Mark Twain? Lord Byron? G. K. Chesterton? Edward Bellamy? Humphrey Bogart? Leo Rosten? Tom Clancy?
Dear Quote Investigator: There is a wonderful quotation by Mark Twain about the implausibility of truth versus fiction. Here are four versions:
1) Why shouldn’t truth be stranger than fiction? Fiction, after all, has to make sense.
2) It’s no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction must be credible.
3) Truth is stranger than fiction. It has to be! Fiction has to be possible and truth doesn’t!
4) The difference between reality and fiction? Fiction has to make sense.
Would you please explore this topic and determine what Twain actually said? Some versions have been credited to humorist Leo Rosten and top-selling author Tom Clancy.
Quote Investigator: In 1897 Mark Twain released a travel book titled “Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World”, and the fifteenth chapter presented the following epigraph. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1
Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.—Pudd’nhead Wilson’s New Calendar.
Pudd’nhead Wilson was the name of a fictional character in a novel Twain published a few years before the travel book. Thus, Twain was the actual crafter of the remark given above. Over the years many variant phrasings have evolved.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1823 Lord Byron published several cantos of his epic satirical poem “Don Juan”. The one-hundredth stanza of canto 14 included two lines indicating that momentous events sometimes capriciously hinged on other seemingly unimportant occurrences:
You’ll never guess I’ll bet you millions, milliards—
It all sprung from a harmless game at billiards.
The next stanza expressed a thought about the strangeness of truth that has now become idiomatic: 2
‘Tis strange—but true; for truth is always strange,
Stranger than fiction: if it could be told,
How much would novels gain by the exchange!
How differently the world would men behold!
In 1888 Edward Bellamy published the popular utopian novel “Looking Backward: 2000–1887” which contained a germane quotation. The main character Julian West, an insomniac, built a special chamber to block noises and hired a mesmerist to facilitate a deep sleep. A conflagration in 1887 caused West’s contemporaries to believe he had perished while his body remained hidden and preserved for more than a century. In 2000 West’s body was rediscovered and revived. He was confused and skeptical about his new situation, so he asked his discoverer for an explanation: 3
“Perhaps,” I said, “you will go on and favor me with some particulars as to the circumstances under which you discovered this chamber of which you speak, and its contents. I enjoy good fiction.”
“In this case,” was the grave reply, “no fiction could be so strange as the truth.”
The above quotation was applied to one particular situation; hence, it did not quite fit the proverbial form.
In 1895 a newspaper in Delphos, Ohio printed a humorous precursor as an anonymous filler item: 4
Truth is stranger than fiction because we don’t meet it as often.
In 1897 Mark Twain included an adage comparing truth and fiction in “Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World” as mentioned previously:
Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.
In 1904 “Current Literature: A Magazine of Contemporary Thought” reprinted the words of Twain in an altered form. The two words “possibilities” and “isn’t” were replaced by “probability” and “ain’t”. In addition, the phrasing was changed: 5
It was Mark Twain who once remarked sagely, in the person of Pudd’nhead Wilson, that “truth is stranger than fiction, because fiction is obliged to stick to probability, and truth ain’t.”
In 1905 the noteworthy essayist and detective writer G. K. Chesterton presented a thematically related statement: 6
“Do you believe that truth is stranger than fiction?”
“Truth must of necessity be stranger than fiction,” said Basil, placidly. “For fiction is the creation of the human mind, and therefore is congenial to it.”
In 1913 “The Magazine Maker: An Informative Journal for Writers and Editors” printed an article about submitting stories to magazines, and shared the opinion that many such tales were of low quality. The author presented a quotation from John Thompson who was the editor of “Pearson’s Magazine”, and Thompson employed another variant of Twain’s statement: 7
“There is an astonishing lack of ‘naturalness’ in these stories that come to us through the mails. If the chaps who write these stories would get a little more naturalness into their yarns there would be more published. Mark Twain said ‘Truth is stranger than fiction. It has to be! Fiction has to be possible and truth doesn’t!'”
In 1914 “Pearson’s Magazine” printed an advertisement that praised forthcoming stories. Twain’s remark was rephrased yet again: 8
“Truth,” said Mark Twain, “is stranger than fiction, because fiction has to be possible and truth doesn’t.”
In 1922 “McClure’s Magazine” printed a short story that uncertainly echoed the absurdist variant given several years earlier in “Pearson’s Magazine”: 9
But what was it Mark Twain said, ‘Truth’s stranger than fiction, because fiction has to be possible and truth doesn’t’?
The 1954 film “The Barefoot Contessa” included a thematically matching line spoken by the star Humphrey Bogart as recorded in “The Movie Quote Book”. The screenplay was by Joseph L. Mankiewicz: 10
“Kirk was wrong when he said I didn’t know where movie scripts left off and life began. A script has to make sense, and life doesn’t.”
In 1975 the humorist Leo Rosten published an article in “The Saturday Review” that included an instance of the adage. Rosten used an asterisk footnote to assign credit to Mark Twain: 11
“Why shouldn’t truth be stranger than fiction?” asked the soundest psychologist the United States has produced.* “Fiction, after all, has to make sense.” Reality, of course, does not. If you doubt this, settle down as I give you a sample of some recent carryings-on of the human species.
