The Heart of Fiction

Storytelling, experience, and truth

Hernan Diaz
Graphic with book pages and blue designs of windows and cats
Illustration by Laura Padilla Castellanos

This essay was first delivered in March 2021 as the Finzi-Contini Lecture at Yale University's Whitney Humanities Center. The Finzi-Contini lectureship was endowed in 1990 by the Honorable Guido Calabresi, Judge, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and former Dean of the Yale Law School, and Dr. Paul Calabresi, in memory of their mother, Bianca Maria Finzi-Contini Calabresi.

The referential fetish

fiction writers are a famously neurotic bunch, haunted by self-doubt. From time to time this unease spreads and swells into a general state of disquiet and even shock—as if fiction itself suddenly realized, to its dismay, that it’s “just fiction.” Why dwell on made-up stories? Why make them up in the first place? One response has often been to present fiction as something useful: a fabrication, certainly, but one redeemed by serving a purpose—say, religious instruction, moral edification, political enlightenment, or even self-discovery. The opposite response, claiming that stories serve no purpose at all, is just as common. Fiction is an invention, yes, but it’s completely harmless: irrelevant play, a pastime detached from real life, not to be taken seriously.

The latest symptom of fiction’s tendency toward self-doubt is a more or less pervasive referential fetish, as if a strict adherence to verifiable facts could dissipate this anxiety. I’d be unable to say when this first started, but literature’s fixation with accuracy seems to be a relatively new phenomenon. I wonder, for instance, when fiction started to be “fact-checked.” This impulse overlaps with the thought that literature ought to be “researched”—an eloquent example of the referential fetish. Yet the notion of research implies arriving at verifiable results through scientific protocols and methods that don’t translate all that well into the realm of fiction. There’s actually a much better word for this process in literature: reading. Differentiating between these two terms is not a mere quibble. The free associations, the haphazard hermeneutics, and, perhaps above all, the emotional dimension of reading have nothing to do with research. I would even claim that what makes reading so compelling and productive is precisely its lack of method. And yet the desire to “get it right” (which, I think, tends to go well beyond the reasonable desire of saving oneself from the occasional embarrassment of getting it wrong) often prevails. I see this happen to fellow writers; I see it happen to me.

Another manifestation of the referential fetish is the increasingly strong link between fiction and confession or witnessing. Consider autofiction and other “literatures of the self ” that have gained so much prominence over the past few years. Here, that mysterious maxim according to which one should write about what one knows is taken to solipsistic extremes. The testimonial nature of these books is not, I believe, unrelated to the general sense of anxiety around the place of truth in fiction and provides a hedge against the demands of accuracy and research: what is experienced, witnessed, or remembered need not be corroborated by other means (put differently, a perceived lack of objectivity is offset by a surplus of subjectivity). The literature of the self offers the promise of immediacy and presents the first person (or its surrogate) as the guarantor of truth—I was there, I did it, I remember it. Eating a madeleine, however, has never turned anyone into Proust. Even if there are many texts in this autofictional vein that I admire, I must ultimately side with Mary McCarthy, who, despite often smudging the boundaries between fiction and autobiography in her own work, declared, with a brilliant pun, that “the home address of the self… is not to be found in the book” (The Company She Keeps [1942]). Yet it seems that autofiction’s promise of closeness and veracity has something to do with the current prominence of these kinds of texts.

The referential fetish, then, seems to be an overcompensation for the uneasy relationship between fiction and truth. This current obsession is not unrelated to the alarming turn public discourse started taking some four years ago. We all know what happened. Incontestable facts (scientific reports, election results, and even daily events verifiable through our senses) were exiled from the realm of truth. Meanwhile, the most outlandish narratives were presented as irrefutable reality. I don’t intend to discuss here the damage this has done to a number of institutions and how it has eroded public trust in them. This has been the object of abundant coverage elsewhere. My concern, rather, is what it has done to fiction. Increasingly, over the past few years, I’ve heard and read a growing number of people say they have lost interest in fiction. Reality had become so daunting and the proliferation of lies so overwhelming that these people had neither the time nor the desire to turn to novels and stories. The assumption here is that, in addition to being trivial make-believe and a waste of time (a classic, perennial objection), fiction is a betrayal of truth. That it’s just a fake. But the opposite of truth is not fiction but falsehood. And not all fictions are false.

