Telling stories: fiction and truth

Does this happen in your writing group? Someone reads a short piece, a poem or a story. They lay down the paper and look around the group saying, with a defiant tone, ‘it’s true! It really happened.’ This occurs so often I am wondering what the writer-reader intends.

Is it meant to forestall any critical comments? Does it imply that because it’s true you can’t improve on it? Or does the truth provide a little enhancement – you might not rate this if I call it fiction, but as the truth it can’t be slated? Musing on this as both writer and reader leads me to some thoughts about truth and untruths in fiction.

‘You’re making it up!’ we are told when someone doesn’t believe us. But we know that making up stories is part of the joy of books and reading, and the pleasures of fiction can be enjoyed from a very early age.


118 Mr LovermanTruth in fiction is a curious concept. Fiction – the clue is in the word – it’s ‘made up’, fabricated, a product of the writer’s mind. And yet the writing must be authentic, believable, based on shared (true) experiences. I have just read Mr Loverman, set in the area of London in which I lived for 30 years. I found myself responding to the names and descriptions of streets, the ethnic mix of the area, the rhythms of life that Bernardine Evaristo includes. I found myself responding: Yes that’s right, that’s how it is. But the main character is made up, although I might have come across him … The made-upness and the authenticity go together and are part of the charm of reading. And in Mr Loverman being shown a place I know very well extends my experience so that I look at something familiar in a different way.

Suspending belief

When my daughter was young one of our favourite read-together books was The Lion in the Meadow by Margaret Mahy, illustrated by Jenny Williams in the psychedelic style of its time (published 1969). It’s a charming story about a little boy who asks his mother to help him deal with a lion in the meadow. At first she denies the lion’s presence. Reader and child can clearly see the lion hiding in the very English meadow. But the mother, who is busy in the kitchen (it’s 1969!), deals with the little boy in an unexpected way.

“Little boy, you are making up stories – so I will make up a story too …. Do you see this match box? Take it out into the meadow and open it. In it will be a tiny dragon. The tiny dragon will grow into a big dragon. It will chase the lion away.”

The little boy took the match box and went away. The mother went on peeling the potatoes.

Well, of course the dragon chases the lion into the house. The little boy and the lion hide in the broom cupboard.118 Mother

“You should have left me alone,” said the lion. “I eat only apples.”

The mother is perplexed.118 Lion

“But there wasn’t a real dragon,” said the mother. “It was just a story I made up.”

“It turned out to be true after all,” said the little boy. “You should have looked in the match box first.”

“That’s how it is,” said the lion. “Some stories are true and some aren’t…”

And the boy and the lion go and play in safety on the other side of the house.

I love the way this story plays with the notion of truth, as all fiction does more or less overtly, The Lion in the Meadow is, in some ways, a meta-story!

All the same, the mother doesn’t sound very authentic. What mother calls her son ‘Little boy’? And the lion’s observation, ‘I eat only apples’ would more usually be written thus: ‘I only eat apples.’ Perhaps the unlikely nature of lion-speak is being indicated here.

Believing in fiction

Reading The Lion in the Meadow my daughter and I believed both in the truth of the story and knew that lions neither speak nor eat only apples. We negotiate the territory of truth and fiction from an early age. It gets switched on by the magic phrases, ‘Shall I tell you a story?’ and ‘Once upon a time …’

I always left out the final line of the story, however, because I didn’t want it to be true, or to allow my daughter to think it were true.118 Never

The mother never ever made up a story again.

I hope the mother is still making up stories for the little boy, the big, roaring, yellow, whiskery lion and the dragon. She should. It was a good one: a dragon in a matchbox.

Here’s a link to the review of Mr Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo that I wrote immediately after this post.


Filed under Books, Reading

6 Responses to Telling stories: fiction and truth

  1. I love the favourite storybook you used to read together with Anna. The illustration is so quirky and lively and tells you so much about those characters and their access together to a dreaming kind of play. My own mother who is now 94 used to tell me her creative stories when I got in bed with her as a child; this is a strong memory with even stronger pictures that I’ve held till this day! thanks for your recommendation – I’ve just bought it through Amazon, looking forwards to it tonight!

  2. That blend of made-up-ness and authenticity is so important. A story must be believable in its setting, however fantastic that may be. I agree with you about not reading the last sentence of ‘The Lion in the Meadow’ and join with your desire to continue telling stories. I’m not sure about the lion’s statement though. I think ‘I eat only apples’ is correct. Unless he means that he eats bananas too but doesn’t drink apple juice. I know that ‘I only eat apples’ would be used more commonly, but it does alter the meaning somewhat.

  3. I’ve just finished reading a novel that I felt read like an autobiography, as if it were true, which is a hefty criticism from my point of view. As I’m just putting my review together for early next month, I’ll reference your thoughtful blog post in it. I wasn’t familiar with the story of the Lion and the Dragon, but it sounds lovely. Norah is right about the grammar, but I thought you were saying it would sound better the other way round which is more how people (and perhaps even lions) speak.
    Mr Loverman has just been promoted a few places higher in my TBR pile, so hopefully I’ll have read it before you post your review. Looking forward to discussing it with you.

  4. Well Ladies, thank you for the recommendation. I was looking for a new audiobook tonight and couldn’t find any of the books I had put on my list. I did purchase a short one about the lives of writers (actually for young people, which I thought would be just right for me!) but decided to see if ‘Mr Loverman’ was available on audiobook and am delighted to say that it is! So I have purchased it and will start ‘reading’ it tomorrow. Since it is 9 hrs 60 mins long (their description!!) it will take me a few weeks to listen to it on my commute. I look forward to reading both reviews and comments with eagerness. Thanks for sharing. I’m looking forward to a lighter read after “The Better Angels of Our Nature” which is heavy going and (am I allowed to admit?) abandoned.

  5. Maggie Redding

    Fiction can be truth, about truth, tell truth. There would be no point in anyone writing anything if fiction did not portray truth above all, the truth about the human condition, about life and the ways we attempt to live. Truth is not the same as fact, and fact can deceive. Of course, fiction is about truth and fact, but no one reads a novel to find their way around an area of London, for instance. Truth is bigger than fact. Fiction is about truth but especially about truth about ourselves. I read and write fiction for that reason.

    • Caroline

      A very succinct response here Maggie, so thank you. I like my fiction to portray truth, but I am quite sure that plenty is published that does not look at life and the ways we attempt to live it. Many people like to read fiction precisely to escape that truth. Do you agree?

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