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Lies that Tell Truths

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!


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