Don’t Knock My Fictional Feelings!

The old man had been on the sea for days; the marlin pulled his small boat hour after hour. My mouth was dry, nearly salty. I felt the weight of isolation–the weight of being on a vast ocean that is void of another human form. Ernest Hemmingway tossed me into the skiff and sent it to sea.

Fiction has the power to do this—to create experiences that evoke real emotional responses. Story, though understood by its reader to be non-reality, has the power to spark emotions that are otherwise reserved for real events, even though the reader understands they are only real in his imagination. In philosophy of literature, this is called the ‘paradox of fiction’: we react to acknowledged non-reality as through reality.

Why should we care? Well, for one, when an educator or parent must make decisions of censorship or filtering media, this question is pivotal. If ‘fictive experiences’ are derivative from our prior experiences in ‘reality’, then handing A Clockwork Orange to a 10-year-old shouldn’t harm them too much. But if fiction, when experienced as though it is real, has the power to actually create new experiences and understanding, the stakes rise exponentially.

Some philosophers have taken a position somewhere in-between. Kendall Walton, author of Mimesis as Make-Believe, takes a philosophical look into the purpose and effect of representational art, including literary fiction. Walton’s work was recommended to me by a professor, but though it was an intriguing read, I was incredulous concerning Walton’s explanation of fiction.

Response to fiction relies on the reader/viewer’s active participation, he said.  Walton compares fiction to games of make-believe, and concludes that we intentionally suspend judgments of ‘reality’ so that we can fully experience representational art.

But I did not think Walton’s theory was intuitively true. While watching a horror film, I’ve found solace in reminding myself that is it ‘not real’; I did not first enter into the film’s world by actively setting aside its ‘non-reality’.

Not that Walton is wrong, per se. I just don’t think he’s finished answering the question. Make-believe can account for some fiction-inspired experience, but not all. Sure, the imagination is powerful, but an author who can write a subtle, sublime piece of fiction seems able to subsume a reader into the images, rather than vice versa.

Danièle Moyal-Sharrock, in her article “The Fiction of Paradox: Really Feeling for Anna Karenina,” offers a compelling response to Walton’s theory:

Literary characters and situations prompt real, full-fledged emotions that often have prolonged, even life-long, impact. Indeed, so real was the fear that Hitchcock’s The Birds spurred in me when I watched it at the age of nine that I know it to be responsible for my still-existent ornithophobia. And what of the emotions provoked by Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) which caused so many young men at the end of the eighteenth century to commit suicide? Can we call these ‘make-believe’? …our ordinary responses to fictional characters are genuine responses.

We don’t react to fiction in spite of its being fiction, she says, but because it is fiction. For example, Tolstoy’s deliberate and subtle description of Anna Karenina and her demise probably creates a stronger emotional reaction than if we read of a ‘real-life’ suicide in the newspaper.

In other words, fiction sometimes gives us more real experiences than real events. Dr. Moyal-Sharrock, citing Aristotle, argues that fiction is formative and educational. It ‘enhances our understanding’ of the world and what it means to be human. In that, even the darkest tragedy can be pleasurable: humans are designed to seek knowledge and understanding apart from utilitarian usability or two-dimensional rosiness.

I believe most educators are not adequately aware of how powerful fiction is, both in terms of responsibility and possibility. When a piece of literature is assigned, a teacher should think about what experiences the student (or child) is likely to encounter and be ready to discuss them. I did not learn of grief when someone I knew died; I learned of it when Rab stood firm at Lexington, taking a fatal bullet at the end of Johnny Tremain (Esther Forbes).

The nature of fiction inspired experience is an inexplicable mystery. Philosophy of literature, when poorly done, tries to circumvent mystery with ad hoc categories. Done well, as in Moyal-Sharrock’s article, it focuses instead on how experiencing fiction teaches us about being human. In light of that, of course, we should also know what a piece of fiction teaches. As any lover of literature can tell you, fiction may be fictive, but its lessons are real—and sometimes, all-too-real.