Stranger than Fiction

The Critic/August, 1903

[An experience solemnly affirmed to be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.]

I remember frying bacon at a noon halt on the Klondike Trail, some several years back, while I listened incredulously to a Yukon pioneer’s tale of woe. There were tears in his voice and a querulous plaint, as he told me of all he had suffered from the mosquitoes. Before his recital reached a close he became angry at the little winged pests, the injuries they had done him waxed colossal, and he cursed them in terms the most uncompromisingly blasphemous I have ever heard.

He was a strong man. He had been seven years in the land. I knew, at that very moment, that he was resting from a tramp of fifty miles which he had covered in the last fifteen hours, and that he intended to cover twenty-five miles more before night came on.
As I say, I knew all this. The man was real. He had done things. He had a reputation. Yet I said to myself: These mosquito-happenings are impossible things. They cannot be true. The man lies.

Four months later, two comrades and I, three strong men of us, went down the Yukon two thousand miles in an open boat. Tears came into our voices and remained there, likewise the querulous plaint. We grew irritable and quarrelsome. Instead of talking like men we whined broken-spiritedly, and said that of mosquitoes the half had not been told. And I, for one, marvelled at the restraint and control of the man who had first told me of the mosquito at the noon halt on the Klondike Trail.

Since then, in civilization, I have attempted to tell the story of the mosquito. My friends have listened pityingly, or looked bored, or told me plainly that veracity was evidently not a Klondike product. These things I endured, striving to redeem myself with greater earnestness and detail; but, finally, when one fellow said, “That reminds me of a real mosquito story,” I dropped the subject for good and all. Since then I have been most exemplary in my conduct and morals, and I still hope that before I totter into the grave I shall succeed in living down my reputation for untruthfulness.

I do not dare to tell the story of the mosquito here. I have merely hinted at it in this somewhat lengthy preamble in order to show that I understand and forgive the editorial mind when certain facts of mine, in fictional garb, are promptly returned to me. For be it known that truth is so much stranger than fiction that it is unreal to editors and readers.

For instance, I knew a girl. Our first meeting was typical. It was up in the rugged Sierras. In the cool of the day she came out of the dark pine woods, in short-skirted costume, her hair down her back, a shotgun across the hollow of her arm. She was hunting rabbits—for her, deer and a Winchester rifle would have been just as likely. She was quite unconventional, and she was straight. She could ride a horse better than the average bronco-buster. She could go down in a diving-bell, scratch off a magazine article (which would sell), or do a Highland fling on the vaudeville stage, for the fun of the thing. On the other hand, she had opened the books. I have at hand now a score of dainty poems by her. She was as close to culture as she was to the wild, free life of the open or of Bohemia. In few words, she was a striking creature.

I toned her down and made a heroine of her. It was for the sake of veracity, and because I remembered the story of the mosquito, that I toned her down. I took away from her realness, diminished the living fact of her, in order that the reader might believe she was real and a living fact. The reviewers swiftly proved to me how signally I had failed. I quote at random: “One cannot believe in her, but one likes her and forgives her culture”; “a projection of the writer’s ideal woman upon paper”; “a monster”; “a thing contrary to nature”; “remains at the end of the story utterly incredible and even inconceivable.”

From time to time I have written short adventure-stories for a famous juvenile publication. My experience with these stories was practically uniform. Whenever I evolved out of my sheer inner consciousness some boyish adventure, it received the most flattering approval of the editors. Whenever my inner consciousness was not in working order, and I fell back on the facts of my life, wrote adventures I had actually gone through, things I had done with my own hands and head, the editors hummed and hawed. “It is not real,” they said. “It is impossible. It could not have happened thus and so.”

Once, when they commented in this fashion upon a cliff-climbing story of mine, a literal narrative of a thing I had done, as had thousands of others as well, I flew into rebellion. “I can readily comprehend,” I wrote them, though I really didn’t at the moment, so befuddled was my reason by my wrath, “I can readily comprehend that the state of consciousness you may achieve on the flat floor of your editorial sanctum concerning a man plastered against the frown [sic] of a cliff is a far different state of consciousness from that a man may achieve who is plastered against the frown of a cliff.” They were very nice about it, taking my criticism in better part than I took theirs; and, for that matter, they could afford to, for they were in the right. It is incontrovertible that one cannot do on the printed page what one does in life.

