In the latest issue:

An Ordinary Woman

Alan Bennett

Anglo-America Loses its Grip

Pankaj Mishra

Short Cuts: John Bolton’s Unwitting Usefulness

Mattathias Schwartz

Smells of Hell

Keith Thomas

Mrs Oliphant

Tom Crewe

Tippett’s Knack

Philip Clark

At Tate Modern: Steve McQueen

Colin Grant

Catherine Lacey

Nicole Flattery

Churchill’s Cook

Rosemary Hill

The ‘Batrachomyomachia’

Ange Mlinko

On Dorothea Lange

Joanna Biggs

Paid to Race

Jon Day

Poem: ‘Traveller’s Tales: Chapter 90’

August Kleinzahler

The Soho Alphabet

Andrew O’Hagan

Old Tunes

Stephen Sedley

Victor Serge’s Defective Bolshevism

Tariq Ali

The Murdrous Machiavel

Erin Maglaque

Diary: Insane after coronavirus?

Patricia Lockwood

Fiction and the Age of LiesColin Burrow
Vol. 42 No. 4 · 20 February 2020

Fiction and the Age of Lies

Colin Burrow

6998 words

Listen to this piece read by the author

The age of lies​ is probably as old as time. When I was young there was a comedian who did a Bristolian version of the Fall of Man. In the Garden of Eden, God says to Adam: ‘Adam, you bin eating them apples?’ ‘I neverrr,’ Adam replies. God says: ‘What are all them bloody apple cores doing on the ground then?’

‘I neverrr’ is the original lie, childlike and innocent in its palpable untruth. A more sophisticated lie is delivered by Zeus in Book 2 of the Iliad. Zeus sends a lying dream to Agamemnon, the leader of the Achaians, in the form of a message delivered by Nestor. In the dream Agamemnon is told that Troy is about to fall. In Peter Green’s translation:

But now listen well: I bring word to you from Zeus,
who though far distant greatly cares for and pities you.
He bids you arm the long-haired Achaians for battle
with all speed, for now you may take the broad-streeted city
of the Trojans.

This is a lie, because Zeus actually wants to punish the Achaians and doesn’t want Troy to fall, but since the dream comes from Zeus, Agamemnon reports it to his fellow leaders. The real Nestor is understandably sceptical about his dreamlike doppelgänger, and murmurs ‘had it been any other Achaian who informed us of this dream/we’d call it a lie and have nothing to do with it.’ Then something extremely odd happens, which reveals a lot about lying generally, in fiction and in life. Agamemnon, having been lied to by Zeus, stands up in front of the Achaian soldiers and lies to them about Zeus’ lie. He doesn’t say: ‘Zeus says if we attack today we’ll finally kick some pesky Trojan butt.’ Instead he says: ‘We’ve lost. It’s time to go home.’

Great Zeus, Kronos’s son, has snared me in a crushing delusion,
harsh god that he is. Once he promised, and bowed his head in assent,
that I should sack strong-walled Ilion before returning home.
Now he’s turned to a vile deception, orders me back
in dishonour to Argos, after the loss of so many men …
So come, then, let us all agree to do as I say:
pull out with our ships, return to our own native land,
since now we shall never capture Troy of the wide streets.

The reason Agamemnon lies to his soldiers is a mystery to me and to most commentators. Many see it as a piece of reverse psychology aimed at provoking the Achaians to a final assault. But this series of lies – Zeus to Agamemnon, Agamemnon to the Greeks – has a powerful effect. Lie generates lie, and fake news generates chaos. After Agamemnon’s lying speech Homer compares his audience to the sea towards which the troops bolt in order to set sail for home. The ultimate consequence of Zeus’ lie is swirling elemental rage:

The assembly was stirred into motion like the long sea rollers
of the Ikarian deep, which winds from the east or south
roil up, rushing on them from the clouds of Zeus, the Father.

The obvious place to begin a discussion of the relationship between lies and fiction would be with Odysseus, that great storyteller and liar. But the series of lies in Book 2 of the Iliad is a better place to start because it displays two key features of lying which have tended to be neglected yet speak eloquently to our age. The first is that lying depends on a predatory intimacy between the liar and the lied to. Zeus knows Agamemnon wants to believe that Troy is about to fall, so that’s what he tells him. Agamemnon knows his men want to go home, so he tells them Zeus has told them to do that. The second is that although liars often think they know what effect their lies will have, they’re often wrong. A lie can generate unpredictable emotions, and indeed spawn more lies. Zeus doesn’t know that Agamemnon will respond to his lie by lying in turn. Agamemnon presumably doesn’t intend to provoke a stampede to the Greek ships. Human beings are complex non-linear systems: you mess with their sense of reality at your peril.