pack of lies
truth is not a tenant we immediately expect to reside in fiction. Indeed, we have grown used to understanding the two categories in opposition to each other. Fiction may seem true, it may emulate truth (and many believe this to be fiction’s greatest imperative), but it is often defined as an imaginary construct that, in the end, has little to do with the pursuit of truth. What is expected of made-up worlds is that they adequately mimic the real one—and, short of that, that these inventions be internally consistent. Disciplines with an overt claim to truth—which include fields as disparate as the hard sciences, the law, and journalism—have always taken good care to distance themselves from fiction, a word they only deploy as an insult. Yet I don’t believe the relationship between truth and fiction to be one of rivalry or mutual exclusion. I am convinced that truth resides, in some way, at the heart of fiction.

In her “Author’s Note” to The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), a science fiction novel set on the remote planet of Gethen, Ursula Le Guin writes:

Fiction writers, at least in their braver moments, do desire the truth: to know it, speak it, serve it. But they go about it in a peculiar and devious way, which consists in inventing persons, places, and events which never did and never will exist or occur, and telling about these fictions in detail and at length and with a great deal of emotion, and then when they are done writing down this pack of lies, they say, There! That’s the truth!

But what sort of truth is this? I don’t think it depends on how accurately a certain historical period is rendered in a novel, how precisely a city is mapped out in its pages, or how lifelike its characters may be. After all, The Left Hand of Darkness takes place in the future, in a world light-years away from ours, populated by beings of a different species. Nor do I think “truth” in this context refers to how successful the story is at convincing readers to suspend their disbelief, no matter how outlandish the plot or the setting happens to be. We call such success “verisimilitude,” which means, quite literally, “resemblance to truth.” But Le Guin draws a distinction between the “devious way” in which fiction proceeds (by making things up “in detail”) and the final result: this believable, lifelike, verisimilar “pack of lies” aspires, somewhat paradoxically, to truth itself—not just its likeness.

I have always been drawn to stories that revolve around this “presence,” because they often try to complicate inherited notions of what literature may be—and they do so through the process of unfolding themselves as literature.

In short, truth here has little to do with a correspondence to referential reality. How closely a story resembles life or how much it adheres to empirical facts is not the point. Nor are we considering the epistemological dimension of fiction or whether it should be treated as a collection of falsifiable statements. The psychological side of this issue—how faithfully the words on the page may mirror the author’s intention—is equally irrelevant here. Lastly, the plausibility of the story is also unimportant: just because a realist novel takes place in Britain during the Industrial Revolution does not mean it has a higher truth value than a science fiction story set on an imaginary planet in the distant future.

What I think Le Guin is referring to, then—and what I would like to discuss here, fully aware of how vague this may sound—is how fiction, rather than presenting us with truthful content, shows us how we experience truth.

Perhaps fiction aspires to truth not by capturing the world but by presenting the many ways in which we capture the world through experience. The question that follows is, of course, what does “experience” mean? In “The Art of Fiction” (1884), Henry James writes, “Experience is never limited and it is never complete; it is an immense sensibility, a kind of huge spider-web, of the finest silken threads, suspended in the chamber of consciousness and catching every air-borne particle in its tissue.” And in “Modern Fiction” (1919), Virginia Woolf says something similar: “The mind receives a myriad impressions—trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms; and as they fall, as they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday, the accent falls differently from of old.”

