“Illusions are dangerous people”: The Limits of Fiction

If you have read even a negligible percentage of the articles on this blog, then you also most likely have a very firm sense of just how much all of us here at BookFeet love literature. However, this very love can make us biased and by dwelling on the virtues and revelations found in novels we can arguably sometimes go blind to their limitations. Prosaic musings on the endless experiences felt vicariously through countless characters – whilst acknowledging that they are vicarious – nonetheless make no allowances for how poor a reflection of true experience such renditions can be. By their very nature, books are a simplified expression of what it is to be human as the depth and complexity of any human being is fundamentally impossible to capture. This is not a point against literature in itself, but rather when we think literature has achieved this and so by raising the art so high we devalue ourselves. In the ever insightful words of Thomas Hardy, “compared to the dullest human being actually walking about on the face of the earth and casting his shadow there, the most brilliantly drawn character in a novel is but a bag of bones”.

I can hear your sharp intake of breath.

Before our editors wrestle me to the floor and quietly hustle me from the building, it is perhaps best to emphasise that this is no attempt to argue that fiction has no value – heaven forbid, I have devoted a life in faith of the opposite – or that it need always be deeply realistic in content and setting, but rather that what we gain from literature should never blind us to what it cannot provide us with.

I love getting lost in someone else’s world; running barefoot through the streets of seventeenth century Paris, throwing pithy quips at interstellar travelling companions with a Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster in hand, or listening to Mole run lyrical on the wonders of Ratty’s picnic packing skills. We fall in love, we fight, we learn, all through little squiggles on sheets of processed tree. Realism counts for nothing, with excellent writing capable of setting any character, of any species, from any time, in any place, facing any situation and still be able to tell us something real about our world and the human experience. Except that sometimes they don’t. These realms are the creation of (usually) one author and as such are as much the product of what their creator wants them to be as they are of how a reader interprets them. The wishful thinking of both the author and the reader can fuse to create a distorted understanding of the world. However danger does not lie with bad writing, as in such instances we only ever see badly written characters rather than invest in them as individuals, it is rather when we accept these manipulated agents – who are truly capable of anything in a way that real people are not, existing where actions can be ascribed to any motives and any consequences – and take them as statements of reality. These tell us more about our own wishful thinking rather than any material human trait.

That reading represents an escape from the everyday is not the least of its phenomenal virtues, yet there is often more to this than simple escapism: it can also be a consolation for what our own lives might be lacking. I appreciate that you know as well as I do that, however much we might wish they were, these people do not exist, and as such I have no desire to lecture you like an eighteenth century housemaid on the ruinous consequences of reading too many romance novels. Rather, the vicarious experience of being brave, adored, adventurous, noble, driven, and reflective, waging battles and pursuing great loves can offer us perspectives and perceptions we could never share otherwise. It’s about our possible selves: what we could be, what we could feel. “But what does our own experience say in answer to books?” – ironically the words of Wilkie Collins, one of the finest sensationalist writers of his time – reading of these experiences is nothing in comparison to having those experiences themselves. We present fiction as the apotheosis of understanding, but a lot of what I enjoy in a novel is seeing glimpses of the life I want to lead, places I want to travel to, and qualities I wish to possess, not just read about. We console ourselves with the idea of living countless lives through literature when really all we get is wishful thinking and fragments of possibility. Sometimes we forget how wonderful we are.

The wonder of literature does not lie in its ability to capture the entirety of human experience, but that does not mean it has no power. We elevate it as though what it is capable of is not enough, when really a life – however mundane – is considerably richer with literature than the same life would be without it. Yet it is important to note that it is not a substitute for experience either – instead it can inspire wonder and adventure, provoke thought and curiosity, provide hope and escape, and consequently provide a means towards those potential selves we come to want to be. Fiction is not the summation of human experience but the formation of it.

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