The relation between fiction and lies was particularly fraught for the Greeks because they didn’t have a word for ‘fiction’. In Hesiod’s Theogony the Muses declare that ‘we know how to tell many falsehoods [pseudea] that seem real; but we also know how to speak truth when we want to.’ But the Muses don’t explain how to distinguish between ‘falsehoods that seem real’ and ‘truths’. The lack of a simple word analogous to ‘fiction’ in Greek was probably one reason Plato was so uneasy about poets, and the lies they supposedly tell about the gods.

The distinction between fiction and lies seems more or less self-evident now. In the words of Bernard Williams, a lie is ‘an assertion, the content of which the speaker believes to be false, which is made with the intention to deceive the hearer with regard to that content’. That makes it relatively easy to distinguish between fiction and lies: a fiction, though it is not true, is not intended to deceive. But the suspicion that all forms of non-true narrative are a kind of lie remained so deeply entrenched in Western culture that this simple distinction took a surprisingly long time to establish itself. It is sometimes traced back to a remarkable passage in St Augustine’s Soliloquies from about 386 ad:

But the fictitious [mendax] I call that which is produced by makers of fiction [mentientibus]: these differ from the misleading [a fallacibus] in this, that every misleader [fallax] has a desire to deceive: while not every fiction-maker [qui mentitur] has. For mimes and comedies and many poems are full of fictions [mendaciorum] for the purpose rather of pleasing than of deceiving: and almost all who make jests deal in fictions [mentiuntur]. But he is rightly called a misleader [fallax], or misleading, whose business it is that everybody should be deceived [fallatur].

Translations of this passage generally present it as stating a clear distinction between fiction and lying, but Augustine’s Latin tells a slightly different story. He calls the lie intended to deceive fallax, ‘fallacious’. Fine. But the contrasting term, which usually gets translated as ‘the fictional’, Augustine calls the mendax, which is of course the origin of our word ‘mendacious’. This creates an audible strain in the argument. Augustine’s qualified defence of fiction depends on a distinction so linguistically fine it’s barely a distinction at all, between the fallacious (the lie) on the one hand and the mendacious (the fictional) on the other. But there is at least the outline of a distinction. The liar aims to deceive. The writer of fiction does not.

The category of fiction also depends on another kind of distinction: between texts which describe the plausible – or things that are likely to happen – and those which record or purport to record what actually did happen. Only the latter could lie, since the former do not claim to be true. Although this distinction seems easy enough to make, the particular way in which it was developed in the Roman rhetorical tradition had major consequences for the long-term relationship between lying and fiction. The first-century rhetorician Quintilian included in his Institutes of Oratory a description of that part of a judicial speech called the narratio, the narrative about the alleged crime that the orator wishes the jurors to believe. Quintilian says that in the narrative the orator doesn’t need to say the truth, but should rather describe things in a way that is plausible – or like truth. The ideal way to do that is to create what he calls enargeia, the kind of vividness that will make your audience believe your version of events. So Quintilian says: ‘I am complaining that a man has been murdered. Shall I not bring before my eyes all the circumstances which it is reasonable to imagine must have occurred in such a connection? Shall I not see the assassin burst suddenly from his hiding place, the victim tremble, cry for help?’ The Latin word for this kind of vividness, intriguingly enough, is evidentia, the root of our word ‘evidence’. For Quintilian, however, evidentia isn’t a set of facts that show X to be the case. It’s a persuasive tool: evidentia is the dash of vividness which makes it more likely that the jury will swallow your story rather than the other guy’s. And Quintilian also associates enargeia or evidentia with the power of an orator to arouse passions in his audience. When a narrative has evidentia, ‘emotions will ensue just as if we were present at the event itself.’ So the vivid probability of narrative ‘evidence’ can drive those jurors wild.

And it can do so whether the narrative is true or just something that looks like truth. As Cicero said, ‘that thing is plausible [probabile] which generally happens, or which is a matter of general belief … whether it is true or untrue.’ And there’s the rub. These rhetorical texts provided the foundations of thinking about the nature of fiction, and they give enormous strength to the figure of the vivid liar. The liar is potentially the double of the author, who creates circumstantially plausible narratives which elicit overwhelming emotions in his audience. The figure of the liar acquires additional strength from the fact that liars – like Zeus, like Agamemnon, and like most authors – know or think they know what is likely to move their audience. Good liars are canny psychologists who can offer truthlike statements that target what they know their audience wants to hear.

