Thursday, March 2, 2017

Stranger (and duller) than fiction

Now, my own suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.
J.B.S. Haldane, Possible Worlds

Human behavior, being very much a part of the universe, is no less queer than everything else. As predictable as some people seem to be, we never really know what they are going to say or do next. It is why drivers need to be constantly alert, why long-married people can still surprise their mates and why newspapers have no trouble filling their pages each day.

Joanne Harris
It is also why the old adage "truth is stranger than fiction" is really true. Novelist Joanne Harris phrased that idea differently in an article she wrote for a recent edition of BookPage, a free publication often distributed in libraries and bookstores. "The fact is that real life is nowhere near as plausible as fiction," she wrote, "...and if I were to base my books on actual, real life incidents encountered during my teaching career, the critics would scoff and refuse to believe that any such thing had happened."

Most of us can recall some very odd things that have happened to us over the years, coincidences that might seem far-fetched if we encountered them in a work of fiction. To mention just one small example from my own life, in the eighth grade we boys were split into basketball teams that played during the noon hour. Of course, the first order of business was to choose a name. For some reason, the name Turtles came to my mind. I decided not to propose it, however, because Turtles seemed like a ridiculous name for a basketball team. Yet at that instant another boy said, "Let's call ourselves the Turtles," and everybody thought that was a great idea. There was nothing mystical there or supernatural, but I think even J.B.S. Haldane would have agreed it was queer.

Most writers of fiction strive to make their stories believable, and that, as Harris suggests, may mean making them a little less like real life. This involves more than just eliminating the strangeness of real life. It also means eliminating all those necessary but boring things that fill so much of our days, everything from brushing our teeth and getting dressed in the morning to making beds and preparing meals. Nobody wants to read that kind of detail in a novel, yet that is what real life is like. Even if you think you lead an exciting life, the really interesting things that happen occupy just a small portion of a typical day.

Real life, thus, is both more strange and more dull and routine than any novel. No matter how realistic a novel may seem, it is still fiction.

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