A “huge spider-web, of the finest silken threads, suspended in the chamber of consciousness.” The image is as striking as its implications are remarkable. There seems to be a passive quality to experience. “Suspended,” the net sways in our consciousness, almost forgotten (and the cobweb itself immediately conjures up images of neglect and abandonment). Air-borne particles (which, I suppose, stand here for external stimuli) simply land on it—there is no active reaching out. Something similar happens in Woolf ’s passage. “The mind receives a myriad impressions,” she writes. “From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms.” Just like James with his web, Woolf says we are hit (with different intensities) by events and impressions, some of which engrave themselves on the mind. There is no active collection, nor is there a selection or sifting through these particles or “atoms.” They simply “fall” and “shape themselves,” without our intervention, into what we perceive to be our lives. Note, too, the microscopic scale of the metaphor, which gives it a scientific, objective slant. Experience, they both seem to be saying, is highly granular, detailed down to the atomic level. And this is why it is “never limited and it is never complete.”

Given this, how should fiction approach experience? Again, James and Woolf provide similar answers:

Catching the very note and trick, the strange irregular rhythm of life, that is the attempt whose strenuous force keeps Fiction upon her feet. In proportion as in what she offers us we see life without rearrangement do we feel that we are touching the truth; in proportion as we see it with rearrangement do we feel that we are being put off with a substitute, a compromise and convention. [James, “The Art of Fiction”]

Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end. Is it not the task of the novelist to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit, whatever aberration or complexity it may display, with as little mixture of the alien and external as possible? [Woolf, “Modern Fiction”]

Life is limitless, complex, and “uncircumscribed.” It is inapprehensible in its every infinitesimal detail. Life is not “symmetrically arranged” but has a “strange irregular rhythm.” It doesn’t conform to preestablished norms but reinvents itself constantly, according to how the dust (the particles, the atoms) settles. The task of fiction, then, is to mimic experience and present whatever has been caught in its web “without rearrangement” (James) and “with as little mixture of the alien and external as possible” (Woolf ). Just as experience does not select its stimuli but merely receives them, so the writer should not tamper with experience, reorganizing it or tidying it up.


I think any random page by Woolf or James will disprove their own precepts. Who could seriously believe that these two wonderful control freaks, of all writers, did not rearrange or mix “the alien and external” into what they wrote, with a certain idea of order in mind? I would even claim that the more they strive to capture “the strange irregular rhythm of life,” the more they focus on the “semi-transparent envelope surrounding us,” the more controlled, arranged, and formally aware their prose becomes. Honoring the opacity of life demands great clear-sightedness; rendering its chaotic complexity requires an equally complex sense of order. If their prose were insufficient evidence, the most cursory glance at Woolf ’s diary or James’s prefaces would confirm this.

We are not perceiving machines. Our eyes are not cameras. Our ears are not recording devices. There is nothing automatic or passive about perception. And unless we become, like Emerson, a “transparent eye-ball” that can “see all” because it’s “part or particle of God,” we need to accept that perception is rearrangement, and that multiple processes of selection and readjustment are at play as we experience the world. Far from dismissing or concealing them, literature captures and even reveals these processes. It is precisely because it rearranges and intervenes from “outside” that fiction imitates the way we perceive life, which is always through some sort of “substitute,… compromise and convention”—and these three terms, which James dreaded so much, define not only literary forms and genres but also language itself.

field, the window, the watcher
In 1908, almost twenty-five years after the publication of “The Art of Fiction,” James wrote the preface to the New York Edition of The Portrait of a Lady. Here the “chamber of consciousness” has expanded to become the famous “house of fiction” from which the writer gets a necessarily partial view of life. Gone from this house are the cobwebs hanging in his earlier essay. No longer a passive figure, the writer now needs to pierce holes in the wall in order to get a view of the world beyond. There are “a million… possible windows” that could open up to “an incalculability of range.” The particular aperture the writer creates will determine which portion of that unlimited experience can be perceived and narrated. “The spreading field, the human scene, is the ‘choice of subject’; the pierced aperture, either broad or balconied or slit-like and low-browed, is the ‘literary form’; but they are, singly or together, as nothing without the posted presence of the watcher—without, in other words, the consciousness of the artist.”

