A cliché about fiction, popular even among LDS authors, holds that all fiction is a lie, which means, roughly, that all fiction is doubtable. This suggests that to one degree or another all stories are disreputable and misleading, some perhaps harmfully so while others merely require the willing suspension of disbelief. While there’s value in this disclaimer, I submit that the contrary idea—all fiction is true—holds greater value.
When I try to understand the position of the writer or reader of stories, Plato’s allegory of the cave in Book VII of the The Republic comes to mind. In Plato’s allegory, prisoners are shackled to a cave’s wall, tied in their belief to the shadows passing before them and the sounds of men behind them carrying the objects casting the shadows. We could say that because these prisoners merely see shadows of real objects and events they’re not experiencing reality, or truth. We could say the fictions they make about the sounds and shadows will necessarily be lies—we might even conclude they have no value at all.
But would this be right? The shadows really are shadows, so as shadows they are real, or true. The prisoners interact with the shadows, and so we could say their interactions are real interactions. Furthermore, the prisoners speak about the shadows, and though their speaking is only about shadows they speak about the light that both defines and causes the shadows, whether they know it or not. So it seems to me the truth of their situation is potent qua truth, even compared with the truth of their companion’s situation when he is dragged from the cave into daylight; even if everyone involved is unaware of just what truth it is their fictions reveal.
We may still consider this fellow who has been forced out of his old context a prisoner while his eyes adjust to the brightness. At this point, his faculties are confused. What are we to think of the story he makes about his condition (and he will make a story)? Then there’s the case of the man (same fellow as before, yet not the same) who, after having been dragged from his cave, and having experienced in progressing clarity an illuminated world, returns to the cave and sees more clearly the nature of images on the wall than he did when he was a prisoner. Will any narrative he makes be more “true” than the others’ narratives or even than his own narratives from an earlier period?
The difference in these stories lies in the difference between the truth of the storytellers’ situations as compared to the assertions the storytellers present as truth. The story of the prisoners in the cave is true in that their situation truly is, it’s as real as that of the prisoner forced from the cave, even if they completely misunderstand their circumstances.
Some will hold the traveled prisoner to be better informed and value more what he has to say; others will ridicule his stories just as Socrates suggests the traveled prisoner’s former companions would likely ridicule his insights. But the stories of everyone involved are true in that no matter what they say there’s the light containing their shadows, the truth informing their fictions. That such stories are true in ways their writers and readers aren’t conscious of means that sometimes as readers or writers we may not grasp right away how a story is true, and maybe in some cases we may not grasp its truth at all, but this ought not to trouble us. As Scott Momaday says of ancient pictographs in southern Utah, which he considers to be the first American literature, “We do not know what they mean, but we know that we are involved in their meaning.” In this single sentence Momaday’s language combines the angst of irony with the buoyancy of faith. A strong sense of involvement may produce the inquiry that sets us on the trail of meaning.
If we accept Paul’s metaphors in “For now we see through a glass darkly; but then face to face; now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known,” as being Mormon in outlook and also as being analagous to metaphors in Plato’s allegory, we may conclude LDS fiction is in roughly the same state as nonLDS fiction—struggling with relationships between shadows and light, and perhaps running behind the foremost of the nonLDS bunch in the effort. To catch up it might help to shed the “all fiction is a lie” cliché and adopt in its place the idea that all fiction is true. The former relegates fiction to a dimly lit space, at times even capping off the dialogue, while the latter allows for exploration and expansion proceeding toward, as Orson F. Whitney says, “ … literature whose top shall touch heaven, though its foundations may now be low in earth.”
(Adapted from a post to the Association for Mormon Letters’s Discussion List)