Backstories Discussion of genre Literary analysis Realistic Fiction

Real World Meets Realism – Is It Fact or Fiction? (Part 2 of 3)

In this post I continue looking into the subject of factual accuracy in Fiction, and specifically Realistic Fiction and the sliding scale of factuality…say what?!

Previously: Real World Meets Realism – Will the Real Robinson Crusoe Please Stand Up? (Part 1 of 3)

Realism in Fiction, or Realistic Fiction, is not “Non-Fiction”. It is a sub-genre of Fiction that lies on a sliding scale of factuality and realism, and truth, in literature. In science, there is no sliding scale like this – something is either a fact or it isn’t. One can get into a horrible philosophical tangle about the differences between facts and truths. I go by the general idea that a fact is a statement about objective reality, which is unchanging, consistent and can be objectively verified. A fact it a fact whether you believe it or not. A truth is a perception or belief which matches reality, and which, if verified, can become a fact. In my opinion, the test for realism in Realistic Fiction is the representation of facts, rather than truths.

You get an education, you learn, you read – so you know some things about some things. Because of what you know, you instantaneously and continuously absorb, process, filter, and categorize everything you read in your mind. And should be questioning and reconsidering what you read if there are inconsistencies. But how does this apply to Realistic Fiction?

Literary critic James Wood, states that “Fiction is both artifice and verisimilitude.” (Wood, James, 2008, How Fiction Works, New York. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, p. xiii.)

We can say that Fiction is both a kind of creative trickery and something which looks like it is true or real. This means that creating fiction requires inventiveness as well as some acceptable degree of believability. Often a good indicator that a piece of writing is Fiction rather than Non-Fiction, is that the former contains metaphors, (adjectives and adverbs) and emotionally loaded words and punctuation (like this!!!).

Example of inventiveness combined with plausibility

Embassytown, by China Miéville – Some call it Speculative Science Fiction, but I call it Hard Science Fiction because it is a story based on an actual phenomenon in Linguistics that is very accurately depicted.

China Miéville’s Sci-Fi novel Embassytown is based on this concept: it depicts a world where the new arrivals and the original inhabitants cannot communicate with each other, because the language of the original inhabitants is based on literalness. This means that unless a word is a thing, and the thing is the word, they cannot understand it. They cannot lie, nor can they use metaphors, similes, or abstract representation. They can’t communicate verbally because they can’t lie, and don’t lie because they don’t communicate verbally. 

This is apparently what makes us humans enjoy reading Fiction. We enjoy the imaginary parts, the not-real bits, which is liberating and relaxing. At the same time, we don’t like being confused by references to real life that don’t pan out or that are unconvincing. Those characters and settings need to be relatable to our reality in order for us to accept them. Ah, humans – they sure are hard to please!

Consider the balance

In any novel, you have to consider the balance between factual accuracy (of the settings, events, characters, and known science) and the invented parts, which depends on the degree of literary license that the author has taken. Often, while the level of accuracy in a novel is not high, but acceptable, the skills and artistry of the writer nonetheless make it pleasing and engrossing to the reader. Vice versa, if a novel contains such huge historical inaccuracies, especially anachronisms, that it irritates or confuses the reader, the work as a whole – not just in part –  loses its artistic integrity.

Examples in Literature

From ludicrously unrealistic, to having a high degree of scientific contents:

Barbara Cartland’s historical romances: Good inventiveness, but quite historically inaccurate. This is history as it mostly never happened. The novels are filled with heaving-bosomed beauties, strong-jawed noblemen and repressed passion, repressed that is until the final pages. But huge fun to read.

The perfect balance: “Wolf Hall”, by Hilary Mantel: Wonderful historical accuracy but also great feeling and marvellously accomplished style. It’s in a class of its own in terms of the combination of art and realism in Fiction.

“Loving Frank”, by Nancy Horan: On balance, this historical novel errs on the side of historical accuracy. It is very accurate and true to the reports of the time, but the characters are not depicted as engaging, and the book does not make you want to find out more about the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, its main subject.

A good example of Hard Science Fiction: “ Death’s End”, by LIU Cixin: It’s heavy reading, part of a trilogy. People without a scientific background, like me, might find it hard to get their heads around some of the concepts.

