Saturday, November 19, 2011

Fact In Fiction

Recently someone criticized one of my favorite historical fiction writers for not sticking with the facts in a novel.

Obviously the critic didn’t understand the primary function of a novel is to entertain.

In a historical novel, the writer has an obligation to make the reader accept his setting and characters as appropriate to the period. That doesn’t prevent a writer from twisting facts to suit a creative purpose.

As Alistair MacLean so aptly put it, “The key to the willing suspension of disbelief on the part of readers is a good mixture of real things and things fictional.” The formula seemed to work well for him in 28 novels, many of which were made into films.

There is a vast difference between fiction and fact. Webster defines the former as “the act of feigning or inventing; a literary production of the imagination.” And fact is clearly designated as “reality; event; truth.”

Naturally the two definitions are often confused.

Shakespeare’s dramas, for instance, are fiction. Yet generations of readers and playgoers have mistakenly accepted them as factual portrayals of persons and events. Clearly the evidence shows Shakespeare mined historical accounts for plots but doctored them with his imagination and personal impressions. That’s what we call creativity.

If it’s history you seek, then read a historian.

Then again, as Thackeray reminds us, “Fiction carries a greater amount of truth in solution than the volume which purports to be all true.” I’ll wager more people who were bored by the subject in their school days have been brought to love history through fiction than by any other means.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Carpe Diem

What time is it?

Daylight Saving Time ended and we returned to standard time Sunday morning. With the change, some of us complain how these changes play havoc with our system while others accept it with a resigned shrug of the shoulders.

This business of toying with time was first proposed by Pennsylvania’s remarkable philosopher-inventor Benjamin Franklin. It wasn’t instituted until 1916 by the Germans, those connoisseurs of precision, and then by the British as a wartime measure intended to save fuel and energy.

Daylight Saving Time wasn’t adopted in the U.S. until 1918, where Congress repealed it a year later. It was an on again, off again feature in various states until Congress made it a permanent feature of our lives in 1967. Even then, the law left instituting it to the discretion of individual states.

The practice always had its advocates, but there’s a certain fallacy to the theory it actually saves energy—if darkness comes an hour later at one end of the spectrum, then artificial light is necessary at the other.

Man is the only animal obsessed by this thing called time.

As Thomas Mann put it: “Time has no divisions to mark its passage, there is never a thunderstorm or blare of trumpets to announce the beginning of a new month or year. Even when a new century begins it is only we mortals who ring bells and fire off pistols.”

So, what time is it?

Even St. Augustine couldn’t answer that. “If no one asks me, I know what it (time) is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks me, I do not know.”

Dr. David Park, former president of the International Society for the Study of Time, confesses he has similar problems. Park theorizes there are actually two times: Time One, the invention of man, which is measured by clocks and moves constantly from past to future, and Time Two, which considers that the Eternal Now contains both the past and future. I like this latter concept, which eliminates the possibility of ever being late.

Man in his arrogance thought he had the idea of time figured out until the theorists of quantum physics illustrated the fallibility of a perception of the world based on direct experience.

What we have in the end is an invented “time” made accurate by universal agreement. It would appear the best advice of all is carpe diem (seize the moment).