Janet Malcolm on truthiness in fiction v nonfiction

In a work of nonfiction we almost never know the truth of what happened. The ideal of unmediated reporting is regularly achieved only in fiction, where the writer faithfully reports on what is going on in his imagination. When James reports in “The Golden Bowl” that the Prince and Charlotte are sleeping together, we have no reason to doubt him or to wonder whether Maggie is “overreacting” to what she sees. James’s is a true report. The facts of imaginative literatures are as hard as the stone that Dr. Johnson kicked. We must always take the novelist’s and the playwright’s and the poet’s word, just as we are almost always free to doubt the biographer’s or the autobiographer’s or the historian’s or the journalist’s. In imaginative literature we are constrained from considering alternative scenarios — there are none. This is the way it is. Only in nonfiction does the question of what happened and how people thought and felt remain open.

from Janet Malcolm, The SIlent Woman (Granta UK 1996), 155

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