“An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth”, the memoir of astronaut Chris Hadfield. Unsurprisingly, it is highly scientifically accurate – but combined with the inspiring personal insights and opinions of the author. However, the man and the astronaut are near indistinguishable.

“MIT Technology Review – Twelve Tomorrows”: “…storytelling about the possible but the not-quite-yet”. The stories in this anthology are Hard SF, based not on speculative ideas about the future, but about the most plausible future configuration or outcome of current scientific studies or hard scientific facts. Collectively the stories cover the spectrum of known and achievable science and technology, from concepts to achievements.

Nowadays, because of increased scrutiny on social media, authors may employ dedicated “fact checkers” to ensure the factual accuracy of their books (since publishers do not). (Source: Britni de la Cretaz, Fact or friction: the problem with factchecking in the book world, in, 16 May 2018)

Realistic Fiction and feasibility

Realistic Fiction has a specific features that make it more factual than not – it is typically a story of which

  1. the basic setting (time and location in the world) is
  2. real or realistic, and
  3. in which the events could feasibly happen
  4. in a real-world setting.

Most Science Fiction, on the other hand, is fiction involving a story which

  1. is often set in an imaginary universe / a Constructed World / an alternative history of the world (other than that which is currently understood as true),
  2. or in a non-existent time-period, or
  3. presents impossible or not yet invented technology, or
  4. depicts events that defy the laws of science.

So, Realistic Fiction has mostly factual and truthful settings, themes, concepts and events. 

As unscientific as this venn diagram is, this is the way I distinguish between different types of writing – some are pure fiction, some are a mixed breed, and some are pure facts. As for the news? These days, who knows? We’re back in the age of “Princess Caraboo” and the public’s craving for sensationalism.

On the one side of this sliding scale of realism or factuality is Realistic Fiction, or Mundane Science Fiction, even Hard Science Fiction. And on the opposite side there is…well, nothing. There is no official term for the opposite of Hard Science Fiction. “Soft Science Fiction” refers to Science Fiction based on the “soft” sciences like sociology, anthropology, linguistics and psychology, which I regard as a misnomer, and is not the opposite of the term. Nor is there a genre of “Un-realistic Fiction” (?). The term itself is autological; fiction is by definition un-realistic, to some or other extent, and the elements that aren’t realistic are somewhere on the sliding scale of factuality.

What are your parameters?

So the trick, when reading, understanding or taking in literature, is to decide what it is – Fiction? Non-Fiction? Un-realistic Fiction? Realistic Fiction? Opinion? Fact? Or it is a “Non-Fiction Novel”, the format that Truman Capote made famous? The only way you can decide for yourself is to compare what you read to what you know as facts.

In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote, first published in 1966, about an actual quadruple homicide.

I watched with interest a vodcast Web television series, GQ’s The Breakdown, in which experts comment on the realism or plausibility of scenes in famous films. My favourite survivor guy, Les Stroud, commented on movies featuring people in life-threatening outdoor situations – anything from facing bears to falling into chasms. It is amusing when he catches out the film-makers. People who are sticklers for facts would call these inaccuracies…lies. We, folks with imagination, call it fiction or dramatic effect.

“Okay, right there. Do you see any footprints of him walking up to that spot? ‘Cause I don’t see any. This is when Hollywood just doesn’t get it.”| “You know, I don’t know what it is, the difference between filmmakers when they try to depict certain scenes that actually happen in life. Some just do a silly job of it.” | “Seeing the immensity of the wave above him, that’s a pretty real thing to see. They did throw in sharks swimming by for dramatic effect, and that’s all that is, is dramatic effect. Yeah nicely and beautifully done.”
Next post: Real World Meets Realism – An excellent Anthropological Novel – Devil’s Run, by Gordon mohs (Part 3 of 3)

About the header: Montage containing image, dated prior to 1949, of Stó:lō [First Nation] people fishing with traditional dipnets on the Fraser River, called “Stolo [Sto:lo] with dipnets”, from Wikimedia Commons. The background is my image of the local Pitt River at sunrise.

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