Against fiction

by Rob Horning

2 September 2005


This may be a personal shortcoming, a failure of my own imagination, but I no longer understand the purpose of fiction. I’m not sure what is significant about someone’s making up events that happen to made-up people and lead to made up denouements, especially when it is so easy to research events that actually happened to actual people. Isn’t much fiction, especially the sort that eschews formal innovation or stylized word play just lazy reporting, wherein writers draw on information they’ve gathered without bothering to verify it?

Fiction at its most basic provides a vehicle for escapism, a world the reader may enter and feel like the all-knowing master of that universe’s simplified, obvious rules for cause and effect; such fiction offers the illusion of power along with the escape into a more comprehensible and more orderly world. These simplified rules for how the world works provide the much trumpeted moral instruction that novels are sometimes held to provide, but the moral instruction is usually the pleasing celebration of values and formulas for living that readers already hold (This seems especially true of genre fiction, which indulges preordained fantasies that correspond with power balances in the actual society such fiction services.) Researched accounts of actual events seems much more likely to reveal alternatives to the status quo, paradoxically, than made-up fictions which are circumscribed by the habitus of its writer, which reflects all the biases of class and the imposed limits made by common sense of what is even possible. Imagination is actually more circumscribed than the real, whose capability to astonish only increases as one devotes energy to investigating it. Fiction seems to me a kind of abdication, a retreat from the possibilities that trouble the delicately balanced worldview that perpetuates the status quo.

Reality programming on television seems to be a reflection of the threat technology levies against fiction, whose flimsy justification once may have rested in the difficulty of gaining information about other people’s lives. But obvioulsy these programs impose the formulas derived from fiction on hours and hours of raw material; it reveals more of the process of the fictionalizing of reality; these are our social novels. Literary fiction seems to be a product with increasing snob appeal; the fundamental result of reading such books is reveling in a kind of moral superiority to the people who one imagines is missing out on such edifying experiences, reading such books is a way of consuming an image of oneself as “wise, perceptive reader,” capable of appreciating subtle nuance and whatnot like the writer whom one imagines as a peer, a fellow soldier in the war to preserve Culture.

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