There is, then, after all, a need to “rearrange” and frame “the strange irregular rhythm of life.” Form is what comes between the thing watched and the watcher, conditioning what we can see and how we see it. Expanding James’s simile, let’s say there are three types of stories: those that focus on “the spreading field” outside the house of fiction; those that are concerned with the design of the window framing that view; and those that focus on the watcher or “the consciousness of the artist.” Of course, this is schematic; the categories overlap, and good fiction usually has elements of all three.

An emblematic novel in the first group is The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner…Written by Himself. The last part of the title (“Written by Himself ”) already tells us where this is going. And the preface, penned by an “Editor,” confirms it: “The Editor believes the thing to be a just History of Fact; neither is there any Appearance of Fiction in it.” Whether it succeeds or not, the novel stakes its claim on its truthfulness and denies its fictional quality. Narratives like this compel us, through a variety of rhetorical means, to forget they are fictive. They present us with a world and ask us to pretend that we take it for the real thing. This group includes, I think, most modern Western fiction. It was consolidated during the rise of realism in the nineteenth century and still holds sway today—all those lifelike stories that, regardless of genre or how fanciful their setting may be, rely on readers’ suspension of disbelief, on their accepting, for a moment, that they are being presented with “the actual.” (Even speculative novels, like Le Guin’s, may fall under this category.) This is fiction that wishes we could forget that we are looking through a framed pane of glass and believe, rather, that we are on the spreading field.

The second group—literature that shows an overt concern for the window—has a strange history. Consider “The Author’s apology for this book” that precedes The Pilgrim’s Progress, where John Bunyan openly announces that the following pages are a “fable,” mere “fancies,” which rather than imitating life are “in the simil- itude of a dream.” Or Thackeray’s preface to Vanity Fair, titled “Before the Curtain,” in which the “Author” introduces himself as the “Manager of the Performance.” On the stage, there are not even actors but “Puppets,” “Dolls,” and “Figures.” The Manager’s last gesture in the preface is to bow to his patrons and raise the curtain to reveal the stage. This curtain is the same one that James draws to look out his window—the window that stands for “literary form.” This brings me to the strange evolution of fiction in this category. I believe the apologetic drive (which can be one with the impulse to reduce fiction to a mere allegory or a fable that never asks to be taken at face value) became the self-referential gesture that defines so much of what we may hastily call “experimental” fiction. I place in this group all stories that draw attention to the fact that they are verbal fabrications—narratives that, rather than trying to pass for the truth, announce, in different ways, their fictional status and reflect on their formal configuration. This includes all avant-garde literature that works on the premise of alienation, estrangement, or distancing—showing and drawing attention to the artifice of it all. Closer to our present time, what is known as “metafiction” and other self-conscious narratives may fall under this category as well. In short, all those novels that, as Elizabeth Hardwick put it in “Reflections on Fiction” (1969), “show a degree of panic about the form.”

And finally we have the fiction focused on the “posted presence of the watcher” or, “in other words,” the “consciousness of the artist.” With a sleight of hand (“in other words”) James conflates two different worlds. On the one hand, the watcher is posted in the house of fiction, looking out the window, which makes the watcher a textual being—just like the characters on the lawn. On the other, “the consciousness of the artist” refers to someone from an altogether different plane; someone this side of the book, like the readers. It is safe, I think, to equate the watcher with the narrator, while the consciousness of the artist is closer to the author—without of course fully overlapping with this extraliterary, corporeal entity. Nothing in fiction (neither the scene nor the frame) exists without this perceiving presence, says James. But this is a hybrid, indecisive, ever-mutating being: it’s alternatively and often simultaneously inside and outside the text. Its view is limited by point of view (which is very much an internal constriction of the story), but it’s also informed by the consciousness of the writer (which isn’t quite a literary occurrence). This “presence” inhabits a liminal zone. It can jump out the window and join the party on the lawn (as do all first-person narrators). But it can also turn its back to the window and face us.