That close relationship between liar and audience is worth pausing over. The Western philosophical and Christian traditions have generally considered lying from the perspective of the liar. Analytic philosophers have tried to determine what kind of statement a lie is, and moral philosophers have argued about when, if ever, it can be defensible to lie. These discussions generally focus on the intentions of the liar rather than the role of the victim. But the victim’s prejudices and assumptions about what is likely to be true play a key role in determining the kinds of statement a liar can get away with. Lying is a social act that is crucially dependent on the beliefs of the person lied to, whom I will call the lie-ee. The words generally used to describe such a person – ‘victim’, ‘gull’, or the philosopher Sissella Bok’s favoured term, ‘dupe’ – implicitly ascribe weakness to the deceived and deprive them of agency. The Homeric lies with which I began – Zeus to Agamemnon, Agamemnon to the Greek army – tell a different story. These lies are part of a wider social and political world, and make use of the notion of authority to manufacture plausibility: Nestor and Zeus and Agamemnon aren’t the types to lie, so you believe what they say. But their lies are also calculated to appeal to the beliefs and desires of their recipients.

That feedback between liar and lie-ee has immense psychological significance. It’s the reason why, in fiction and in life, lies can have such a powerful effect. If they take us in it’s because they work with our beliefs about what is likely to be true. And that’s why the discovery that one has been lied to can give rise to such emotional chaos. When a lie is discovered it isn’t just that trust has been betrayed: it’s not simply that Colin’s wife discovers that Colin has been in the arms of a glamorous Russian spy rather than (as he said) in the library. The lie-ee is made to see herself and her desires as manipulable and herself as credulous. The fury of being lied to grows in part from a splatter of self-hatred at discovering yourself to be the kind of person who can be deceived. Realising you are a lie-ee exposes your perceptual vulnerability, and it can make the grounds for believing anything at all seem fragile.

Thatmakes lies in life dangerous. But in fiction it gives liars immense power. Since an effective lie is tailored to the belief systems of the lie-ee, putting a fictional character within a fabric of lies (as Henry James often does) is a great way of exploring the nature and the perceptual limitations of that person. Although that fictional technique was to become common in the novel, the most influential literary instance is Othello, a play which not coincidentally derives from an Italian novella. Iago is Othello’s echo chamber, amplifying and replaying to him all the things that make him uneasy: he’s black, he’s not Venetian, he lacks the ‘soft parts of conversation/That chamberers have’. Iago is a master storyteller who creates around these fears a plausible narrative, embellished by evidentia in the sense of ‘plausible detail’. He can invent a false but vivid story in which he hears Cassio talk in his sleep about ‘sweet Desdemona’. He also provides ‘evidence’ in the form of Othello’s handkerchief to ‘prove’ that Desdemona is dallying with Cassio. The handkerchief is a piece of ‘evidence’ that straddles the ancient and modern senses of the word: it is at once a work of fiction, vividly embroidered with magic to make it as lively as possible (it was given to Othello’s mother by a ‘charmer’), and at the same time a piece of material evidence that ‘proves’ there is a sexual relationship between Cassio and Desdemona. These vivid fictions enable the play to build up and then release the unpredictably violent emotional responses of the lie-ee. Othello is presented with ‘evidence’ and plausible grounds for believing a reality that corresponds to his fears. Like Homer’s Achaian soldiers, he is as wild as the sea:

                      Like to the Pontic sea,
Whose icy current and compulsive course
Ne’er feels retiring ebb, but keeps due on
To the Propontic and the Hellespont,
Even so my bloody thoughts, with violent pace,
Shall ne’er look back.

T.S. Eliot declared that in his final speech before his suicide Othello is ‘cheering himself up’. But it’s probably better to think of Othello in that speech as attempting to reconstruct the life he thought he had before a liar stole it from him. He is trying to create a narrative of his former exploits that is at once vivid and true:

And say besides, that in Aleppo once,
Where a malignant and a turban’d Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,
I took by the throat the circumcised dog,
And smote him, thus.

With that, he sinks the dagger into his own flesh, aligning vivid narration with physical reality. Othello’s dying speech is an attempt to create an alternative to the world of probability, plausibility and misleadingly credible evidentia into which Iago has plunged him. When he is accused by Emilia of lying to Othello, Iago says: ‘I told him what I thought, and told no more/Than what he found himself was apt and true.’ The first clause of that statement is a lie, but the second is not. The lie-ee is a person who is fed to destruction with what part of him wants to believe.

