B. A. Binns here. April is confession month at Romancing The Genres
But I’m not here to confess. I’m going to tell why I embrace the art of lying. According to Irish writer and poet Oscar Wilde, “Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of Art.” My art is fiction, forcing me to become a veteran liar.
Or maybe that’s vice versa, a chicken and egg thing.
Shrink alert here: People live inside my skull with me and they whisper their lies (I mean lives) to me. Seriously, I sometimes feel like I am channeling someone and just putting their stories on paper or on eReader screens. As Albert Camus, a French author and philosopher, once said, “The purpose of the fiction lie is to reveal big truths.” I have to lie, and lie well, in order to make readers feel emotions, see lives that are like, and yet often unlike, their own. I thrust readers into ethical dilemmas and force them to make decisions that might affect their lives, the country, maybe even the future of the entire human race…without ever being hurt by the consequences. Instead, readers see the result on their “whipping boy,” the protagonist, as he or she stands in for them on the pages and in the face of the hard truths of life.
One of my teenaged characters begins her life in my current work-in-progress, Minority Of One, by reciting her great lies.
“My name is Sheila Galliano and I am excited to be starting my new school. I love being in Chicago. I would never go back to the way things were.” I manage those lies without hesitation.
She is Sheila, but she’s not a Galliano, she hates her new school almost as much as she hated the old one where she was the sole American outsider, and as for being in Chicago – she knows her mother only came to that city to reunite with an old lover, the man who drove her father to suicide. There is nothing she wants more than the impossible, to have her old life restored.
Sometimes human beings lie because the truth hurts. Here another Minority Of One character deals with the results of telling his family a hard truth:
If I could just get a do-over I think I would be smart and keep my secret to myself. Bite my tongue until it bled before I said one word. Truth set you free? My truth was a scalpel, easy in, and so smooth I didn’t even realize how badly I’d hurt my brother until the edge did its work and moved on.
Lies, baby. That’s the trick.
Many of us learn that the truth can be painful to ourselves and to others when we are very young, practically as soon as we learn how to talk. The ethical question for readers in this passage is, is this character correct? Are lies the answer? What about white lies and lies of omission? According to Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, “When truth is replaced by silence, the silence is a lie.” But is a lie to save someone else really bad?
That’s a question Malik Kaplan, the protagonist in my Feb 2013 release, Being God, has to face when he lets his father believe he is guilty of a crime committed by another young man.
My father turns to me. “Did Spencer lie?” It almost sounds like he wants me to say yes.
My lies bind my lips tight. I can’t tell the truth and hurt my friend.
Fiction allows readers to examine issues and call into question their own beliefs, just as thrill rides let them test their reaction to danger, all in the safety of their own heads. YA fiction plays a special role in this, because it is read by adolescents and teens, people who are beginning to pull free of their parents grip, examining the rules and mores they have accepted until now. Adolescence is generally the time when we first at odds with those of the adults we love and trust; when we take our first step toward adulthood and a mind of our own. Teens are active in trying to find their own place in the world and not just follow the adult rules. That’s why they need stories. Non-fiction tells us what is, fiction lets us examine what could be. Fiction gives us an opportunity to think critically, to make decisions, and to test out results of those decisions.
Maybe fiction isn’t really a lie, just the truth as the imagination sees it. I spent a lot of time doing “what if” scenarios during my business career. As an author, I have to lie and tell the truth, all at the same time. When I talk to students, almost inevitably one asks me if my books are “real.” I could tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth by saying “no.” But that would end up being the biggest lie of all.
There is no Sheila Galliano living with the shame of her father’s suicide, No Malik Kaplan using alcohol to deal with feelings he is not worthy of love, no David Albacore wishing he could rip out the DNA that reminds him he is related to his mother’s killer. But there are people who have lived pieces of those lives, felt the emotions, been presented with their problems and been forced to live with the consequences of the solutions they chose. The feelings are real, even if I am not recounting a news story, or channeling the spirit of someone telling me the facts of his or her life, what I write is no lie. So now, when I am asked if my books are real, I tell students yes. There are people who have lived through the same things the kids in my book live through. Real people, real lives. Maybe even some of the kids listening to me speak.
And now, since “The slickest way in the world to lie is to tell the right amount of truth at the right time-and then shut up,” according to author Robert A. Heinlein in Stranger in a Strange Land, one of my all-time favorite books, I will stop.
But don’t you stop. Please comment and share your feelings about “the lies that reveal the truth.” Is that really the purpose of fiction?