Truth in literature

Literary truths may have little or nothing to do with historical truth. The Furies and Satan are mythical figures brought to life by the power of their authors imaginations, and the fact that many people once took them for actual human beings has no effect, one way or the other, on how strongly I now credit them when I read the House of Atreus trilogy or Paradise Lost. Shakespeare borrowed his Cleopatra and his Richard 11 from history, but for me they are no more real than his Juliet and his Othello, whom he made up wholesale. Chaucer’s Wife of Bath and Cervantes’s Sancho Panza never existed or else existed in a thousand quotidian forms, but either way, each of them ahs a strongly marked individuality which transcends that of most individuals I have met. This is not to denigrate life, which must in some way be the source —‑if only a vaporous, indirect source — of all literary authority. It is simply to comment on the extent to which the made-up sometimes trumps the actual in terms of believability.

Wendy Lesser, Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books, p. 91

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