Monday, February 25, 2013

Fiction Has To Make Sense

"The difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense." –Mark Twain

One of my favorite quotes. I love writing novels, even though they are categorized as fiction – a term that most people equate with 'false' or 'made up.' The implication is that novels are a waste of time, or not serious, not worthwhile. In writing novels, I in no way think I am wasting my time or anyone else's.

Non-fiction (reality) must only be possible; Fiction must be probable.
Non-fiction (reality) is random data points; Fiction is a hypothesis.

If the fiction, the hypothesis, rings true, the reader's entire perspective on life can change. Perspective shapes motivation; shapes action; shapes results. What resonates with the reader can be the overarching theme of a novel, a particular scene ... a particular phrase. The point is the reader (the receiver) is actively engaged. A bar has been set, and it may be high. The author must transmit something useful, that passes the standards of the reader, or it will be utterly discarded.

Non-fiction, memoirs included, presents itself as an unquestionable fact. The reader is obliged to suspend disbelief; to accept. This account must be accepted since it is 'true'.  Non-fiction is usually compelling when it describes an extra-ordinary event; a corner case. This is usually outside the experience of the reader, so it provides a valuable broadening of perspective. Readers can learn about a remarkable event in condensed time without being exposed to physical danger, and build a world view from a larger foundation – incredibly valuable. Unfortunately, this aspect of non-fiction can also be abused, either well-meaning or otherwise.

I am particularly annoyed by many works of fiction that present themselves as memoirs. I see it as an underhanded ploy to remove the standards set by the challenge of writing quality fiction. Fictional memoirs, such as Memoirs of a Geisha, that present themselves as non-fiction for added 'realism' artificially bypass a reader's healthy skepticism. (I love insights into new worlds, and had thought it was a good book when I first read it, but was under the impression it was a true memoir at the time, so now I don't remember how much of it I would have thought was contrived had I known it was fiction.) These books reap the benefit of the readers unquestioning acceptance of a 'truth' - an abuse the readers enthusiastic desire to learn. In the short term, it generates exaggerated interest and bolsters the author's sales; in the long-term, it only serves to mislead; create noise; cloud judgement.

Darkroom Composition
Writers of fiction essentially allow the world to label them as false, and have only hope that the truth will resonate and be useful. It is certainly true that many novels of fiction seem trite, contrived, random, pointless … and maybe they are, but that's fine. Bad ideas from one person's perspective, might provide someone else with a valuable benefit. Some food might be empty calories, but other entrees might be both delicious and nutritious. It's an individual choice. Over time, the most resonant fiction survives the ages and continues to inspire new generations. That is a challenge, but a worthwhile challenge.

I've been in the process of researching the ancient world for at least the past 10 years. It will be an underlying foundation for the next series of novels I am about to write. Just one of many layers that I hope will help give the stories added value and meaning even if all that background work is barely noticed. (For me, it's already been an unexpected and amazing journey to see the larger patterns of history and the motivation behind many aspects of our lives we take for granted. One of those unexpectedly tied in with food and how grains became a main staple of our diet. It in part provided motivation to re-evaluate this and experiment with the Paleo diet – a previous blog post.) For my first novel, I did create the world from the ground up, but then realized that if the world was set in our own remote past, that readers would have the opportunity to learn about or own history without any extra effort on their part. As I'm doing my research, if I ever need to talk to someone in academia, I've found it best not to even mention that my research is for fiction, because all too often the common response is something like: "Oh, then why bother with facts? Just make something up, if it's fiction."   #$(^@&!!!

Even if the entire world of a novel is invented, the themes, characters, almost any aspect of the novel can still represent a significant truth as an archetype or an allegory that can apply to the reader's life or an entire society. It is my whole-hearted belief that a work of fiction that carefully weaves the threads of a story together, that builds layer upon layer, that is true to the essence of the work, that this work of fiction can shape the direction of our lives. Fiction presents hypotheses that can be tested. If not in the lab, in the soul. The more generous and creative the reader, the more options to explore. I am not at all surprised when authors such as Jules Verne or Arthur C Clarke 'predict' the future in their novels. Not a prediction; they caught a piece of the truth. That's the point! :)

by Laura A Knauth

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