What is fiction?

October 16, 2019

Part 2 in a series on fiction. See this post for an introduction to the podcast I’m discussing and an overview.

Scope of discussion

The first thing to notice is their reduction of fiction to modern Hollywood superhero movies, which is a very narrow subset of fiction. That’s fine as far as scope goes, but one cannot then make generalisations about “fiction.” It’s interesting that they immediately conflate the two, almost as if “this is now the only kind of story.” I find that quite depressing. To be fair, it sounds like it followed on from a previous they discussion they were having about Hollywood’s simplifying effect.

Still, it is a straw man, and makes their conclusion — that one probably right to be cautious of fiction — seem more justified. This is equivalent to restricting the discussion of nonfiction to autobiography, going on to point out that people can make unverifiable claims in an autobiography, and then concluding that one should therefore be cautious of nonfiction.

The issue is partly that the categories of “nonfiction” and “fiction” are so broad. If we add to Hollywood the classic and modern novels (and potentially the myths and religious texts), “fiction” quickly extends to include such a diversity of writing that it becomes closer to a medium (“writing” excluding a handful of early philosophical texts plus much recent science) than anything else.

Again, in their discussion they explicitly do not dismiss all novels, and say that many novels probably do teach people about life, and that most authors are well-intentioned. But still, it’s so broad that it seems like blanket statements at this level are unwise.

Exposure to false stories

Wiblin’s point at the start is that literature presents invented narratives, and the brain is not good at distinguishing between true stories and false stories. I agree with this and think it’s an important point. An invented narrative can lionise anyone or any kind of behaviour. The Turner Diaries, mentioned in a recent Sam Harris episode, comes to mind.

But here are a few other points:

  1. Nonfiction (for example journalism) can take a rare or otherwise non-representative event and create a narrative around it. This seems (to me) little different from fiction.
  2. Facts don’t really have any inherent story at all; the story comes at a later stage of presenting facts. To equate nonfiction with “unstructured set of facts” is also problematic, and potentially dangerous.
  3. Even the driest nonfiction is will still need to use narrative.
  4. Narratives can make information much more forceful and memorable.

As I suggest in #1, I don’t think that the constraint to correspond to something in the world is a strong one, given how random the world is.

It’s worth pointing out that literature, too, is constrained, though in quite a different way. Certain constraints vary by genre: what can happen in a realist modern novel is quite different from what can happen in science fiction.

Constraints like these are set quite early in a work of fiction. Thereafter they cannot be changed without a revolt from the reader. One can’t introduce a time travelling deus ex machina in the finale of a work of historical fiction, for example. It seems plausible to me that as a reader, learning to work out the “rules” early on in fiction could be useful social or even logical training.

But there are also constraints beyond continuity. Fiction is constrained by what is believable. These constraints apply whether the characters are millennials, or members of the Victorian aristocracy, or aliens. This leads naturally (though not inevitably) to a kind of archetypal storytelling, in which characters are understood to represent universals.

The novel can contain almost anything, but there are still constraints of continuity and of believability.

I would also claim that constraints of believability do not apply to nonfiction. In nonfiction, something can be reported by the mere virtue of its having happened. The news shows how this self-justifying tendency can become problematic, by leading people to become confused about which kinds of events are commonplace.

An aside

In an earlier post about when fiction began to differ from science, I said that the kind of fiction I’m most interested in is realist fiction. E.g., Dickens, Tolstoy, George Eliot. This discussion has got me wondering whether those authors aren’t better thought of as anthropologists.

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I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter or see more here.