, coherent narratives, but the purpose is to illuminate reality, not obfuscate it. Readers are meant to identify with imagined characters who encourage them to suspend their disbelief. Characters who hope, grow, and change inspire readers to develop those same capacities in themselves. Some of American history’s major changes in attitude and policy were ushered in by novels. For example, the political and marketplace lie that slaves were not fully human was exposed and transformed by the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852).  U.S. President Abraham Lincoln fondly called the novel’s abolitionist author Harriet Beecher Stowe “the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.” 

Cultures promoting lies– like racist justifications for slavery– find facing realities difficult.

The poet T.S. Eliot wrote in Four Quartets, “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.” Earlier, one of the U.S.’s great poets Emily Dickinson, offered advice on how writers could introduce hard truths. In poem #1263, she recommends circumvention: “Tell all the truth but tell it slant–/Success in Circuit lies. . ./The truth must dazzle gradually/Or every man be blind—“  Admittedly, confronting truths can be painful and sometimes causes damage and injury.

When fictionalized truth-telling is presented with insufficient “slant,” unexpected consequences can result. Consider the best seller Catcher in the Rye. Novelist J.D. Salinger’s character Holden Caulfield—an alienated teen—is believed to have motivated the murders of two individuals.

This example illustrates that an overwhelmingly positive, creative lie may have simultaneous negative consequences. While the convincing lies of fiction do indeed heighten consciousness and can begin the repair of many social wounds, they may also cause collateral damage.

As a novice author of fiction myself, I based my debut novel on my own true story of a traumatic childhood. I hoped the departures from truth I included would soften my picture of my father whose heroin addiction made him seem like a monster to me when he needed a fix.

My well-intentioned theme was my journey towards forgiving my father. I portrayed him as a victim of social misunderstanding in an era before brain science validated addiction as a disease. The creative lying with which I handled his substance abuse hopefully shed new light on outmoded myths—that addicts were unloving and selfish criminals– preventing them from seeking competent help. Regretfully though, even my fictionalized portrait of him caused my aunt, my father’s sister, pain and anguish when she read the novel a year before she died.

Still, I value being able to write my novel unconstrained by the limitations of authoritarian regimes.

In them, books can be banned, the purpose of propagandist literature not being enlightenment but social control. If I had been Filipino, for example, my novel about forgiving my father for his heroin addiction, ready for publication in 2016, might have been banned. The narrative didn’t adhere to national policy under President Rodrigo Duterte whose war on drugs in the Philippines resulted in state-sanctioned murder by police authorized and paid to kill drug offenders for being criminals. Being banned is, incidentally, a fate Catcher in the Rye frequently faces in some pockets of the United States, though it’s also been considered by many to be a classic.

The challenge facing creative writers, as Dickinson and T.S. Eliot warned, is telling the truth so that it can be heard. Sam Harris reminds us to offer truth “not to offend people”:  Give them “information you have and would want to have if you were in their shoes.” The truth may be difficult to face, but committing ourselves to it will ironically make us more evolved and humane humans. What role does the creative writer play in a cultural climate where lies confuse and abound? The creative writer is the voice of subversion who declares that the truth, expressed kindly, will set us free.

LYING: In Life and in Fiction
Sharon Leder


Professor Emerita of English, Women’s Studies, and Jewish Studies, SUNY-Nassau Community College. Author The Fix: A Father’s Secrets, A Daughter’s Search, Silver Winner Benjamin Franklin IBPA Award, Best New Voice in Fiction (2018), co-editor with Milton Teichman Truth and Lamentation: Stories and Poems on the Holocaust, nominated for the National Jewish Book Award (1994), and author or editor of fiction and books on: women writers, literature of the Holocaust, women in academia, and family dynamics. Founder Creative Outlets: Finding Your Voice Through Arts at Cape Cod Museum of Art

Read more by Sharon Leder

Shall I Write Prose or Poetry Today?

In my household, there are two writers, my husband Milton and myself. We both write essays, fiction, and poetry. How do we know when our ideas should manifest in poems rather than fiction or essays?Milton is a Wordsworthian. At the turn of the nineteenth century, William Wordsworth transformed the language of poetry from its more…

Keep reading

Leave a Reply