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And The Truth Shall Set You Free

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A short note on vocabulary.

Because I’ve just hit one of those walls I never anticipate, even though, given everything, I should have anticipated.


No novel can be a good novel if it is not true.  The opposite of true is false. 

In other words, a novel that is not true is a lie about human life and human nature.

But true DOES NOT mean the same thing as real.

A novel is real if the events and locales within it correspond to what is existing and possible in the real world.

And this is not the same thing as “realism,” which is a movement in Western literary history in which the world is portrayed as one of those reality programs about lowlifes who live in a post apocalyptic dystopia.

Okay, I’m exaggerating there.  But not a lot.  I give you Thomas Hardy.

The important thing to remember is this:  a book can be true even if it is in no way real.

Terry Pratchett’s  novel Small Gods is one of the truest books I’ve ever read, but it is in no way real.

It occurs to me that when I talk about how I do not like books that are not real, what most of you answer with are examples of how books with unreal settings or possibilities can be true.

And you’re quite right, of course.

Books set in outer space or Middle Earth or three hundred years in the future can be very true indeed.

But they are still not real.

Written by janeh

August 13th, 2012 at 8:15 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'And The Truth Shall Set You Free'

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  1. Be fair to the realists: they also think what they demand is truth–which is one of the problems. Truth in the sense you use it is not demonstrable. You can’t drop two rocks from a tower and settle matters.

    And there is a sense in which ONLY what exists is possible. Baker Street and West 35th, Jack Bauer adn Jack Ryan are, to use Piper’s vocabulary, closer time-lines. But they are still not ours. It also goes to the heart of why we write and read fiction. And I would say one reason is to get at the truth.

    And since I look at it that way, Jane Austen and Leigh Brackett, Agatha Christie and Robert Heinlein go on the same shelves. Becaue all of them are true, and none of them is real.

    The real shelves contain Sears’ Gettysburg, Fleming’s Now We Are Enemies and Chandler’s Campaigns of Napoleon. Hornblower, Rifleman Dodd and Brigadier Gerard rightly stand on the other shelves, near Lazarus Long, Conan of Cimmeria and Matthew Carse, formerly assistant to the Chair of Martian Antiquities in Kahora.

    Because to me, real is a quantum state. You can’t be a little bit fictional.


    13 Aug 12 at 9:30 pm

  2. Robert, does your shelf of military stuff contain Dixon’s “On the Psychology of Military Incompetence”?

    That’s “real” with a triple somersault.


    13 Aug 12 at 10:49 pm

  3. Yes I own it–nutty but insightful. But the seriously interpretive stuff gets its own shelving: Marx and Adam Smith, Veblen, Weber, Parkinson, Gladwell, Codevilla and company are all there together.

    Which is one eason why I didn’t take the “difficult=intellectually weighty” business seriously. If you know what you want to say, your facts are in order and your reasoning is clear, your writing shouldn’t be dificult.


    14 Aug 12 at 6:01 am

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