“Fiction is often the best fact.” ~ William Faulkner (ostensibly)
I am, first, foremost, forever a fiction writer above all. Despite the poetry, despite the essays and articles, despite 10 Cities / 10 Years, the reason I write is because of fiction, and when all is said and done it’s the form I cherish most. I’ve read thousands of books, fiction and non-fiction, and while I’ve learned a tremendous amount from the latter and had my mind and worldview expanded because of it, no book has ever carved as deep an impression in me as the best works of fiction.
Faulkner’s assertion that “Fiction is often the best fact,” is a big part of that. We have two ways of learning about our world. The first, research and empirical evidence is best explored in works of non-fiction, whether that be science, history, math or even, to a lesser degree, philosophy.
The other way we learn about existence is through personal experience of our world. This is a far less accurate, reliable and repeatable means of learning about our world, yet for the majority of us it is this knowledge that we lean on most heavily. Our beliefs, prejudices, preferences and morality may be informed by factual evidence, but they are rooted in our experiences.
Which is why fiction matters. A non-fiction writer gathers information and presents a narrative with a more-or-less specific conclusion. A fiction writer, on the other hand, merges both experience and evidence, memories and education into a literary story with characters who, at worst, represent an amalgamation of people or, at best, become true to life living souls, as real as anyone you’ve ever met in life. The story that is told is not true in a technical sense, but the greatest works of literature hold more truth than any textbook.
I came to the above quote and newest tattoo while on a Wiki rabbit trail that led me to reading up on Gonzo Journalism, Hunter S. Thompson’s rousing writing style that mixed personal narrative with impersonal journalism. Thompson was an inimitable writer (as proof, read anyone who has tried), and his articles and books are among the most thrilling true-life stories you will ever read. In an introduction to one of his most famous works, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Thompson wrote:
“More or less…and this qualifier is the essence of what, for no particular reason, I’ve decided to call Gonzo Journalism. It is a style of “reporting” based on William Faulkner’s idea that the best fiction is far more true than any kind of journalism—and the best journalists have always known this.”
In the process of reading about this idea, I came across the quote, “Fiction is often the best fact,” credited to William Faulkner, the brilliant southern novelist.
Here’s the thing about that quote, though: I can’t find any evidence that Faulkner ever said it. At least, not those exact words. Many quote websites list him as saying, “The best fiction is far more true than any journalism,” though there doesn’t seem to be a specific source for it. Apparently it was just something he said. Despite the Wikipedia page on Gonzo Journalism specifically attributing “Fiction is often the best fact” to Faulkner, I wasn’t able to track down where or when the author said or wrote it.
And isn’t that perfect? It’s not so important whether or not the words in this form ever actually emerged from Faulkner’s pen or mouth because we know that the sentiment was essentially his. Or maybe we don’t. Maybe Thompson made it all up. Thompson put a lot of emphasis on accuracy in his writing, and yet he also knew that absolute accuracy was never possible.
That is the beauty of fiction. Whereas the academic arts such as science and history (rightfully) make stringent demands for veracity, literature plays with facts, muddles them with lies and peppers in details plucked from the ether. And yet, if the writer has done her or his job right, when the final product comes out, it has the revelatory impact of an entire year of collegiate study.
As a writer, I may be forced to make my bread and butter on gimmicks like 10 Cities because literature is a dying breed (unless it boasts a vampire or teenage protagonist), but make no mistake: Fiction is where I live and die. Everything else is just passing the time.