(To survey other elements and author quotes, visit the Elements of Fiction home page)

“I think fiction is the truest thing there ever was.” Arundhati Roy

“Fictions are lies that tell the truth.” Salman Rushdie

“Faith is not wanting to know the truth.” Nietzsche

“My method of getting something on paper was the same as for the fiction I wrote at home: I could not move on to the second sentence until the first sounded true. True to what? Some arrangement in my head, I suppose.” Mavis Gallant

“Belief doesn’t depend on plausibility, but it seems to be a fact that validity of a kind, and this is of course a subjective kind, gained in whatever way that had to be, is the quality that makes a work reliable as art.” Eudora Welty

“Art is our way of keeping track of what we know and have known, secretly, from the beginning.” John Gardner

“All human beings by nature desire knowledge.” Aristotle

“A book ought to be an ice pick to break up the frozen sea within us.” Franz Kafka

“The only time I know truth is when it reveals itself at the point of my pen.” Jean Malaquais

“True things quite often do not sound true unless they are made to.” John Steinbeck

“So simple and so beautiful that there could be no doubt of its truth.” John Steinbeck

“Maybe the hardest thing in writing is simply to tell the truth about things as we see them.” John Steinbeck

“The artist penetrates the concrete world in order to find at its depths the image of its source, the image of ultimate reality.” Flannery O’Connor

“The function of the poet is not to say what has happened, but to say what kind of thing that would happen, i.e., what is possible in accordance with probability or necessity. . . . For this reason poetry is more philosophical and more serious than history. Poetry tends to express universals, and history particulars.” Aristotle

“Truth is the tree trunk; style makes beautiful foliage.” Lu Chi’s Wen Fu

“The vessel of the essence of life—a book.” Henry James

“Trust the tale, not the teller.” Flannery O’Connor

“Telling the truth in fiction can mean one of three things: saying that which is factually correct, a trivial kind of truth, though a kind central to works of verisimilitude; saying that which, by virtue of tone and coherence, does not feel like lying, a more important kind of truth; and discovering and affirming moral truth about human existence—this highest truth of art. This highest kind of truth, we’ve said, is never something the artist takes as a given. It’s not his point of departure but his goal.” John Gardner

“The real novelist, the one with an instinct for what he is about, knows that he cannot approach the infinite directly, that he must penetrate the natural human world as it is.” Flannery O’Connor

“I would say that a novel survives because of its basic truthfulness, its having within it something general and universal, and a quality of imaginative perception which applies just as much now as it did in the fifty or hundred or two hundred years since the novel came to life.” Elizabeth Bowen

“A novel with force in it is durable, but the key is this . . . the initial power to pierce through the surface to some cogent and important and general imaginative truth, about life, about experience, about human persons.” Elizabeth Bowen

“Art is a word that immediately scares people off, as being a little too grand. But all I mean by art is writing something that is valuable in itself and that works in itself. That basis of art is truth, both in matter and in mode. The person who aims after art in his work aims after truth, in an imaginative sense, no more no less.” Flannery O’Connor

“All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened.” Ernest Hemingway

“Nobody wants variety at the cost of sincerity and truth.” Jacques Barzun

“You job is to distill the essence.” William Zinsser

“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” Ernest Hemingway

“Write and write truly no matter who or what it hurts but do not make these silly compromises.” Ernest Hemingway

“Both science and art have a habit of waking us up, turning on all the lights, grabbing us by the collar and saying Would you please pay attention.” Diane Ackerman

“The novelist and the believer, when they are not the same man, yet have many traits in common—a distrust of the abstract, a respect for boundaries, a desire to penetrate the surface of reality and to find in each thing the spirit which makes it itself and holds the world together.” Flannery O’Connor

“Any psychological or cultural or economic determination may be useful up to a point; indeed, such facts can’t be ignored, but the novelist will be interested in them only as he is able to go through them to give us a sense of something beyond them. The more we learn about ourselves, the deeper into the unknown we push the frontiers of fiction.” Flannery O’Connor

“What should be understood when people tell us that the plays of Shakespeare or the poems of Milton or Dante are ‘eternally true’ is that they produce in us attitudes toward our fellow men, an understanding of ourselves, or feelings of deep moral obligation that are valuable to humanity under any conceivable circumstances.” S.I. Hayakawa