Othello also suggests something else about the role of liars within fiction. The liar is the intimate double of the author, who creates plausible narratives within a fiction. By showing the liar’s narratives to be false, fiction can establish its own emotional realism. The real story, the one that matters, is the tragic narrative which ends ‘and smote him, thus’. The exposure of a liar is one way fiction can distinguish itself from lies, and claim to be offering its readers something more than the simple wish- fulfilment the liar offers to the credulous.

Thisis the role often played by liars in realist fiction. The best example is Wickham in Pride and Prejudice, a downmarket rewrite of Iago. When Wickham denounces Darcy to Elizabeth Bennet he does exactly what the best liars do. He tells her what ‘she found herself was apt and true’ – or, in the terminology the novel invites us to use, he speaks directly to her prejudices. Wickham knows Elizabeth thinks Darcy is proud and unpleasant, so he tells her that Darcy’s father ‘meant to provide for me amply’ by bequeathing him a living, ‘but when the living fell, it was given elsewhere.’ The passive ‘it was given elsewhere’ omits the crucial fact that Wickham renounced the legacy. Lizzy, who is taken with Wickham but no fool, is inclined to regard truth as depending ultimately on documentary record, what we would now call ‘evidence’. So she asks: ‘How could his will be disregarded?’ Wickham claims that ‘there was just such an informality in the terms of the bequest as to give me no hope from law.’ A liar builds belief on the presumptions of his audience and presents as ‘evidence’ things he believes will be self-evident to the listener; as a result, the more the lie-ee reveals her desires, the more the liar can operate on them. ‘How abominable!’ Elizabeth exclaims. ‘I wonder that the very pride of this Mr Darcy has not made him just to you.’ Wickham, who has Iago’s ability to echo back the language of the lie-ee in order to amplify their emotions, confirms the truth of her observation: ‘“It is wonderful,” replied Wickham, “for almost all his actions may be traced to pride; and pride had often been his best friend. It has connected him nearer with virtue than any other feeling.’” Hearing her own judgments endorsed in this way, Lizzy is overwhelmed. ‘Elizabeth went away with her head full of him. She could think of nothing but Mr Wickham, and of what he had told her, all the way home.’ A persuasive narrative backed by apparently vivid evidence, be it true or false, can generate uncontrollable emotions, provided it is rooted in what the lie-ee wishes to believe.

The exposure of Wickham’s lies comes in a letter from Mr Darcy – a letter which stiffly displays a very different kind of truthfulness from Wickham’s. It is presented within the novel not as a seductively intimate piece of conversation but as a document that can be reread and reassessed. This simple fact reminds us that in the age of Austen the concept of ‘evidence’ was evolving towards the modern sense of quasi-legal testimony. So Darcy’s letter relates that Wickham ‘wrote to inform me’ that he did not wish to take holy orders. He also says that after Wickham had squandered the money he was given in lieu of a living he later ‘applied to me again by letter for the presentation’. Darcy isn’t so vulgar as to say ‘I can prove this because I have the letters in my desk at Pemberley,’ but that’s surely what he wants to imply. The truth-teller in the age of Austen is likely to be rich enough to be in a position to store and retrieve material evidence.

Lizzy’s response to Darcy’s letter is Austen at her absolute best. It identifies truth with a frustration of what we want to believe, and lies as the fictions towards which we are drawn:

Astonishment, apprehension, and even horror, oppressed her. She wished to discredit it entirely, repeatedly exclaiming, ‘This must be false! This cannot be! This must be the grossest falsehood!’ – and when she had gone through the whole letter, though scarcely knowing anything of the last page or two, put it hastily away, protesting that she would not regard it, that she would never look in it again.

The lie-ee is caught between the truths she wants and those she fears. As Austen puts it, ‘for a few moments, she flattered herself that her wishes did not err,’ and that Darcy was lying rather than Wickham. Our wishes do err, but a seductive liar makes it look as if they don’t.

