The Art of Writing and the Presence of Truth

Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde, in his essay The Decay of Lying, famously claimed that “life imitates art.”

This thesis stands in opposition to the Aristotelian idea of mimesis, which holds that our greatest art—in all artistic forms—attempts to describe and represent the real. Wilde’s statement defies this, as does his believe that life and nature are “uncomfortable” and that human creation is a defiance of nature. In this way, he argues that life, our lives, is an imitation of the art we see all around us.

For Wilde’s purposes, “art” seems to mean everything generated by human need and desire. Architecture, music, literature—all of these human creations set a standard to which other humans then aspire. It would seem, as Wilde says, “life imitates art.” But the art that life is imitating is itself a reflection of the artist’s own life and thoughts. This leads to questions about the accuracy, not just of Wilde’s statement, but of the purpose of art in general.

One must appreciate that literature, by its very nature, cannot perfectly resemble real life. Literature, even strict nonfiction, is rarely a recounting of events as they actually happened. The author must see events and people through their own biased filter. This is unavoidable.

Yet it raises a central question: can a work of literature convey “truth”? And, tying back to Wilde’s assertion, is the truth posited by a work of literature only truth because it is imitated by its readers, resulting in a cycle—writer to literature to reader to reality, and then said reality is interpreted by the next writer, who begins the whole cycle anew? Or is there an abstract “truth” in both fiction and nonfiction, something the author either intends or doesn’t, that drives the delightful realization a reader achieves through reading?

This “truth” in literature and art has always been a central question in my own writing. When I write a fantastical piece of fiction about a young boy’s fear of water, his inability to connect socially, and a murderous faery creature only he can see, am I imparting certain elements of truth into this otherwise made-up story?

Paul Hobday, fiction editor, reads his story, "Youth Day"
Paul Hobday reading his fiction at Phoenix Books in Burlington, VT.

In the process of writing the piece, I had no truths I felt the urge to impart on my readers. I wanted to imbue a story with a little of my own life (fear of water) while veering off into the world of fantasy. Yet it seems, looking back on the piece now, that there are certain truths that I am proposing. I’m led to question whether these truths are a manifestation of my own life, or if they are the essence of the piece that I hope to see imitated in the lives of my readers.

I cannot accept Wilde’s idea about the organization of life and art, because I find more often than not that art is informed by life. So, if my feelings are accurate, art and life exist in a more symbiotic way than many philosophers and critics, like Wilde, would argue. I don’t believe art, particularly literature, is strictly mimetic. I don’t believe a piece of writing attempts to reduce nature’s beauty into a series of words—nor do I believe life and nature are so devoid of beauty that we must conjure a world we want to exist within and eternally strive toward.

There is a unique middle ground, a place where literature casts a shadow of reality and creates a reaction in the reader that affects them after the reading is done. Yet this reaction is not by necessity the intent of the writer; it may be a by-product of the writer’s style, an extension of the writer’s life, or a merging of the writing and the reader’s own feelings and biases. It is in this place that I believe literary truth might exist, that a piece of fiction may yet contain granules of such beauty that the work becomes worthy of imitation, or reflective of preexisting beauty.

Irving Singer, a professor of philosophy, wrote in his 1956 essay Literary Truth, that “we do not approach a fairy tale as if it were a realistic story.” He goes on to critically examine other writings on literary truth, concluding that “a work with literary truth portrays in fictional terms the actual world we all live in.” His conclusion, in my estimation, comes very close to the nature of literary truth. It also approaches the ideal of mimesis, with its suggestion that art attempts to represent reality. What is most interesting about Singer’s statement is his phrase “fictional terms.” This distinction is ambiguous at best. Singer concedes that his “fictional terms” are ill defined, but fails to offer a better model upon which we might judge how close to “truth” a work of literature comes.

It would seem then, in consideration of my aforementioned story, that I was conveying certain truths—about childhood, about isolation, about relationships—and packaging it in a story that obviously could not be real. But this piece fits within Singer’s criteria, using fictional terms to “portray” the real world and the problems a real person might struggle with. In this way, a piece of fiction has meaning (dare I say, truth?) for the reader. Again, I find myself disagreeing fundamentally with Wilde’s statement. Perhaps life can imitate art, but it does so only because the art was crafted with life in mind—the life of the creator and the life of the reader.

For another perspective, consider Bruce Fleming’s 1998 essay, Skirting the Precipice. Fleming writes that “a biography does not invent less than a work of fiction.” On first blush, this kind of distinction seems absurd. Of course a biography invents less than a work of fiction! But Fleming continues by saying that biography “can’t invent the same kinds of things as fiction if it hopes to be accepted as biography.” Fleming’s statements lead me to wonder if the thing biography, and to some degree fiction, is inventing is in fact the very same literary truth that Oscar Wilde accuses humanity of imitating.

It stands to reason that, in the course of crafting a fictional world full of fictional characters, the author must insert something of himself. The unavoidable insertion of the author in his work mandates that a piece of literature be imbued with humanity. The human touch, the element of life that elevates a piece of writing above simple descriptions of that which is obvious occurs in writing almost universally. This humanity is in contrast to Wilde’s ideas of life and nature, the contention that we imitate art because art is something greater than we can be naturally.

I find that idea dismal. Literature, be it fiction or nonfiction, cannot help but possess a strong human element, and that unavoidable humanity cannot help but lead to “truth.” While what exactly constitutes art, truth, and life continues to be debated, likely for the rest of time, it is hard to believe that Wilde’s statements are accurate. Because literature, as with all forms of art, stems from humanity, is naturally energized with feeling. This basis in humanity means that literature is distinctly well positioned to offer truth, carefully wrapped in story. Perhaps Wilde might have been less dramatic had he claimed that life instills art, but I for one think he would have been more accurate.

Further reading

Decay of Lying, The. Oscar Wilde. The Nineteenth Century, 1889.

Literary Truth. Review by: Irving Singer. Aesthetics and Criticism by Harold Osborne; Creation and Discovery: Essays in Criticism and Aesthetics by Eliseo Vivas; Time in Literature by Hans Meyerhoff. The Hudson Review, Vol. 9, No. 1 (Spring, 1956), pp. 141-146

Skirting the Precipice: Truth and Audience in Literature Bruce Fleming. The Antioch Review, Vol. 56, No. 3, Hawaiian Epic: The Folding Cliffs (Summer, 1998), pp. 334-357