I have always been drawn to stories that revolve around this “presence,” because they often try to complicate inherited notions of what literature may be—and they do so through the process of unfolding themselves as literature. The classic example would be the nesting dolls in Don Quixote, in which the distinctions among author, narrator, character, and reader are in crisis—which means the distinction between the inside and the outside of the house of fiction is also unclear. Here are some of my favorite texts that question these boundaries. Machado de Assis does it in The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas, in which his dead character is also the narrator, who promises to reach out of the book and flick his readers in the head if they don’t like it; Robert Walser does it in The Robber, with his “authorial” interventions; Macedonio Fernández does it in Museum of Eterna’s Novel, a novel made up of forewords to that novel; Jorge Luis Borges does it in several stories by directly addressing and involving the reader in the plot, by silently quoting himself, and by making several Hitchcock-like cameos; Clarice Lispector does it in The Hour of the Star, in which the narrator is a character writing the story we are reading; Muriel Spark does it in The Comforters, her first novel, in which the protagonist literally hears the “author” type her thoughts as she is thinking them and we are reading them; Samuel Beckett does it through the pronominal shifts in Company; David Markson does it masterfully, over and over again, in his last four novels, where he appears, pitched against the entire Western canon, under the name of “Reader,” “Protagonist,” “Novelist,” or “Author.”

These texts fold upon themselves and, in a Möbius-like contortion, become their own referential reality. Gertrude Stein could not have put it more clearly: “The more a novel is a novel the more a play is a play the more a writing is a writing the more no outside is outside outside is inside inside is inside” (Narration [1935]).

I distrust taxonomies and grids of any sort applied to literature. But with this hesitating and, I’m sure, questionable classification I hope to show how fiction can have different dispositions toward truth. Fiction concerned with “the spreading field” is true because it mimics certain unquestioning ways in which we experience reality. Fiction concerned with “the pierced aperture” is true because it’s honest about its own artificial status—and it makes us consider the extent to which reality may also be a framed narrative. And fiction concerned with “the watcher” is true because it understands the ambiguity and instability of all the terms involved here—mainly “reality,” “fiction,” and “frame.” In the end, these are all ways of experiencing our relationship to the world, which at times can be immediate and wholly immersive, at times painfully and self-consciously distant.

the emotion itself
In 1932, Virginia Woolf published a revision of an essay previously appearing in The Yale Review as “How Should One Read a Book?” A few pages into her piece, she explains the fiction writer’s work:

Perhaps the quickest way to understand the elements of what a novelist is doing is not to read, but to write; to make your own experiment with the dangers and difficulties of words. Recall, then, some event that has left a distinct impression on you— how at the corner of the street, perhaps, you passed two people talking. A tree shook; an electric light danced; the tone of the talk was comic, but also tragic; a whole vision, an entire conception, seemed contained in that moment.

But when you attempt to reconstruct it in words, you will find that it breaks into a thousand conflicting impressions. Some must be subdued; others emphasised; in the process you will lose, probably, all grasp upon the emotion itself. Then turn from your blurred and littered pages to the opening pages of some great novelist—Defoe, Jane Austen, Hardy. Now you will be better able to appreciate their mastery. [emphasis mine]

If James’s view of the novelist’s task changed over time, so did Woolf ’s during the years that separate “Modern Fiction” from this text. Here, like there, “impressions” are the point of departure. Here, like there, we are confronted with the multifaceted and uncontainable nature of experience. (And note the unstable light illuminating both passages—a semitransparent halo, a flickering bulb—as if to show us there is something opaque and wavering about perception.) But instead of the almost mystical passivity that Woolf encouraged in “Modern Fiction,” in this essay she acknowledges the need to subdue some impressions while emphasizing others. Blurriness, unless deliberately crafted, is not a desired outcome. Without some sort of order, the “myriad impressions” that “fall” on the mind are mere litter on the page. Crucially, though, form should be at the service of keeping one’s “grasp upon the emotion itself.” And this brings me to my final thoughts.

