The purpose of fiction

Many people think that since fiction is a pack of lies, it is entirely a useless thing. You can use it to kill some spare time but it’s of no further import.

On the other hand there are those who can list dozens of uses in favor of fiction. Reading even for pleasure will make you literate; reading serious literature makes you more empathetic; reading stories makes you more creative; are only some of the arguments fiction supporters give.

I think whether fiction is useless or useful is not a wise debate to have. Fiction is multifarious in nature. Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Meyer’s Twilight both are works of fiction but you obviously can’t put them on an equal footing.

For such debates to have any meaning you first have to specify what type of fiction you’re talking about.

Even if I agree for the sake of argument that fiction is devoid of any practical advantage it still won’t be useless because it provides entertainment. This quality of fiction to entertain, this aspect of providing comfort and relief to the audience, is in itself a use. And for me, this use is enough.

However I was curious to know what the famous writers of fictions had to say about this issue. So I did some research and found something important.

Lectures on the Harvard Classics edited by Professor W. A. Neilson is available for free on as it’s out of copyright now.

The part of the book headed “Prose Fiction” contains a wonderful section, “The Purpose of Fiction” which I’m reproducing below.

Blocks have been added by me to highlight the names of the authors.

In considering the purpose which works of fiction may be supposed to fulfill, it will be of interest and value to note what some of the more prominent writers have said with regard to their reasons for practicing the art. The more selfishly personal motives may be passed over quickly. Money and fame have been desired and welcomed by most authors, as by most men, but they help us little to an understanding of the purpose of literature. Yet there are some who have written with neither of these in view, like Jane Austen, who died leaving a considerable part of her work unpublished, and apparently without having sought to publish it. Since the motives of men are more usually complex than simple, it is a safe assumption that even those who have frankly written for a living, or who have acknowledged the lure of ambition, have had other things in view as well, and have not found profit or honor incompatible with deeper and more altruistic aims.

Of these last, the most commonly claimed is the moral improvement of the reader. No one has been more explicit about this than Richardson, whose preface to Pamela is characteristic enough to quote at length:

“If to divert and entertain, and at the same time to instruct and improve the minds of the youth of both sexes;

“If to inculcate religion and morality in so easy and agreeable a manner as shall render them equally delightful and profitable;

“If to set forth, in the most exemplary lights, the parental, the filial, and the social duties;

“If to paint vice in its proper colours, to make it deservedly odious; and to set virtue in its own amiable light, and to make it look lovely;

“If to draw characters with justness and to support them distinctly;

“If to effect all these good ends in so probable, so natural, so lively, a manner, as shall engage the passions of every sensible reader, and attach their regard to the story;

“If these be laudable or worthy recommendations, the editor of the following letters ventures to assert that all these ends are obtained here, together.”

In similar vein his Clarissa is “proposed as an exemplar to her sex,” and is made as perfect as is “consistent with human frailty,” her faults being put in chiefly lest there should be “nothing for the Divine grace and a purified state to do.”

Fielding, though less verbose, is no less explicit. He claims for Tom Jones that “to recommend goodness and innocence hath been my sincere endeavour in this history,” and that he has “endeavoured to laugh mankind out of their favourite follies and vices.” Of Amelia he says: “The following book is sincerely designed to promote the cause of virtue.” The frequent satirical tone of Thackeray, as well as the nature of his analysis of human motive, testifies to his sharing Fielding’s desire to drive men out of their follies and vices by ridicule and contempt.

Dickens characteristically combines the improvement of the individual with the reform of institutions. Of Martin Chuzzlewit he says: “My main object in this story was to exhibit in a variety of aspects the commonest of all the vices; to show how selfishness propagates itself, and to what a grim giant it may grow from small beginnings.” Again, “I have taken every possible opportunity of showing the want of sanitary improvements in the neglected dwellings of the poor.”

In contrast to such ethical claims as these, Scott’s confession, “I write for general amusement,” sounds more than humble. Yet he frequently repeats it. He hopes “to relieve anxiety of mind,” “to unwrinkle a brow bent with the furrows of daily toil.” At times he approaches the moral aim of his more serious brethren, “to fill the place of bad thoughts and suggest better,” “to induce an idler to study the history of his country.”

As you might have noticed these great writers had different purposes in mind while writing fiction. And that’s because of the diverse nature of fiction.

In any case I hope this article would have helped you realize that fiction is not something as trivial as you might have believed it was.

(Image courtesy of Brian Erickson at Unsplash)

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