Philip Roth: Fictio cedit veritati

“Fiction yields to truth.”

This is a dictum of ancient Roman law, specific in its application to Roman law, yet it yields a sentiment appropriate to the discussion. This is what Phillip Roth seems to have conveyed in his recent interview with Financial Times arts editor Jan Dalley that has set the literary world abuzz. (One way or another Roth has done that lately. I believe he’s done it before.)

“I’ve stopped reading fiction. I don’t read it at all. I read other things: history, biography. I don’t have the same interest in fiction that I once did.”

How so?

“I don’t know. I wised up … ”

And with those three words he gave me a long look from those fierce eyes and then a significant glance at my notebook, as if to say: that’s what I want you to write down.

Some people, particularly those never with much of a bent toward fiction, feel vindicated. This is much as many conservatives were wetting themselves a week or so ago when meager, uncorroborated word was issued from a late personal assistant to John Lennon that he might, in the end (a forty-year-old man) have been thinking differently (could it have been) of some of his youthful excesses and – can you stand it – had a liking for Ronald Reagan. Never much of a respected source to begin, but most of us will take validation where we can.

All that might have been better in the Lennon instance was if it had been not Lennon, but Lenin, secret diaries revealing that he’d always know Marxism was a grotesque sham, and it was the only way he could think of to secure himself an apartment in the Kremlin. There is assuredly at play some element both of the fear and wish that all the aspects of reality we disdain, or that too readily comfort, are really the work of an evil God: John Lennon was really a Republican, V.I. Lenin a falsetto; Phillip Roth – that monster of the fictive – doesn’t read fiction. Ah, hah! Knew it!

So at Ann Althouse’s place, the proprietor posts no more than some of the excerpt above, and two-score commenters weigh in. (Man, that’s blogging made easy. How do I get me some of that? “Cockapoos in Bali: discuss.”) Real versus pretend real. It’s a subject about which people have strong feelings. And reality programming on television, much of which is creatively, dramatically shaped? (Fiction, from the Latin fictio: fashioning, shaping, coining (as a word), pretence or feigning; a legal fiction.) And when the inevitable scandal occurs (or have I missed it already) that even the outcome of a reality show had been predetermined, what then will we think about the real and the simulacra of the real?

Laura Miller at offers a good roundup of the varied speculations on why some people with age, who did not lack appreciation for fiction to begin, might turn away from it (not reject it) and more toward non-fiction. I believe among these reasons is the character of exploration in fiction of imagining lives, and thus, even if theoretically – like trying on clothing one would never buy – of opening oneself to the possibilities of one’s own life. With shortened time, the possibilities of our lives diminish, the alternative universes appear less possible, and attention may turn away from the self and what could, but won’t be, and more toward what was and is.

Still, this is only one very domesticated use of and approach to fiction. This is the novel reading of the new eighteenth-century leisure class and onward. But fiction is not always so domestic – the well-constructed dramatic plot; the warm, inviting narrative – and there is something most of the discussion of Roth’s comments has missed. Roth pointedly limited what he said. He would not elaborate, so his statement was bound to be, intended to be, provocative. Among the considerations left unconsidered: Roth still writes fiction.

Many people who read fiction, would, if they could – had they the requisite talents and personal qualities – write it too. The reading of fiction for such people is, in part, the closest they can get to the impulses that lead to the writing of it. One writes, creatively, imaginatively, not merely to spin tales. Lovers of fiction read it not merely to consume tales, like a scrumptious sandwich. The writing and reading of fiction is not just a diversion or even a simple activity in life; it is a response to life, an act not only in, but on the world, as all art is.

It is because the art of fiction, all literary art, unlike any other art, is composed of the stuff of ordinary communication, and of information sharing, that we make this error, and confuse the art of language with its work as a vessel of conveyance. Do people grow tired of music with age? Of painting and sculpture? Of dance and architecture? Did the aging Monet abandon his water lilies for blue prints? There is a fundamental human impulse at play in the writing of fiction, and for some people – the lover and the loved – in the reading of it.

It was said also in Roman law:

Fictio est contra veritatem, sed pro veritate habetur

“Fiction is against the truth, but it is to have truth.”

And there is what Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary:

This insatiable desire to write something before I die, this ravaging sense of shortness and feverishness of life, makes me cling like a man on a rock, to my own anchor.


Enhanced by Zemanta

5 thoughts on “Philip Roth: Fictio cedit veritati

  1. Hi Jay,

    Nuala O’Faolain dipped into many plates, first as a journalist, then autobiography and later fiction. In a radio interview not long before she died, she said that she was most surprised because she had always thought that she was writing (or aiming for) the “truth” when tackling her autobiographical work. However, after tasting both she came to the conclution that she got much closer to the “T” word with fiction.

    That struck me because she could grab me, real hard, in the gut with some passages from her autobiographies because they were so raw and self-revealing.

    1. Hi Susan,

      I think a lot of people who should know better confuse facts with the truth. Then some other people, who should know even better, conveniently try to confuse the what they want to conceive of as the truth with fact, by that point pretty much arriving at and delivering neither.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *