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This Thursday, I will be participating in a Lit Fest salon, “What’s Fiction For?” along with Nic Brown and Rebecca Berg. One of the things I’ve been thinking about in relation to the salon’s question is this article by Ian Leslie, which makes the case that in everyone’s brain there is a constant, ongoing stream of fictionalizing — or, to be technical, “chronic confabulation.”
Chronic confabulation is a rare type of memory problem that affects a small proportion of brain-damaged people. In the literature it is defined as “the production of fabricated, distorted or misinterpreted memories about oneself or the world, without the conscious intention to deceive”. Whereas amnesiacs make errors of omission—there are gaps in their recollections they find impossible to fill—confabulators make errors of commission: they make things up. Rather than forgetting, they are inventing… The wider significance of this condition is what it tells us about ourselves. Evidently there is a gushing river of verbal creativity in the normal human mind, from which both artistic invention and lying are drawn. We are born storytellers, spinning narrative out of our experience and imagination, straining against the leash that keeps us tethered to reality.
Perhaps this is why we felt it necessary to invent art in the first place: as a safe space into which our lies can be corralled, and channelled into something socially useful. Given the universal compulsion to tell stories, art is the best way to refine and enjoy the particularly outlandish or insightful ones. But that is not the whole story. The key way in which artistic “lies” differ from normal lies, and from the “honest lying” of chronic confabulators, is that they have a meaning and resonance beyond their creator. The liar lies on behalf of himself; the artist tell lies on behalf of everyone. If writers have a compulsion to narrate, they compel themselves to find insights about the human condition. Mario Vargas Llosa has written that novels “express a curious truth that can only be expressed in a furtive and veiled fashion, masquerading as what it is not”. Art is a lie whose secret ingredient is truth.
That last sentence seems particularly lovely to me, and ties neatly to some of the other ideas we have in mind to discuss at the salon, including notions borrowed from Hemingway, David Foster Wallace, Marilynne Robinson, Don DeLillo and others, as well as a few ideas and confabulations of our own. I hope we will see you there.