Commentary Magazine


Topic: fiction

An Apology for Fiction

“The novel lies, in saying that something happened that did not,” Elizabeth Bowen famously said two-thirds of a century ago. “It must, therefore, contain uncontradictable truth, to warrant the original lie.” This is as good an apology for fiction as I’ve ever come across, although J. V. Cunningham adds some distinctions that complicate things enormously:

Fiction is fiction: its one theme
Is its allegiance to its scheme.
Memoir is memoir: there your heart
Awaits the judgment of your art.
But memoir in fictitious guise
Is telling truth by telling lies.

Maybe lies is not the best word for what fiction does, then. It’s not possible, after all, to tell the truth by telling a lie. Maybe it would be better to say that fiction makes believe something happened that did not. As the philosopher Kendall Walton pointed out in his treatise Mimesis as Make-Believe (1990), this small change would place fiction in the company of children’s games — “playing house and school, cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians . . . fantasies built around dolls, teddy bears, and toy trucks.” Fiction would then be seen as merely a sustained and self-consistent game of pretending. Some grown-ups involve themselves in role-playing games; some, in fiction.

The comparison remains apt, though. As Walton observes, there is a huge difference between make-believe and private fantasies or daydreams, even when they are deliberate. Make-believe has three special advantages: objectivity, control, and joint participation.

A make-believe world is objective in containing pain and suffering, and in permitting its visitors to be afflicted by them without actually being hurt by them. “We realize some of the benefits of hard experience without having to undergo it,” Walton says. In make-believe, the players actively control the direction and progress of the game. “Brother, save me,” my son Dov calls to his twin; “I’m falling off a cliff.” “I’ve just discovered that I can fly!” his brother Saul calls back. “Here I come to save you.” By contrast, daydreams are passive: they happen to the daydreamer, who floats along or is drenched by them. And finally, as the example of my sons’ play suggests, make-believe entails the possibility of joint participation among the players.

These, then, are the three values of fiction. They give objective reality to mere imaginings; they can be controlled and thus explored, asked about, or rearranged to test a different outcome; they require more than one person, demanding cooperation and shared responsibility.

But what about Bowen’s “uncontradictable truth,” which fiction must contain to warrant, if not the lie, then at least the time passed in making believe? Within the world of make-believe, statements are true if and only if they are true about the make-believe world. It doesn’t follow, however, that because they are true about a make-believe world, they are false statements about our own actual world. Perhaps there is much overlap between the two worlds; perhaps the statement is true about both. Which means that fiction is not merely a way of making worlds, but also a way of making communities in which fiction’s claims are either accepted and become the occasion for further exploration and inquiry into the truths of different worlds or rejected in the wild arrogance that this world alone is sufficient for probing the truth of every possible human utterance.

“The novel lies, in saying that something happened that did not,” Elizabeth Bowen famously said two-thirds of a century ago. “It must, therefore, contain uncontradictable truth, to warrant the original lie.” This is as good an apology for fiction as I’ve ever come across, although J. V. Cunningham adds some distinctions that complicate things enormously:

Fiction is fiction: its one theme
Is its allegiance to its scheme.
Memoir is memoir: there your heart
Awaits the judgment of your art.
But memoir in fictitious guise
Is telling truth by telling lies.

Maybe lies is not the best word for what fiction does, then. It’s not possible, after all, to tell the truth by telling a lie. Maybe it would be better to say that fiction makes believe something happened that did not. As the philosopher Kendall Walton pointed out in his treatise Mimesis as Make-Believe (1990), this small change would place fiction in the company of children’s games — “playing house and school, cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians . . . fantasies built around dolls, teddy bears, and toy trucks.” Fiction would then be seen as merely a sustained and self-consistent game of pretending. Some grown-ups involve themselves in role-playing games; some, in fiction.

The comparison remains apt, though. As Walton observes, there is a huge difference between make-believe and private fantasies or daydreams, even when they are deliberate. Make-believe has three special advantages: objectivity, control, and joint participation.

A make-believe world is objective in containing pain and suffering, and in permitting its visitors to be afflicted by them without actually being hurt by them. “We realize some of the benefits of hard experience without having to undergo it,” Walton says. In make-believe, the players actively control the direction and progress of the game. “Brother, save me,” my son Dov calls to his twin; “I’m falling off a cliff.” “I’ve just discovered that I can fly!” his brother Saul calls back. “Here I come to save you.” By contrast, daydreams are passive: they happen to the daydreamer, who floats along or is drenched by them. And finally, as the example of my sons’ play suggests, make-believe entails the possibility of joint participation among the players.

These, then, are the three values of fiction. They give objective reality to mere imaginings; they can be controlled and thus explored, asked about, or rearranged to test a different outcome; they require more than one person, demanding cooperation and shared responsibility.

But what about Bowen’s “uncontradictable truth,” which fiction must contain to warrant, if not the lie, then at least the time passed in making believe? Within the world of make-believe, statements are true if and only if they are true about the make-believe world. It doesn’t follow, however, that because they are true about a make-believe world, they are false statements about our own actual world. Perhaps there is much overlap between the two worlds; perhaps the statement is true about both. Which means that fiction is not merely a way of making worlds, but also a way of making communities in which fiction’s claims are either accepted and become the occasion for further exploration and inquiry into the truths of different worlds or rejected in the wild arrogance that this world alone is sufficient for probing the truth of every possible human utterance.

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