Fiction is not a collection of falsehoods or irrelevant fabrications. It is, rather, a certain kind of narrative that shows us the many ways in which we experience life, whether it wishes to accurately address referential reality or not.

To recapitulate, fiction, that “pack of lies,” is in pursuit of its own kind of truth. I know this truth has little to do with accurately describing referential reality. I suspect it may be related to the attempt at representing the many ways in which we experience the world. I believe this attempt to be mediated by form—the individual choices and inherited configurations by which we rearrange our perceptions. I also think that literature’s disposition toward form (the ways in which it conceals, reveals, and reflects on its artificial nature) defines its distinctive relationship to truth.

But this definition seems insufficient. It reduces fiction to more or less self-aware reports on nonexistent worlds. These reports may mimic, with different degrees of success, the ways in which we relate to the actual world. Still, fiction does more than this. It not only mimics experience; it is, itself, an experience.

Let’s return to Woolf. She notes that a hypothetical writer trying to capture experience will likely lose “all grasp upon the emotion itself.” Grasping an emotion; this seems to be fiction’s main purpose. The emotion is what needs to be conjured up and preserved in the text—it is this to which all other elements, including form, are subordinated. Because form, as George Eliot writes in an 1868 essay, is “not only determined by emotion but intended to express it” (“Notes on Form”).

I ought to underscore at once that I am not speaking here about the many vicarious sentiments a story may seek to excite in us as we read—it’s not about feeling Captain Ahab’s wrath, Emma Bovary’s desire, or Hans Castorp’s malaise as if these emotions were ours. I am referring, rather, to the general feeling that fiction, when successful, stirs in us (regardless of its specific content). In his lecture on Dickens, Nabokov says, “Although we read with our minds, the seat of artistic delight is between the shoulder blades. That little shiver behind is quite certainly the highest form of emotion that humanity has attained when evolving pure art and pure science” (emphasis mine). I must confess I’ve never felt that shiver down my spine (in my case, its location is more indefinite, more like a body-wide fizz). But this is a mere anatomical quibble because I have indeed felt the shiver. And I agree: “artistic delight” is one of the highest forms of emotion we can experience. This, I think, is the emotion Woolf is referring to. And without it, fiction—however formally sophisticated—becomes simply “a pack of lies.”

In that same essay, George Eliot asks, “What is fiction other than an arrangement of events or feigned correspondences according to a predominant feeling?” (emphasis mine). There is so much to love about this pithy definition of fiction. The main one, for me, is the marriage between form and feeling, which, again, I take to be an aesthetic emotion, one that is free from any sort of correspondence with the referential world. For it has nothing to do with imitating any passions in our emotional palette—a rush of courage or a pang of guilt we may recognize in this or that character. The feeling of “artistic delight” is conjured up by the text itself and is not anchored to anything external. Furthermore, it cannot be found outside the text. It is a literary event. Exclusively. Because this particular experience has one defining quality: since literature’s prime material is language, it follows that this aesthetic emotion will be not only a sensory event (as the delight we can find in pure color or sound) but also a semantic one.

Fiction is not a collection of falsehoods or irrelevant fabrications. It is, rather, a certain kind of narrative that shows us the many ways in which we experience life, whether it wishes to accurately address referential reality or not. And it does so while adding an experience to that life. What happens to us—this feeling of plenitude—when we read fiction takes place at the intersection of meaning and emotion, and it is always mediated by form. The physical enjoyment of language in its visual and aural dimensions, the wonder of seeing something come into being as it takes shape in a sentence, the many evocations a word or paragraph may conjure up, the miracle of time expanding and contracting on the page, the love a certain verbal creature may inspire—these are some of the ways in which we experience this intensity, which shifts fiction away from the imperative of correspondence with the empirical world. And it is this emotion that brings fiction closer to truth while freeing it from its referential anxiety, showing us how much beauty there can be in meaning.

Hernan Diaz was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the PEN/Faulkner Award for his novel In the Distance. He is also the author of Borges, between History and Eternity. His work has been translated into more than twenty languages.
Originally published:
June 28, 2021


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