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What's the use of stories that aren't even true?

In Salman Rushdie's excellent book Haroun and the Sea of Stories, there's a striking scene near the beginning where Haroun, the child of a famous storyteller, confronts his father by repeating a line that was previously parroted by a narrow-minded neighbour:

What's the use of stories that aren't even true?

Oh boy. What a scene. The question is a slap in the face of his father, of course, and Haroun spends much of the story (which I gather might be imagined rather than true) making up for this mistake, through fantastic adventures in a universe where two factions are at war: those who tell stories, and those who want all stories to end and silence to reign.

So, what's the use?

When it comes to the great written works of humanity, almost all of them are fictional. Whether you look deep into the past, to Gilgamesh, the Mahabharata or the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, or in the less distant past, to authors such as Herman Hesse, Gabriel Garcia Marques, Tolstoi, Dickens, Victor Hugo, and so on (the list is not endless, but is long), fiction dominates any sensible list of the Greatest Written Works of Humanity. Here or there, a work of non-fiction might peep in and even claim a rightful place, but few seem capable of comparison with the "stories that aren't even true" when it comes to telling eternal Truths.

For this is where fiction is so much better: at the telling not of factual truths that anyone can observe, but of greater Truths about life, about what it means, what it's about, how to live it, how to enjoy it and be happy and find a purpose. To observe these Truths, one needs very good eyes indeed, and telling them directly is almost impossible. Instead, a great author must tell a story that illustrates the Truth that they experienced and observed. If they do it extremely well, it becomes a kind of distilled life experience that the reader assimilates and which changes their understanding of life in subtle and important ways.

If you're looking for truth, then non-fiction is great. If you're looking for Truth, however, you have to look into stories that may not be true but are True.

Startup stories

Which brings me nicely to the subject of startup stories. In my writings on swombat.com, I've endeavoured to always be factually true when telling a story. I don't make things up. However, I am also a lover of fiction and, as argued above, I feel there can be more Truth worth telling in fiction than in fact.

So, this is a thought that I'm struggling with, as far as writing for swombat.com goes. Does fiction have a place in business writing?

Experience is very valuable in business, where many crucial decisions are made on hunches, based on incomplete data, and good fiction is very good at distilling experience that normally might take a lifetime to accumulate, and transmitting it in a few hours.

Clearly fiction is not the appropriate mode of writing for all startup advice. A "how to use LinkedIn" written as a suspense novel would most likely be a terrible idea (though rather original), but it seems to me there are many other valuable lessons of business that could be better illustrated by fictional stories than by factual articles. Those are the ones that you might capitalise as Lessons as opposed to lowercase lessons (I do like to play with capitalisation).

I'm very keen to hear what other people have to say about this. Please do let me know your thoughts - by replying to this if you've received this article by email, by emailing me directly, or by posting comments on Hacker News if this does get on HN (Update: here it is).

Some obvious disclaimers:

  • Fictional stories should be clearly advertised as such. Making up stories and presenting them as factual anecdotes is obviously misleading and wrong. Writing short fictional stories to explain business wisdoms, though, seems ethical.
  • Clearly verifiable theories should not be told as fictional stories - they should be verified and told as fact.
  • However, "profound truths" as Niels Bohr called them, which have the characteristic that their opposites are also true, are well suited to fictional story-telling.
  • "What's the point?" To partially transmit experience normally available only to those who have been running businesses for years, to those who haven't.

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