Does fiction improve understanding?

October 17, 2019

Part 3 in a series on fiction. See this post for an introduction to the podcast I’m discussing and an overview.

The World

Implicit too in Wiblin’s argument is the idea that all writing is intended to “improve your understanding of the world.” As I implied last time, with my point about the constraint on the believability of characters, it might be better to construe fiction as an attempt to improve your understanding of human nature, rather than of the world per se.

If that’s true, then it is not really important to distinguish between the true cases presented by nonfiction and the invented cases presented by fiction, provided that fiction gives insight into human actions. Fictional narratives must centre on human behaviour (even if they’re represented as ghosts, or rabbits, or whatever), which may give some insight into the evolutionary roots of narrative.

The inflexibility of narrative on this point is interesting: You simply can’t tell a story without human characters or anthropomorphising. It makes me wonder whether narratives didn’t arise first as a way of learning about human nature. Perhaps it was only later, through a hack, they allowed us to convey and absorb (and, perhaps most importantly, to remember) other types of information.

I think there’s also a further point to be made here, which is that a reader should not be too credulous when reading either fiction or nonfiction. In either case a work represents a single viewpoint, regardless of whether it invents a fictional world or presents a narrative about a large dataset.

You could argue that scientific papers are often co-written and peer-reviewed, but any novel in a bookstore will have been before dozens of pairs of eyes and many rounds of editing before it gets anywhere near a press. Novels (even in these waning days) are often more of a collaboration between an author and several different types of editors.

I have also argued elsewhere that a realist novel essentially is the analysis of a large dataset of human behaviour.

The Message

Wiblin makes the point that fiction could misrepresent a group of people as routinely doing terrible things, with the intention of turning sentiment against them. But nonfiction can do this too, simply by focusing on non-representative examples.

Any sufficiently large group of humans over a long enough period of time will contain true stories that could, in isolation, make members of that group look as bad as any fictional denunciation. Presumably these arguments would be more persuasive by virtue of the truth of the incidents.

This seems to align with one of Wiblin’s other points, which is that you should be aware of the writer’s biases before reading them. I have mixed feelings about this, which I’ll discuss next time.

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Bryan Kam

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