The Adventure of Fiction


Why do people read fiction? Why does anyone have anything to do with any kind of imaginative art, for that matter?

A very practically-minded visitor from another world would understand our need for instruction manuals, technical documents, how-to-do books and so on. It’s important to know what one is doing in a huge range of human activities, from driving a car to programming a computer, or from performing a medical operation to baking bread. These things obviously lead t/o a better, fuller and more efficient life, and their removal would paralyse humanity to a great degree.

But what would happen if we removed all the imaginative work created by human beings? If, overnight, every book, every piece of music, every aesthetically designed building, every play, every poem, every song -in short, the entire world’s creative output-vanished? Would not the paralysis be even more profound?

Whatever humanity is, this thing which it calls Art is clearly as much a part of it as its internal organs. It’s almost possible to imagine a world without Art, yes - as long as we recognise that that piece of imagining is itself a artistic act.

It’s self evident that every culture in the world, then, is built around what might be called an almost obsessive preoccupation with imaginative creations of one kind or another, and it is also self-evident that Art cannot be removed from humanity without making it inhuman.

In two books in particular, Anatomy of Criticism by Northrop Frye, written in 1957, and in The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker, 2004, it is not only shown that Literature as a form of Art is a cohesive, self-contained expression of something, but that it actually might have an overall external psychological purpose, possibly related to the very presence of humanity on this planet. There are a host of other works, too, which explore the innermost meanings of imaginative literature and strive to encapsulate what fiction ‘actually’ means as a body of work. Their conclusions are various, but most are highly convincing. Whether literature is an ongoing method whereby human beings come to terms with their psychological place in the universe, or whether it is a refracted version of a higher truth, or whether it is something else entirely, there do seem to be certain patterns in common within it.

When we are first struck by an idea, especially a similarity between things which we had not thought to compare before, it seems as though we have found a clue to something vitally important. Like a trail of coins which eventually leads to the dragon’s hoard at the back of the cave, or like Ariadne’s thread which Theseus used to find his way back out of the labyrinth, patterns in stories hint at something, something which has a shape, though the shape might be too large or too obscure or too dim for us to make out immediately. The hint of that shape is exciting. When we realise that we have discovered something startlingly structured about one of humanity’s chief activities, in this case the creation of fictional tales - hidden structure which extends not only outwards to eventually embrace all kinds of things which at first it seemed to exclude, but also pervades the inner composition of a work, right down to the pattern of sentences and use of language - we can be forgiven for believing that something profound has been revealed about the world as a whole, not only lite