Monday, February 1, 2010

What is fiction?

After reading a great deal about fiction where literary minds try to define what fiction is in a scientific manner, as if it were some kind of natural phenomenon, I'm left greatly confused. To me fiction is, in simplest terms, a story that didn't happen. Though scholars feel a great need to build a scaffolding of terms and diagrams from which to study the subject from, I don't feel that is as helpful in the study of fiction as it is in say the study of sea anemone. Where you might easily file a creature under an invertebrate category, you may have greater difficulty filing a story between the category of short story and novella. But why is it even necessary?

The twentieth century has seen a flood of scientific practices and terminology cascade from the realm of pure science into all other kinds of disciplines. Those waves of science break against the shores of the literary world but thankfully the shores have remained relatively impenetrable. Can you really apply scientific method to literature? Can I observe stories, form a hypothesis about why they're successful, experiment with stories based on that hypothesis and then proceed to write to highly successful story? Certainly many people have tried to do that, the world is full of books and expensive lectures on how to write the great American novel, but the peer review of those methods have proven that they are not scientifically sound, they are largely not repeatable with the same results.

Either successful fiction writing is such a complex thing that scholarly minds have yet to identify all the variables in play or fiction is simply not a natural phenomenon that can be understood in scientific terms. The latter makes the most sense to me. What could be more unnatural and break all scientific laws than to create something out of nothing? And yet fiction can carry more truth than most non-fiction in the world.

There are countless examples of what fiction can do. When Jesus tells the parable of the Prodigal Son does it really matter if the son was a real person and the event actually happened? No, because it moves us and demonstrates human nature to us. An acquaintance of mine, the late Doctor Gustavo Lage, was a very accomplished psychotherapist, a Florida medical school gives an annual award in his name; after years of medical training and personally going through psychoanalysis himself, he told me that he knew nothing about psychoanalysis until he read Dostoyevsky. The teacher in a recent philosophy class told me that philosophy can only teach what a particular type of thinking is; but fiction is the realm where philosophy is applied.

Fiction is distinctly human. Man has been telling stories since before the beginning of recorded time. What makes a story good or what makes a story bad, that's all debatable and often is. But fiction itself remains simple and immutable: the story that didn't happen, the unproven tale, the imagination, the dream. Despite all our rational and scientific minds tell us, if we reject the fictitious story we reject one of the most useful and well used tools humanity has ever had. We can debate about how and why fiction is so powerful but those things are as different as the individuals who read and write fiction. For better or for worse, fiction simply is and forever will be fiction.

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