I once wrote a story of a tramp. I intended it to be the first of a series of tramp stories, all of which were to relate the adventures of a single tramp character. I was well fitted to write this series, and for two reasons. First, I had myself tramped ten thousand miles or so through the United States and Canada, begged for my food from door to door, and performed sentences for vagrancy in various jails. Second, my tramp character was a personal friend. Many a time he had shoved his legs under my table or turned into my bed with me. I knew him better than I did my brother. He was a remarkable man, college-educated, qualified to practice law in all the courts, spilling over with the minutest details of every world-philosophy from Zeno to Nietzsche, deeply versed in political economy and sociology, a brilliant lecturer—in short, a genius of extraordinary calibre.

To exploit in fiction this living fact, I not only toned him down, but actually used an experience of his for the motif of the first story. I make bold to say that it is one of the best stories I ever wrote, if it is not the best. When nobody is around I sneak it out from the bottom of the box and read it with huge delight, hugging myself the while and feeling great sorrow for the world which is denied my joy.

I need hardly say that this story, to the editorial mind, was an unveracious thing. One editor, only, did it convince. And this is how it was. I know a young writer in Southern California who tramped East for the experience. I shall call him Jones. Well, Jones met this particular editor in New York City and told him divers of his own tramp experiences.

Shortly afterward, my tramp story was submitted to this editor. In this fashion he explained his rejection of it: “Had I not known Mr. Jones for some time past, I should have said such a creation as your Tramp was absolutely and utterly impossible, and my reason for rejecting the MS. is that to other people who have not had the opportunity to really understand what a tramp may be, whence he may come, and into what he may be transformed, it might seem too great a tax upon credulity.”

Tone down as I would, my Tramp was too real to be true. With the help of Mr. Jones he had convinced but one editor, who, in turn, said very truly that his readers, not having the advantage of Mr. Jones’s acquaintance, would remain unconvinced. Suffice it to say, beyond the initial story, the series remains unwritten, and the world little recks of what it has lost.

I had a certain pastoral experience. The effect was cumulative. I had dealings with several hundred different people of all ages, sizes, and sexes, through a long period of time so that the human traits and psychology involved were not extraordinary but merely average human traits and psychology. I sat down and brooded over this pastoral experience. Alas! said I to myself, it would make a bully story, but it is too real to be true.

I should have abandoned it altogether had not a new method of treating it come to me. I pulled up to my desk and started in. First I wrote the title. Underneath the title, in brackets, I wrote, “A True Narrative.” Then I wrote the experience as it actually happened, using only the naked facts of it, bringing in for verities, and precisely labeled, my wife, my sister, my nephew, my maid-servant, myself, my house, and my post-office address.

Ah ha! chortled I, as I mailed it East; at last I have circumvented the editorial mind. But it came back. It continued to come back. The editors refused it with phrases complimentary and otherwise, and one and all thanked me for having allowed them the privilege of considering my story (!)

At last an editor looked kindly upon it, accepting it with qualifications. He wrote: “It is decidedly good … but I shy at the use of the — —.With the ordinary reader this would be considered carrying the matter too far, but I can believe it was necessary in reality.” And after indicating the changes he would suggest, he wound up with: “For the story (!) I will then pay $—.”

Oscar Wilde once proved with fair conclusiveness that Nature imitates Art. I have been forced to conclude that Fact, to be true, must imitate Fiction. The creative imagination is more veracious than the voice of life. Actual events are less true than logical conceits and whimsicalities. And the man who writes fiction have better leave fact alone.

I said to myself that the mosquito-man lied. By innumerable editorial rejections I have been informed that I have lied. And for all that I placed at the head of this narrative, in brackets, a solemn affirmation of its truthfulness I am confident that it will be believed by no one. It is too real to be true.

The historic works of Jack London and other major journalists are freely available from The Archive of American Journalism: