November 6, 2022

Faction – The Blend of Fact and Fiction

With the clocks going back and the nights drawing in, now may be the perfect time to diversify the types of books on your reading list. Over the winter months, you might find yourself reading a lot more and you might get bored of reading the same type of book (I do!). For those of you who are fans of crime and thriller or historical novels, you may find yourself reaching for non-fiction books that cover the broad topics you’re generally interested in.

Sometimes these books can be enthralling, but other times they can feel like they have vastly missed the mark for someone reading for pleasure. Whilst every book has its place, a volume of collected academic papers might not bring you quite the enjoyment you were looking for in your latest bedtime read. However, if you’re looking to broaden your literary horizons a suitable alternative may be faction. Read on to find out more!

What is Faction?

Don’t worry, I haven’t made a typo – I do mean faction and not fiction! Broadly speaking, the definition of faction has nothing to do with how the word is normally used in everyday speech. For example, newspapers may talk about factions in a political party meaning that the party has split into several groups because of a difference of opinion on a specific issue. In literary terms, it simply means a blend between fact and fiction.

Take Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible. It is an example of faction in that it tells the story of the 17th-century Salem Witch Trials but is embellished with fictitious elements to build rounded characters that the audience can relate to or empathise with in a more contemporary setting. Although you won’t find Abigail’s story verbatim on official historical records, you will find several similar stories. In this way, Miller’s character is a metaphorical representation of the hundreds of voices who were silenced and supressed during the actual Salem Witch Trials.

Literary Truth

In some ways faction does fit into working definitions of literary truth. It does tell a story that aims to tell the reader something about the world. It then allows them to make an assessment as to the accuracy of such a ‘truth’. However, faction doesn’t usually have such philosophical underpinnings. It simply wants to tell a story in the same way that a fictional piece of writing does.

There has been much debate surrounding literary truth in recent years, mostly surrounding whether something should be classed as fiction or non-fiction. Most of the texts debated in this sense are debated over a dispute in their accuracy to real-life. The most notorious example I can think of is J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine. For years, academics and readers alike have debated the accuracy of Baker’s ‘diary’ recording his search for and relationship to the Peregrines of Essex.

People have tended to highlight that some details are wholly inaccurate, e.g. the number of Peregrine prey discovered by the author. Suggestions as to why there are such inaccuracies range from the idea that none of the events in the diary ever occurred to the idea that there may have been environmental factors that made these Peregrines behave differently. Although I don’t know all the answers (and no one ever will), it seems like this book would be a great candidate for classification as faction to ease the debate surrounding its accuracy.

Poetic License

Another literary debate relevant to faction is that surrounding the idea of poetic license. Defined as ‘the act by a writer or poet of changing facts or rules to make a story or poem more interesting or effective’, it is essential to the art of creating faction. Without a little poetic license, a writer would simply be creating a work of non-fiction. With less focus on factual accuracy the writer is able to focus on writing a story which resonates with their audience – the main aim of most writers.

One of the best descriptions of using poetic license can be found in Charles J. Shields’ biography Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee. In this book, Shields describes how Truman Capote and his collaborator Harper Lee collected evidence surrounding the murder of the Clutter family. This evidence would eventually be turned into Capote’s seminal work of faction, In Cold Blood. In letters obtained by Shields, Lee describes how Capote changed the nature of the evidence to suit the narrative anticipated by the audience. Although there was evidence that there may have been domestic issues in the Clutter household, Lee recalls how Capote was careful to gloss over these issues to present the family as upstanding citizens to gain the sympathy and interest of his readership.

Whether you’ve ever read faction or not, it’s certainly an interesting genre that is well worth exploring when you’re building your winter reading list!

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