For Austen, one of the main ways fiction establishes its moral seriousness is by representing someone who is learning to resist the allure of a plausible liar. Lies are related to romantic fiction in that they are a species of wish-fulfilment. Learning to resist the allure of liars goes along with learning to resist not just Wickham, but the affairs and elopements described in popular sentimental narratives. That may make it sound as though ‘serious’ fiction is ultimately concerned with resisting the pleasure principle, slapping the wrists of fantasy and telling it to simmer down. But fiction generally wants to have it both ways. It wants to deliver plausible inventions which have their own kind of allure while at the same time differentiating between those inventions and the seductive untruths of the liar. Austen can pull off that magical fusion of wish-fulfilment and the reality principle largely because of the way the social foundations of truth-telling are established in her world. The truth-teller is a man like Darcy, who has a desk and a library. That means he will also have a big house and a fortune, and if you’re lucky he’ll have a chest like Colin Firth’s. All this makes it possible for Lizzy to renounce the romantic fictions of a placeless liar like Wickham and still end up with every wish fulfilled, in love and mistress of Pemberley.

How much​ of this has changed in our present? It is now said with tedious regularity that we live in a ‘post-truth’ age which radically differs from anything that came before. Sages and hacks alike grumble that postmodernism has formed a toxic alliance with online disinformation to dissolve the secure foundations on which truth, supposedly, once rested.

These claims lack any historical perspective. Of course we live in the age of lies, because the age of lies is without beginning and without end. There are grounds for thinking our world has more in common than we may want to think with what has gone before. The best evidence (to use that slippery word) to support that claim is provided by some statistics. The Google Ngram viewer – an online statistical tool which allows you to search for the frequency of phrases in a dataset of poorly transcribed and often misdated texts from 1500 to 2012 – isn’t always right, but when it suggests that the phrase ‘fucking liar’ emerged between the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles’ first LP it seems plausible enough. If you believe the Ngram viewer, the phrase ‘damned lies’ has passed its peak, and ‘lying politician’ was far more commonly used in the late Victorian and Edwardian periods than it is today – though it may just be that the phrase ‘lying politician’ has simply been eaten up by its near synonym, ‘lying bastard’.

But the most thought-provoking index of change in the language of lying is the Ngram for the phrase ‘living a lie’. Its frequency is still rising, but the phrase appears to have taken off in the 1840s, perhaps the greatest decade of the earlier English novel (a very early instance is in Lucy Lyttelton Cameron’s The Young Backslider of 1842). ‘Living a lie’ has become a euphemism for a marriage which carries on in appearance but is not sexually fulfilled, or for self-deception about one’s own sexual identity. It makes sense that this phrase should have emerged during a period in which those phenomena were not so shocking as to be unthinkable, but still shocking enough that they could only be described through a euphemism. In the 1840s you might have a madwoman to whom you were married in your attic, but you would keep it secret (Jane Eyre was published in 1847). So you live a lie. The concept of living a lie – grounding your entire being on something you know to be false – is one of the deep psychological foundations of the novel. It goes along with the idea of a plot as a process of discovery in which a lie creates overwhelming emotions, is discovered, and its discovery creates overwhelming emotions of another kind. One of the deepest structural components of the bourgeois novel is the plot of uncovering a lie or self-deception, and thereby creating the illusion that reality has been re-established. That is part of what is meant by ‘realism’.

And this takes me to my main thesis. We aren’t actually ‘post’ anything very much, let alone ‘post-truth’. Indeed my most fundamental belief about cultural history is that we have much more in common with the emotional structures of the Greeks – and Shakespeare, and Austen – than we may want to believe, and that’s why reading literature is important. It helps us understand where our least comprehensible emotions come from. The nexus of lies, deception and unpredictable emotions I have teased out of the Homeric poems and traced through the realist novel is still a fundamental component of our super-sophisticated postmodern psychologies.

But the material world changes much faster than the human mind or the languages that shape it. We no longer believe that rich people like Darcy are more likely to tell the truth than sons of estate managers like Wickham. In each period credibility is associated with a slightly different range of qualities, and through time different kinds of people and different ways of speaking have come to be regarded as markers of truthfulness. In that very limited respect we can be thought of as belonging to a ‘post-truth’ age, if ‘truth’ is given the highly restricted sense of a set of cultural configurations that establish the plausibility of one particular kind of witness on the basis of his social and economic status. But the ways in which people experience and think about truth and evidence have changed a great deal, while the way they think about and respond to lies hasn’t changed nearly so much. Even if we aren’t quite sure what the truth is, we know what it is to be lied to, and we all know that sense of wild and self-savaging anger that comes from being a lie-ee.

