Our culture's infatuation with "reality"-with so-called personal memoir, with YouTube, with People magazine, with reality TV in its many permutations-has given new meaning to the old exhortation "write what you know." Of course it isn't bad advice, nor is it avoidable: no matter how hard you try to keep yourself hidden, everything you write reveals who you are-even if it's about life on an alien solar system or in a house run by zombies. Lately, though, it seems like whatever is meant by that exhortation is taken to mean "stick to the facts," as if what you know is limited by your personal experience on this planet. Did you grow up in a suburb of Philadelphia? Then you'd better not write from the point of view of an Inuit girl on the Labrador coast. If, like Chris Lee Dennis, you've never been an African American woman, you shouldn't dare to write a story from the point of view of one, especially if that woman is Coretta Scott King. If, like Katya Apekina, you haven't been the victim of childhood sexual abuse, you shouldn't dare to write a story treating of that subject, especially if the perpetrator is a perversely charming ghost. Fiction, at its very best, gives us the truth-and the truth, as fiction offers it, has never had anything to do with facts. No, the truth is and always has been a function of that most exalted of gifts, the human imagination.
"Our imagination flies. We are its shadow on the earth," wrote Vladimir Nabokov-who also had nothing favorable to say on the subject of "reality."
These are trying times; in trying times people cleave to what is safe. But in trying times what we need more than anything is the truth. Without the audacious human imagination there can be no fiction.
Kathryn Davis is the author of five novels, the most recent of which is The Thin Place (2006). Her other books are Labrador (1988), The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf (1993), Hell: A Novel (1998), The Walking Tour (1999), and Versailles (2002). She has received a Kafka Prize for fiction by an American woman, the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. In 2006, she won a Lannan Foundation Literary Award. She is the senior fiction writer on the faculty of The Writing Program at Washington University.