Is Fiction False?

G.K. Chesterton once said that superstitions are most prevalent in rationalistic ages like our own. One of these superstitions is evident in the answer you often hear to the question, “What is the difference between fiction and nonfiction?” When asked to distinguish between the two, some people say that, while nonfiction is true, fiction is not. Nothing could be less true. In fact, fiction often relates the truth more tellingly—and more memorably—than nonfiction. Why, then, do some people cling to the fiction that fiction is false?

The first reason we tend to think fiction has little to do with truth has to do with an assumption we all seem to take for granted. We tend to think that truth is a solely rational consideration. The classical view of the soul is that it has three parts or aspects: the intellect, the will, and the imagination (or the passions). We modern people tend to exalt the intellect above the others. We lust for knowledge and think that more information will solve all of our problems.

We are the descendants of Thomas Gradgrind, the schoolmaster in Charles Dickens’ Hard Times, who, when he is introduced in chapter two of that book, asks his class to define a horse. He first asks Sissy Jupe, whom he calls “Girl number twenty,” to define a horse. Her father is a horsebreaker, and she has lived around them her whole life; but when Gradgrind asks her to define what a horse is, she is perplexed and speechless. Gradgrind wants her to state facts about the horse, thinking that that is the best way to know what a horse is:

“Girl number twenty unable to define a horse!” says Gradgrind, “Girl number twenty possessed of no facts, in reference to one of the commonest of animals!” Then he calls on another student, a boy named Bitzer:
“Bitzer,” says Gradgrind. “Your definition of a horse.”

“Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth.”

With this, Gradgrind is pleased. “Now, Girl number twenty,” he says, “you know what a horse is.”

Of course, Sissy Jupe knew what a horse was better than anyone else in the class, including the knowledgeable Bitzer. She had seen a horse with her eyes, looked upon it, and her hands had handled it. She certainly knew the truth of the horse better than Bitzer, who had simply memorized sterile facts about it.

We, like Gradgrind, think that knowing about something is the same thing as knowing it. We think truth is possessed merely by knowing information, that by merely assenting to a proposition about something, we have understood it. But anyone who has read a great novel (Dickens’ Hard Times, or any other), knows that is not true. In fact, is there a better expression of the limitations of the modern lust for information than Dickens’ fictional account?

I have a friend who regularly asks me to recommend books for him to read. And among the books I recommend are a good dose of fiction, mostly novels. His response is always the same: a grimace, followed by the declaration, “Is that fiction? I just don’t read much fiction.” My rebuttal has become equally predictable: “Yes, I understand,” I say. “In fact, I’m thinking of only breathing out of one lung from now on.” Or: “I’m wondering why I need two eyes; I’m thinking of just putting one out.” He gets the message–you only limit your understanding if you limit yourself to expository or argumentative writing.

Novels, short stories, and poetry do not aim to teach us directly—by taking us straight from our questions to some abstraction. They lead us to abstract truth through concrete reality, an experience that leads to a deeper understanding of that truth, since we then not only possess information about it, but have seen its strengths and limitations, how it works out in practical reality. In a story, we are not merely told about people and events, we get to know the people, and we live through the events.

I have heard of certain evangelical Christian ministries that urge their followers to stay away from novels and imaginative writing. You wonder what they have to say about Jesus’ chief manner of teaching: storytelling. Jesus, it seemed, understood that the problem with the enemies of God was not knowledge. As William Kilpatrick pointed out in his book, Why Johnny Can’t Tell Right from Wrong (perhaps the best book on character education ever written), Jesus never accused the Pharisees of being unintelligent. He accused them of being blind.

Fiction helps us to see. It doesn’t stop with our head, but goes right to our heart. It is not only wisdom that suffers from a reading diet restricted to nonfiction. As Kilpatrick points out, modern methods of character instruction rely on either a rational appeal or an emotional appeal. They call on children either to try to solve ethical dilemmas or to get in touch with their feelings. But both these approaches are inward directed, and don’t lead us anywhere outside ourselves. Fiction does. If our purpose as educators is to cultivate wisdom and virtue in our students, we cannot settle for just teaching them “the facts.”

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