I’m old enough to remember when buses would usually speak the truth. If they said ‘National Express’ on the side, you’d take the ‘Express’ bit with a pinch of salt, but a bus that said ‘Leicester’ on its front would usually go to Leicester. But now even buses have learned to lie, as they did during the Brexit referendum. We have a prime minister who when trying to fabricate a personality for himself claimed to spend his spare time fabricating buses. It’s tempting to embody the age of lies in the fallaciloquent Boris. It would be easy to imagine this mendacious new Agamemnon claiming that a dream from Zeus had inspired him unlawfully to prorogue Parliament.

The history of lying makes us believe that where there are lies there must be a liar. But fiction can, and perhaps should, educate its readers to question their grounds for wanting to believe things. The reason it’s so tempting to embody the age of lies in individuals is that the cultural history of lying has taught us to see lying principally as a matter of one person misleading another. But that may be less true than it once was. Political lies now tend to be something more than statements by individuals that are designed to mislead: they are partly generated by the desires and beliefs of the lie-ee. They can be algorithmically created to elicit a particular response from an audience that has been microtargeted, and is fed little drips of misinformation it is predisposed to believe. The guiding presumption of algo-lying is that human beings are as manipulable as white mice. The object is to develop a stimulus that provokes the desired behaviour. Send out the stimulus, irrespective of its truth or falsehood; keep sending. Provided the white mice are in a majority and they all head for the cheese it’s a victory. It doesn’t matter if the stimulus is a lie that generates unpredictable side effects, like a loss of trust in institutions, or if the lies designed to appeal to the white mice so enrage the piebald mice that they start a civil war. It’s short-term outcomes that count.

The algo-lie may seem to be a counterexample to my paradoxical claim that the truth has changed more than lies. The algo-lie is indeed new, but it has two genealogical features in common with earlier forms of lying. The first is that it’s generated by feedback between liar and lie-ee, just as Wickham fashions his lies from Lizzy’s prejudices. Another reason the algorithmically generated lie is like Wickham’s – or indeed Zeus’ – lie, is that it elicits emotions in those lied to of a kind that those who fashion the lie hadn’t predicted. And that’s why the algo-lie is proving so hard for democracies to cope with. It may produce the electoral results the algo-liars want, but it also generates wild emotional by-products. ‘Evidence’ or vividness, as Quintilian knew, creates a direct pathway to the emotions of an audience, even if the evidence is false. The spread of the algo-lie makes us want to transform our politicians into Pinocchios and ourselves into Othellos of towering rage and confusion. We want someone in whom to embody the lie, but the absence of a liar from the algo-lie means the rage of the lie-ee loses its proper object. It turns into rage against our collective gullibility, or a more selective proxy rage against the nameless others who are sufficiently credulous not to see that they have been played. Being lied to can make us hate ourselves for being manipulable; but it can also make us hate other people who, we judge, are being jerked around by irrational appetites and ill-grounded opinions. Like Agamemnon’s audience, we are roiled into motion ‘like the long sea rollers/of the Ikarian deep’, whipped up by the wind.

Fiction​ has not yet responded well to this new kind of lying. It’s one of the stranger facts about literary history that the rise of the algo-lie has coincided almost exactly with the rise of what’s often called autofiction – narratives that appear painstakingly to relate the lived experiences of their authors. Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, the overweight apogee of the form, is grounded in a realism so thoroughgoing and full of circumstantial actuality that we may as well call it ‘punitive realism’. Knausgaard punishes himself by relating his father’s death in remorseless detail, and by describing his own repeated premature ejaculation and episodes of self-harm. He also punishes his readers by telling them exactly how many sausages he cooked for his kids on a particular evening, along with the precise meat content of those sausages.

‘My commitment was to reality,’ Knausgaard says. ‘What I wrote about had really happened and it had happened as described.’ It’s potentially comforting for fiction to make that claim, since a key feature of truth, from a narrowly psychological perspective, is that unlike a lie it doesn’t have overt designs on you. That’s why we can talk about being lied to but we don’t talk about being truthed to. A liar knows what he wants from you and believes he knows how to get it. A truth-teller, however, doesn’t claim to be telling you what you want to hear. Indeed he may tell you things you really don’t want to hear.

But autofiction does still display, buried deep within, the unsteady dialectical relationship with lies that has been such a key element in Western fiction. In Book 6 of My Struggle, Knausgaard’s uncle claims that the description of the father’s death, with which the first volume began, was all lies. Knausgaard claimed that his father had been living with his grandmother for two years, and that at the time of his father’s death her house was covered in shit and full of empty bottles. The uncle claims this is false: that Knausgaard’s father had lived with his grandmother for only two months, and that the house wasn’t a mess. The uncle’s accusation prompts a voice within the author which says: ‘I was untrustworthy, mendacious and had written the novel because I hated the Knausgaard family.’ Knausgaard’s way of silencing this voice isn’t surprising. He becomes a new Darcy, an embodiment of the documentary truth principle, who finds evidence that supports his own plausible narrative of events:

I called Kristiansand and asked them to send me a printout of dad’s medical records. Which they did. From the records it was clear that he had lived with his mother for a year and five months before he died. It wasn’t quite two years, but it was a long, long way from the two months Gunnar [his uncle] had claimed dad stayed there. How could he say dad stayed there for only two months and that I was lying?

