What Is Fiction?

Fiction is like a spider's web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners. Often the attachment is scarcely perceptible.

- Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own, 3

Podcast of the Day

What, if anything, do works of verbal art—poems, plays, novels, films—do for us?  These days, most people will tell you one of two things: some will claim that works of verbal art make us better human beings (usually by teaching us Important Lessons about Life, or by rendering us more empathetic), and others will insist they have no effect on us whatsoever.  I happen to think both of these hypotheses are wrong, and that fictions are capable of extremely important—but morally neutral—effects on our lives.

On this week’s show, you’ll hear John Perry espousing the second view.  For him, it’s all just candy corn—a perfectly pleasurable little snack, but with no nutritional value.  Don’t believe him!  We can know for sure that he doesn’t mean it (sorry, John!) because he himself is the author of a work of fiction, and an excellent one too.  His Dialogue on Personal Identity and Immortality makes full use of literary form to do philosophical work—decent prima facie evidence, I reckon, that he sees a genuine value in at least some forms of fiction.

Listen to the Philosophy Talk episode on How Fiction Shapes Us

Video of the Day

Short Article of the Day

In recent years, literature has been getting attention from an unusual quarter: mathematics. Alongside statistical physicists analysing the connections between characters in the Icelandic sagas, and computer scientists exploring the life and death of words in English fiction, a team of mathematicians at the University of Vermont have now looked at more than 1,000 texts to see if they could automatically extract their emotional arcs. And their results show something interesting, not just about narratives, but also about using this approach to study literature. 

The Vermont researchers worked with test subjects to create a program capable of assigning emotional value – positive, negative or neutral – to words. ‘Terrorist’ is rated negative in the program’s word bank, while ‘win’ is positive...

Continue reading Veronique Greenwood's article: When the stories add up: the six narrative arcs in fiction

Further Reading

A familiar characteristic of works of fiction is that they feature fictional characters: individuals whose exploits are written about in works of fiction and who make their first appearance in a work of fiction. Shakespeare's Hamlet, for example, features the fictional character Hamlet, Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles features Sherlock Holmes, Tolstoy's Anna Karenina features Anna Karenina, and so on. All of these works feature numerous other fictional characters, of course (Ophelia and Dr Watson, for example); indeed, some works of fiction are characterized by the sheer abundance of their characters (Russian novels are often said to have this characteristic). Fictional characters belong to the class of entities variously known as fictional entities or fictional objects or ficta, a class that includes not just animate objects of fiction (fictional persons, animals, monsters, and so on) but also inanimate objects of fiction such as fictional places (Anthony Trollope's cathedral town of Barchester and Tolkien's home of the elves, Rivendell, for example). As stated, however, it doesn't include entities located in the real world, although real entities do have an important role to play in works of fiction. Thus, neither London nor Napoleon are fictional entities, although the first is the quite essential backdrop to what goes on in the Holmes stories while the second plays an important role in the events described in War and Peace. (While London and Napoleon are not fictional entities, some have thought that the London of the Holmes stories and the Napoleon of War and Peace are fictional entities.)

The above characterization suggests that fictional entities constitute a special type of entity. Not surprisingly, then, one fundamental philosophical question we can ask about fictional entities is a question about their nature: what kind of thing is a fictional entity?...

Continue reading the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Fiction

Bonus Webcomic

Related Topics

If you’re interested in fiction, check out some of the following related topics for more resources:

 Literature | Music | Poetry

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