“In a very real sense . . . people who have read good literature have lived more than people who cannot or will not read.” S.I. Hayakawa

“Science, in short, makes us able to co-operate; the arts enlarge our sympathies so that we become willing to co-operate.” S.I. Hayakawa

“We get a better sense of history out of a novel than you do out of history books.” Henry James

“He [the wolf] is hunted by everyone. Everyone is against him and he is on his own as an artist is.” Ernest Hemingway

“If the novelist is doing what as an artist he is bound to do, he will inevitably suggest that image of ultimate reality as it can be glimpsed in some aspect of the human situation.” Flannery O’Connor

“The novel is the supreme expression of the individual man.” John Fowles

“For me, writing is part of my existentialist view of life. It’s an attempt to make myself wholly authentic.” John Fowles

“Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Percy Bysshe Shelley

“Life is an imitation of art.” Oscar Wilde

“The main concern of the fiction writer is with mystery as it is incarnated in human life.” Flannery O’Connor

“A novel is one person’s view of life.” John Fowles

“I deplore the stress on purely clever writing . . . which says nothing about the human condition.” John Fowles

“Art is not anything that goes on ‘among’ people, not the art of the novel anyway. It is something that one experiences alone and for the purpose of realizing in a fresh way, through the senses, the mystery of existence.” Flannery O’Connor

“The fiction writer should be characterized by his kind of vision. His kind of vision is prophetic vision. Prophecy, which is dependent on the imaginative and not the moral faculty, need not be a matter of predicting the future. The prophet is a realist of distances, and it is this kind of realism that goes into great novels. It is the realism which does not hesitate to distort appearances in order to show a hidden truth.” Flannery O’Connor

“The writer whose vocation is fiction sees his obligation as being to the truth of what can happen in life, and not to the reader—not to the reader’s taste, not to the reader’s happiness, not even to the reader’s morals.” Flannery O’Connor

“Truth is not much valued where everyone agrees on what the truth is and no one is handy to speak up for the side that’s been dismissed.” John Gardner

“It was once a fairly common assumption among writers and literary critics that what fiction ought to do is tell the truth about things, or, as Poe says somewhere, express our intuitions of reality. Viewed this way, fiction is a kind of instrument for coming to understanding.” John Gardner

“If the writer’s work is fully successful, we are likely to say of it, without thinking too carefully what it is that we mean, that the work is ‘true’.” John Gardner

“Fiction provides, at its best, trustworthy but inexpressible models. We ingest metaphors of good, wordlessly leaning to behave more like Levin than like Anna, more like the transformed Emma than like the Emma we first meet in the book. This subtle, for the most part wordless knowledge is the ‘truth’ great fiction seeks out.” John Gardner

“Fiction seeks out truth. Granted, it seeks a poetic kind of truth, universals not easily translatable into moral codes. But part of our interest as we read is in learning how the world works; how the conflicts we share with the writer and all other human beings can be resolved, if at all; what values we can affirm and, in general, what the moral risks are.” John Gardner

“Either there are real and inherent values, ‘eternal verities’, as Faulkner said, which are prior to our individual existence, or there are not, and we’re free to make them up, like Bluebeard, who reached, it seems, the existential decision that it’s good to kill wives. If there are real values, and if those real values help sustain human life, then literature ought sometimes to mention them.” John Gardner

“The true critic knows that badness in art has to do not with the artist’s interest or lack of interest in ‘truth’ but with his lack of truthfulness, the degree to which, for him, working at art is a morally indifferent act.” John Gardner

“True art deals in ideals, affirming and clarifying the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. Ideals are art’s ends; the rest is methodology.” John Gardner

“When talking about art we use the word truth in two ways: to mean that which is factually accurate or logically valid, on the one hand, and, on the other, to mean that which does not feel like lying. What does not feel like lying is that which is true to the essential nobility of the writer’s soul, that which expresses what is purest and best in his personality, in which all healthy human beings have a share. Its effect is to conjure by incantation what the art receiver may have lost touch with, his own best nature, his affirmations.” John Gardner

“In culture after culture artists have proclaimed repeatedly that art in some sense ‘tells the truth.’” John Gardner

“Art, in short, asserts an ultimate rightness of things which it does not pretend to understand in the philosopher’s way but which it nevertheless can understand and show mankind.” John Gardner