Evidence, in the modern sense, taken ‘from the records’, lays to rest Knausgaard’s anxiety that he is not a serial truth-teller but a spectacularly egoistic liar. Autofiction distinguishes itself from lies by sticking to the evidence, and it’s ‘evidence’ not in Quintilian’s sense of ‘vividly realised tales’ but in Darcy’s sense of documentary record. In autofiction the escapism of fiction has become an escape into what looks like a carefully documented world of endless, formless truth.

In that respect My Struggle can be thought of as comfort food for the age of lies. It resembles one of the most common but least plausible arguments about how we should cope with our supposedly post-truth age. We are urged by Matthew d’Ancona (b. 1968) to go back to the Enlightenment. Get our facts straight. Line up the documents. Fact-check. The liars will lose. Such arguments are typically put forward by people who, like me (b. 1963) and Knausgaard (b. 1968), are too old to be digital natives, and who can see but can’t quite process the extreme power of the algo-lie – delivered minute by minute to exactly the right smartphone and to exactly the right prejudices.

Fiction needs to find a way of dealing with this new kind of lie. British writers of fiction from my generation have on the whole failed when they’ve tried to do so. This is because they’ve tended to become angry rather than trying to do the main thing liberal fiction can do for a society, which is to be at once surgically anatomical in analysing a systemic social problem and willing to articulate that systemic problem through a plausible but fictional version of individual experience. The rage itself is a large part of the problem: many novelists have not been able to control it well enough to be able to explore its origins in a way that would explain it to any but the like-minded. Algorithmic lies provoke an anger that can easily become complicit with its target. The object of fury is the reduction of human beings to groups that can be influenced by evident falsehoods. The temptation is to represent that process by creating reductive falsehoods of one’s own: fictions about the lying prime minister, the gullible cab driver who believes the Daily Mail, the Fox News addict. These fictions may appeal to like-minded readers, and inflame them with righteous outrage. But if the problem is that the population is being split algorithmically into target groups who are believed to occupy distinct and multiple views of reality then the solution is not furiously to serve your own target group with fictions it wants to hear. That would be to make fictions which participate in the simplifications they condemn.

Middle England (2019) by Jonathan Coe (b. 1961) strikes me as a classic instance of this problem. It’s a Brexit novel which offers comforting stereotypes – the xenophobic former Birmingham car worker, the wonderful Lithuanian immigrant cleaner – while not having anything to say about the technologies that now influence and distort the opinions of those types. A little texting and emailing is the deepest Coe’s characters get into the world of social media. Fiction that recirculates perspectives on the present which correspond closely to a particular strand of print or electronic media isn’t doing the job fiction should do. It knows what its audience wants to hear, and says it. The problem is that it will therefore sound like lies to those who don’t want to believe it. If the main literary consequence of this latest age of lies is to identify the audience for serious fiction with a small group with mutually sustaining and more or less identical political attitudes then we all should be very afraid for the future of fiction.

