My recent post asking why fiction is (in response to James Wood's book How Fiction Works) prompted some interesting comments here on RSB and a very good discussion over on This Space, where I've attempted to elucidate my original post by writing, "the 'ontological status', then, of fiction is what I'm thinking about here. Blanchot and Heidegger guide the thinking. For sure, my question touches on the personal reasons as to why a writer might choose fiction to express themselves, but I wanted to draw attention to fiction's own being, to its own ground, to our assumptions about it before we approach or write or read it. These assumptions are rarely aired, but a strain of writing from Sterne through to Robbe-Grillet has attempted to grapple with them in their own fiction."

And now this excellent post from the No Answers blog:

... fiction itself is very much about its own response to this argument. More than representation, more than beauty, perceived or otherwise, more than didactic elucidation, it remains the very thing that rebuffs such questions, and it is within such a general rebuttal that it defines itself. Note that I don't mean by this that fiction is somehow inherently ambiguous, or contradictory, or disingenuous: fiction is simply this -- that which continues to escape.

Readers Comments

  1. A provocative post, Mark. Let me take a run at it, but first I would say that two of my previous posts took shots at this issue, quoting Stevens and Williams ("Poetry Break: Ding-an-Sich") on the one hand and Wm. Gass ("Credo") on the other. Pay especial attention to the latter.

    The answer to the 'why' of fiction must be multiform. Stories about exploits in hunting, adventuring, exploring, and war grew up with the language. Tales were told. Lessons were learned. They not only informed, but entertained. These traditions are as alive today as ever—and we're still fighting about how much truth counts in non-fiction and fiction. But this merely speaks to the demand-side of the equation (something I've blogged about with respect to the current spat over memoir—see my posts "Cheap Thrills" and "Confess!").

    Yes, there is a market—a demand—for stories. But there is also a supply-side argument. Persons with imagination and the gift of gab seek to use those tools to "grasp the world". And, through fictional forms, to perfect that vision.

    Fiction lets us stray from the pedestrian and the mundane. It allows us to create and potentially resolve problems and conflicts that we believe "might" happen: pose hypotheticals, if you will. Sure, it's an institutionalized form of lying and its purposes and aims can be small and mean or grand, but fiction is an art form and, as such, its "why" is the same as any other art form's—merely its means are different and, some would argue, more exact and exacting.

    Why is there art, you ask. You might as well ask why we lie, why we dream, why we aspire, why we connive. The answers may be as many as there are writers—or even more (since there are more stories than writers). Or the answer could be as simple as it's simply what we, as languaged beings, do with our minds.

    Jim H.


  2. Thanks for your comments here and over on This Space Jim.

    I need to say more, of course, and will do (hopefully over the weekend) but my take on this eternal but fascinating subject is that we need to steer a philosophical course between the Scylla of practicality (why is fiction written) and the Charybdis of anthropology (why do humans make art).

    Both practical and anthropology arguments can be very reductive here, and my hope in asking "why fiction is" was to open up thinking, to keep questions live rather to jump on answers ...

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