“Sanity is remembering the purpose of the game.” John Gardner

“The business of civilization is to pay attention, remembering what is central, remembering that we live or die by the artist’s vision, sane or cracked.” John Gardner

“St. Thomas called art ‘reason in making.’ This is a very cold and very beautiful definition, and if it is unpopular today, this is because reason has lost ground among us. As grace and nature have been separated, so imagination and reason have been separated, and this always means an end to art. The artist uses his reason to discover an answering reason in everything he sees. For him, to be reasonable is to find, in the object, in the situation, in the sequence, the spirit which makes it itself. This is not an easy or simple thing to do. It is to intrude upon the timeless and that is only done by the violence of a single-minded respect for the truth.” Flannery O’Connor

“The modern novelist merges the reader in the experience; he tends to raise the passions he touches upon. If he is a good novelist, he raises them to effect by their order and clarity a new experience—the total effect—which is not in itself sensuous or simply of the moment.” Flannery O’Connor

“If I want to learn something, I can learn it from nonfiction. But in the one realm where nonfiction cannot do as well—the realm of values and their concretization in human reality—nothing can take the place of art, and especially of fiction.” Ayn Rand

“For a novelist his trade demands the ability to lie and yet something in him or her is yearning to express a whole truth about the human condition.” John Fowles

“In life what is important is the truth as it is, while in arts and letters what is important is trust as we see it.” Wallace Stevens

“Write with great truthfulness; work harder than you thought possible; have passion, enormous, sweeping passion. Give it first to your work. Let your work have all of the passion it requires, and whatever is left, put into your life.” Ann Patchett

“In any culture, art and literature seem terribly fragile, but we should remember that they always outlive the culture.” Jim Harrison

“It occurred to me that stories were about recognizing the way things were. In other words, they were about truth, and truth was important.” Robert Stone

“Very early on, I thought that the ability to combine character and incident with a measure of that truth was a very fine thing to be able to do.” Robert Stone

“Knowledge grows only out of knowledge and not out of information.” Jacques Barzun

“Fiction’s greatest value is that it can pretend convincingly to know for sure what goes on in a character’s soul, and one of the chief decisions a fiction write makes is which characters’ souls to explore and reveal.” Philip Gerard

“Without some substantive, cumulative effect that stays with us after we’ve read, the deft ordering, the quickening pulse of suspense, would be an empty exercise, the book instantly forgettable.” Philip Gerard

“[T]he mere fact of dealing with matters outside the general run of everyday experience laid me under the obligation of a more scrupulous fidelity to the truth of my own sensations. The problem was to make unfamiliar things credible. To do that I had to create for them, to reproduce for them, the envelop them in their proper atmosphere of actuality. This was the hardest task of all and the most important, in view of that conscientious rendering of truth in thought and fact which has always been my aim.” Joseph Conrad

“[F]iction, which after all is but truth often dragged out of a well and clothed in the painted robe of imaged phrases.” Joseph Conrad

“A writer of imaginative prose (even more than any other sort of artist) stands confessed in his works. His conscience, his deeper sense of things, lawful and unlawful, give him his attitude before the world.” Joseph Conrad

“Writing is a form of personal freedom. It frees us from the mass identity we see in the making all around us. In the end, writers will write not to be outlaw heroes of some underculture but mainly to save themselves, to survive as individuals.” Don DeLillo

“That is one of the experiences I have had here in some Augusts; and got then to a consciousness of what I call ‘reality’: a thing I see before me: something abstract; but residing in the downs or sky; beside which nothing matters; in which I shall rest and continue to exist. Reality I call it. And I fancy sometimes this is the most necessary thing to me: that which I seek. Virginia Woolf

“I truly believe that people call their lives to them the way you’d whistle up a dog.” John Steinbeck

“I think using these fairytales is bringing us to another kind of truth: to a much, much richer truth than you can get by collecting facts of this flat realism.” Gunter Grass

“The confidence is that some of Lawrence’s passages have a ring—perhaps it is an echo of that great bell which may toll whenever the literary miracle occurs and a writer sets down words to resonate with that sense of peace and proportion it is tempting to call truth.” Norman Mailer

“And the truth is, one can’t write directly about the soul. Looked at, it vanishes.” Virginia Woolf