Ian McEwan’s Atonement (2001), though it appeared a couple of years before the Iraq War, at a point when the dissemination of untruths through social media was not yet a significant public concern, is perhaps the closest that British fiction has come to evoking the age of lies that followed. The novel aligns the imaginary work of the author with the fictional rewriter of history who is also an outright teller of untruths, and it rests on a volcanic base of love and betrayal and national and personal tragedy. But McEwan (b. 1948), is on the wrong side of the digital generational divide to be able to assemble lies, digital media and violent emotions into a novel that conveys the human consequences of the impersonal algo-lie. Machines like Me (2019) is a version of a traditional novelistic plot about erotic betrayal and interpersonal lies. The fact that one of the agents in this story of betrayal is a replicant of a human, whose behaviour is produced by continual feedback between experience and the algorithm that runs him, doesn’t finally matter all that much. Machines like Me is an erotic novella for the virtual age, but it’s not quite a fiction for the age of the algo-lie, because it hangs on nostalgically to the consoling fiction that lies are personal transactions with intense but small-scale emotional consequences. McEwan attempted to widen his scope in The Cockroach, a Brexit novella produced at breakneck speed and published last September, just after the Supreme Court decided that the prime minister had acted unlawfully in proroguing Parliament, and only five months after Machines like Me. The Cockroach also fails because it is at once too angry and too prone to personalise the lies. The story, in which a Kafka-through-the-looking-glass cockroach wakes up and finds itself prime minister, is funnier than the more po-faced reviews allowed. The conventional denial that a work of fiction is based in fact becomes ‘any resemblance to actual cockroaches, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.’ It’s also quite funny about lies. The cockroach prime minister plants a fake news story about sexual harassment by a rival in the papers. After this, ‘he walked up and down within the confined attic space in a state of exultation. There was nothing more liberating than a closely knit sequence of lies. So this was why people became writers.’ But that joke is a perilous one: only a cockroach prime minister could identify writing fiction with the dissemination of lies. Implicitly we (the readers of McEwan’s fiction) know better: novels offer Higher Truths, which are distinct from lies.

Many features of the high Victorian novel – different people pulled different ways by versions of the same social forces, their interaction and their separation – could be used to create fiction for the age of lies. This is what Ali Smith has tried to do in her ‘Seasonal Quartet’ by charting the accidental collisions of different groups of British people – though these novels are also marred by the anger of the lie-ee by proxy, who is enraged not because she is herself deceived but because others are. It would take a powerful imagination to transform the energies reserved in the traditional novel for treating erotic deceit into forces that could be released by algorithmically directed political lies. A novel which did that would have to present its world as a multidimensional human problem rather than as a place where people are reduced to types pulled hither and yon by the voice of the new Zeuses, the Foxy lady liars on cable news, the gods of Google, the li[k]es of Facebook. Channelling the anger of the lie-ee into fiction is what the so far non-existent thing, the great British technonovel of the 21st century, needs to do. Perhaps the outlines of that book have already been sketched by Shakespeare in Othello: the liar is a monstrous agent of emotional feedback, who enables that feedback to grow in intensity until it becomes a scream and then finally destroys the lie-ee; and in the process the liar finally ceases to resemble a person at all. The novel I am imagining would need to be at once inside the speed of new media and inside the ancient emotional turbulence that results from being told falsehoods that one is predisposed to believe. It would need to get into the heads of people who believe lies without suggesting that they are dupes or gulls, and run the dangerous risk of making those lies almost possess the compelling authority of truths. It isn’t a book I could write. Perhaps it isn’t a book anyone could write – or certainly not until the wounds of Brexit have healed a little. But if our present age of lies had one good consequence it would be that book.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 42 No. 7 · 2 April 2020

‘No spoilers here,’ Colin Burrow writes, reviewing the final volume of Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy (LRB, 19 March). You can never be quite sure. When Wolf Hall was being shown on the BBC, I was asked by Radio 4’s Today programme to do a compare and contrast on Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell. I finished with the rather trite remark that ‘they both came to the same sticky end.’ Mine was almost the last slot, and once the programme had ended one of the presenters leaned over and told me there had been a complaint. Someone had phoned in to say I had spoiled the ending for her.

Michael Walsh
London N4

I wonder if John Ruskin’s comment in Modern Painters has a place in Colin Burrow’s analysis: ‘The essence of lying is in deception, not in words’ (LRB, 20 February). ‘A lie may be told in silence,’ he continues, ‘by equivocation, by the accent on a syllable, by a glance of the eye attaching a peculiar significance to a sentence; but all of these kinds of lies are worse and baser by many degrees than a lie plainly worded.’

Scott Herrick
Rio Rancho, New Mexico

Vol. 42 No. 5 · 5 March 2020

While reading Colin Burrow’s thoughtful lecture, one word came to mind: ‘bullshit’ (LRB, 20 February). Specifically, Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit (2005), which gives conceptual clarity to the distinction between ‘liar’ and ‘lie-ee’. To lie, one must stand in a strict relation to the truth. You need to believe that you know what’s true in order to attempt to convince others of the opposite. To bullshit, in contrast, you care neither about the truth-value of what you say, nor whether you convince others of its truth-value: you care only about the impression you make. In Frankfurt’s account, this makes bullshit ‘a greater enemy of the truth than lies are’. Some of the ‘lies’ Burrow talks about could more accurately be described as bullshit. This omission aside, I think the amount of bullshit in the LRB is about right.

Liam Shaw

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Read More

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences