Lies that Tell Truths

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One of my favorite anticipations of the new year is the first book I will read. Some time ago, for a few years in a row, I started each new January rereading Frederick Buechner’s Godric. And I’ve returned more than once to Augustine’s Confessions. This year I wanted to start fresh. Thinking about it, I recalled a piece in The New Yorker about Ursula K. Le Guin (here’s the link), an author I’m ashamed to say I had never read. I was attracted to Le Guin and her husband Charles’s evening ritual and thought, “Surely she must write the kinds of stories I like to read.”

She does. I began 2017 reading The Left Hand of Darkness. The book won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards in 1970 for Best Science Fiction Novel of the Year. It is an installment in Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle, the next one of which I’m attracted to is The Dispossessed.

The story of The Left Hand of Darkness is worth discussing. Yet, that is not what I want to do here. You see, in the reprinted editions of the book, Le Guin added a provocative introduction. Let me quote some of it:

Science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive.

Predictions are uttered by prophets (free of charge), by clairvoyants (who usually charge a fee, and are therefore more honored in their day than prophets), and futurologists (salaried). Prediction is the business of prophets, clairvoyants, and futurologists. It is not the business of novelists. A novelist’s business is lying.

In reading a novel, any novel, we have to know perfectly well that the whole thing is nonsense, and then, while reading, believe every word of it. Finally, when we’re done with it, we may find–if it’s a good novel–that we’re a bit different from what we were before we read it, that we have been changed a little, as if by having met a few face, crossed a street we never crossed before. But it’s very hard to say just what we learned, how we were changed.

Why is that? How come I can finish a novel and be sure that it has influenced my life in some profound way, yet when I go to explain what way I have been changed, I cannot easily do it? What is it about truth that makes it so hard to articulate the way it changes us?

It occurs to me that day-to-day we are not very close to truth. From the most petty of untruths, for example, how we reply, “Doing fine,” to the question, “How’s it going?” to the most exaggerated untruths, like how we might respond, “Unconditionally,” to the question, “Do you love me?” Moment-by-moment we live not completely truthful lives. Untruths and half-truths sound familiar to us in our finite experiences.

Le Guin says that the novelist’s business is telling lies in an effort to shed some light on the truth. The storyteller makes up something that, strictly speaking, is not true in order to elucidate what is true. When done well, the novelist’s message is at the same time irresistible and odd. It draws in readers, but, because truth is so unfamiliar to us readers, it is difficult to explain what we have been drawn closer to.

It is a fine way to begin a new year, reading fiction that’s about truth which I cannot quite put my finger on. Now I have something to ponder in 2017!

Dave is an author, educator, and advocate of living simply. Dave has spoken nationally and internationally about simplicity. He has appeared in Time Magazine, Mother Jones Magazine, the London Times, and The Guardian, and has been a guest of the 700 Club. His book The 100 Thing Challenge (HarperCollins, 2010) tells the story of his simple-living journey and the worldwide movement it contributed to. Dave holds an M.A. from Wheaton College and a B.A. from Moody Bible Institute. He works at Point Loma Nazarene University and lives in San Diego with his wife and three daughters.


7 Comments

  1. trice

    One of my favorites of Le Guin’s is one of her more recent of the Hainish cycle, Four Ways to Forgiveness.

    And thank you for this reflection. It makes me think too of a note on fantasy writing that Guy Gavriel Kay includes at the end of his book Under Heaven. I don’t know if this quote will be too long, but I’ll try to include it anyway:

    I love the way folktale and fantasy tap into the roots of story telling. The paradox, for me, is that by moving a story into the fantastic we can actually bring it closer to the reader, not move it further away. It is more than an escape. When we read of the only daughter of a fisherman (or the third son of a woodcutter) in a fairy tale, we are all that character. That’s the underlying pulse beat of such tales. Using the fantastic as a prism for the past, if done properly, removes the tale from distancing specificity. It can’t just be read as unique to a time and place; it is universalized in interesting, powerful ways. When I wrote Tigana, about the way tyranny tries to erase identity in conquered peoples, the fantasy setting seems to have done exactly that: I’m asked in places ranging from Korea to Poland to Croatia to Quebec, “Were you writing about us?”I was. All of them. That is the point. The fantastic is a tool in the writer’s arsenal, as potentially powerful as any there is, and any tool we have works to the benefit of the reader.

  2. Daniel Rechlin

    @danrechlin

    Awareness of this seems like a great thing to have.  I’ve been going to job interviews lately, and the other people there often tell stories about a common, “standard” type interview question: ‘what books have you read lately,’ which is inevitably followed up with ‘why did you like this or that one.’  I was never asked this, but the thought of being in that situation terrified me a little, and I think your question is exactly why.  In the words of the inimitable Peter Furler, “How do you define what you can’t compare?”  Not that being aware of this helps answer the hypothetical interviewer’s question at all, but it can hopefully help keep one from appearing foolish as we try to speak our way around this mystery.

  3. Jen Rose Yokel

    @jroseyokel

    I remember reading The Left Hand of Darkness in college (for a sci-fi as literature class, which was as awesome as that sounds). Such an interesting book that I’d love to revisit! Her statement that science fiction is descriptive, not predictive rings true. So many sci-fi stories are grappling with something that is already true, but in fantastic locales or (not-so?)distant futures. Sometimes we need a different setting to see the underlying reality more clearly.

    Annnnnnnnd now I wanna read something by Le Guin this year.

  4. Helena

    I read The Left Hand of Darkness about two years ago, and I was struck by how it felt both disconnected from anything I had ever experienced and unnervingly familiar. I began this year with The Lathe of Heaven. You walk away saying, “That was weird,” but you can’t quite shake the feeling that she got to you. I much prefer LeGuin’s fantasy (The Earthsea Series!), because it feels more grounded, more mythological, and that suits my tastes. But there is a reason her work has been heavily awarded and that it is still discussed decades after she wrote it. She is Taoist, and yet her stories tap into so many profound truths.

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