The popular 1977 compilation “Peter’s Quotations: Ideas for Our Time” by Laurence J. Peter contained a version of the saying. Interestingly, the instance given by Peter matched the instance given by Rosten, and both were ascribed to Twain: 12
Why shouldn’t truth be stranger than fiction? Fiction, after all, has to make sense. —Mark Twain
In 1978 Leo Rosten published “Passions & Prejudices: Or, Some of My Best Friends Are People”, and he expressed another thematically matching notion which he ascribed to Twain: 13
For novelty, lunacy and surprise, fiction cannot begin to compete with fact. Mark Twain knew why: Fiction has to make sense . . . and life doesn’t.
In 1997 “Reader’s Digest Quotable Quotes” ascribed the following saying to Tom Clancy who was a bestselling author of military thrillers: 14
The difference between reality and fiction? Fiction has to make sense.
In 2004 an instance appeared as a puzzle solution in the long-running syndicated newspaper feature called “Celebrity Cipher”. Cryptograms for this widely-distributed column were based on “quotations by famous people past and present”: 15
“Truth is stranger than fiction; fiction has to make sense.” — Leo Rosten
In 2012 the energetic quotation collector Robert Byrne published “The 2,548 Wittiest Things Anybody Ever Said”, and he included an anonymous instance of the saying: 16
The difference between reality and fiction is that fiction has to make sense.
In conclusion, there is a large family of sayings which contrast “truth/reality” and “fiction”. These adages assert that fiction must accord with possibilities or probabilities. Alternatively, they state that fiction must make sense or be credible. QI believes that this family of expressions evolved from Mark Twain’s remark published in 1897. Many different variants have been assigned to Twain; however, current evidence only supports the ascription of 1897 statement.
Image Notes: Photo of faucet sculpture fountain from Hans on Pixabay. Portrait of Mark Twain from Appleton’s Journal of July 4, 1874 via Wikimedia Commons. Image showing part of the cover of the 1897 edition of “Following the Equator” by Mark Twain.
(Great thanks to Hope Dellon, Secretoriginz, and Ed Darrell who asked about this family of sayings. Dellon knew the correct Twain quotation. Their inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Additional thanks to Brandon Miller who pointed to the quotation in Bellamy’s 1888 work.)
Update History: On February 6, 2019 the 1888 Bellamy citation was added.
- 1897, Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World by Mark Twain (Samuel L. Clemens), (Chapter 15 Epigraph), Quote Page 156, American Publishing Company, Hartford, Connecticut; Also Doubleday & McClure Company, New York. (Internet Archive) link ↩
- 1823, Don Juan: Cantos XIII, XIII, and XIV, Author: George Gordon Byron (Lord Byron), Canto 14, Stanza 101, Quote Page 165, Printed for John Hunt, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1888, Looking Backward: 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy, Chapter 3, Quote Page 45 and 46, Ticknor and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (HathiTrust Full View) link ↩
- 1895 August 9, The Delphos Daily Herald, (Fill item), Quote Page 2, Column 6, Delphos, Ohio. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1904 December, Current Literature: A Magazine of Contemporary Thought, Volume 37, Number 6, The Original of Lady Kitty? Start Page 518, Quote Page 521, Column 1, The Current Literature Publishing Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1905, The Club of Queer Trades by Gilbert K. Chesterton, The Singular Speculation of the House-Agent, Start Page 129, Quote Page 135 and 136, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1913 January, The Magazine Maker: An Informative Journal for Writers and Editors, Volume 3, Number 6, The Newspaper Story by Russell E. Smith, Start Page 11, Quote Page 13, The Hannis Jordan Company, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link link ↩
- 1914 July, Pearson’s Magazine, Volume 32, Number 1, (Advertisement for stories appearing in a future issue of Pearson’s Magazine), Quote Page 112, The Pearson Publishing Company, New York, (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1922 May, McClure’s Magazine, Volume 54, Number 3, Aaron Westcott’s Funeral By Viola Roseboro’, Start Page 37, Quote Page 39, Column 2, The McClure Publishing Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1980, The Movie Quote Book, Compiled by Harry Haun, Topic: Screenplays, Quote Page 293 Lippincott & Crowell, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1975 January 25, The Saturday Review, Diversions: This Enchanted World by Leo Rosten, Start Page 8, Quote Page 8, Column 1, Saturday Review Associates, New York. (Unz) ↩
- 1977, “Peter’s Quotations: Ideas for Our Time” by Laurence J. Peter, Section: Truth, Quote Page 473, William Morrow and Company, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1978, Passions & Prejudices: Or, Some of My Best Friends Are People by Leo Rosten, Chapter 4: The Glories of the Press, Quote Page 24, Published by McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1997, Reader’s Digest Quotable Quotes: Wit and Wisdom for All Occasions, Quote Page 140, Published by Reader’s Digest Association, Pleasantville, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 2004 November 10, Santa Cruz Sentinel, Celebrity Cipher by Luis Campos, (Previous Solution), Quote Page B7, Column 5, Santa Cruz, California. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 2012, The 2,548 Wittiest Things Anybody Ever Said by Robert Byrne, Quote Number 855, Touchstone: A Division of Simon & Schuster, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