Tim O'Brien on Verisimilitude in Fiction

Tim O’Brien, the much-honored novelist whose work is strongly influenced by his Vietnam War service has an interesting essay called “Telling Tails” that deals with what he calls “the centrality of imagination in enduring fiction” in the current, 2009 fiction issue of The Atlantic .

He begins with the tail story, a lighthearted on centering on his two young children (Timmy and Tad), which may or may not be true, and probably isn’t. Then he goes on to discuss his subject.

“In general, ” O’Brien says, fictional topics are “born out of writing workshops, in which I’ve noticed, almost always to my alarm, that classroom discussion seems to revolve almost exclusively around issues of verisimilitude. Declarations such as these abound: I didn’t believe in that character. I need to know more about that character’s background. I can’t see that character’s face. I don’t understand why that character would behave so insipidly (or violently, or whatever).

“These are legitimate questions. But for me, as a reader, the more dangerous problem with unsuccessful stories is usually much less complex: I am bored. And I would remain bored even if the story were packed with pages of detail aimed at establishing verisimilitude. I would believe in the story, perhaps, but I would still hate it. To provide background and physical description and all the rest is of course vital to fiction, but vital only insofar as such detail is in the service of a richly imagined story, rather than in the service of good botany or good philosophy or good geography.”

If you’re in the San Antonio, Texas, area, you can hear Tim O’Brien in person. He’ll be doing a reading on Monday, Sept. 21, at 10:00 a.m. at St. Philip’s College’s Watson Fine Arts Center in The President’s Lecture Series. O’Brien (that’s him above in Vietnam ) will be reading from his critically and popularly acclaimed 1990 book of linked-short stories (featuring main character Tim O’Brien) The Things They Carried .

For additional information, call 210-486-2376, or go to http://www.alamo.edu/spc/main/pls.aspx

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