The meaning of fiction

Analytical blogging, of the kind that I write, is very direct about its meaning.  I state my thesis and I make arguments in favor of it.  Or I state a question, and do my best to answer it.  If you didn’t understand the meaning, either I didn’t make myself clear, or you didn’t read very carefully.

But when it comes to fiction, what does it even mean for it to have meaning?  This is a question that puzzles and amuses me, particularly in contrast to the meaning of analytic blogging.  Does that mean that the work of fiction uses arguments to advance a thesis?  Surely not.  Or at least not most of the time.

Of course, there is a kind of fiction with well-defined theses, which is read by many children.  I’m thinking of Aesop’s fables.  In a typical fable, you’d have talking animals, and one of the animals would do something foolish and meet a band end for it.  The moral of the story is that what they did was wrong.  This was also the structure followed by the cartoon shows of my youth.

I think there’s a reason these kinds of stories only work for kids.  You can easily put a thesis into a work of fiction, but how do you argue for it?  Having a character meet a bad end is not a very good argument.  Maybe if it were a real person rather than a fictional character, they wouldn’t meet a bad end after all.  Children may find these stories persuasive, but they’re certainly not up to standards for this blogger.

Your mileage may vary.  Sometimes the stories are compelling enough that most people would agree that something like that would happen in real life.  For instance, most people would agree that if you lie, the one of the consequences is that people will trust you less, and that’s what happens in “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”.  On the other hand, perhaps that’s simply saying that fiction is rather good at arguing in favor of theses that you already agree with.

Now that’s an interesting thought.  Maybe some fiction really is about arguing in favor of things you already believe.  This actually isn’t too different from analytic blogging, for many of us like to read blogs that we already agree with.  So if we’re puzzled by the meaning of fiction, perhaps it is good to ask what is the purpose of reading blogs that you already agree with?  There may be entertainment value, or it may be validating to find that other people agree with you.  Or maybe it’s about exploring the details that you haven’t yet reflected on.

I believe that most good fiction[1] follows this same pattern.  Good fiction doesn’t state a proposition and make arguments in favor of it.  Rather, it explores a general topic, illuminating perspectives and frameworks that we might otherwise have failed to locate.  Fiction does not so much advance arguments in favor of any particular perspective, as it does assist you in coming to your own opinions about them.

Of course, this requires you to broadly agree with the author.  I think this explains why it’s so much more frustrating to read a work of fiction you disagree with than to read a work of nonfiction you disagree with.  A work of fiction offers no arguments, and simply asserts the consequences faced by fictional characters with fictional behaviors.


1. I suppose some fiction doesn’t say anything about the real world, and is simply about the excitement of space wizards using their wizardly sciences to fight epic battles.  Which is fine, I don’t mean to knock that. (return)

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9 thoughts on “The meaning of fiction

  1. Sara K. November 17, 2015 / 6:53 pm

    Brian McDonald hella disagrees with you.

    I’ve read his book Invisible Ink, but since I don’t think you want to rush out and track down a copy, you can get the gist of what he says about this topic from series of blog posts about ‘The Armature’:

    http://invisibleinkblog.blogspot.com/2005/08/armature-part-1.html (this is just part 1, I think you can find the later parts yourself)

    In short, he thinks that good stories all have a thesis, and that the story functions as an argument for the thesis, and that stories which do not support their theses well do not resonate so well with the audience.

    When I first read Invisible Ink, I reacted strongly against this, thinking ‘but most good stories are not like that!’ However, when I have critically evaluated stories which succeed with their audience, I have found that, yeah, a lot of them do have something like McDonald’s ‘armature’ (there are exceptions … but McDonald’s point of view has worked better than I initially expected at explaining the effectiveness of stories).

    As it just so happens, I had McDonald’s ‘armature’ very much in mind when I wrote “I Did Not Know” (the story currently running on my blog). There is a thesis (or ‘armature’, or whatever you want to call it) behind that story, and practically everything in that story is intended to help the reader get the message one way or another. For example, by the end of the story, we will know a lot more about Ana’s family than Myrna’s family because Myrna’s family is not relevant to the thesis; much of the story is set in Kitakyushu/Kokura and not Hiroshima because I think setting the story in Kitakyushu/Kokura better supports my thesis, etc. The thesis may not be totally apparent as of the portion of the story which is available online (well … aside from Ana’s monologue, which comes pretty close to making the thesis explicit), but if an attentive reader does not have a pretty good idea what the thesis is by the end of the story, I have not told the story well.

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  2. Siggy November 17, 2015 / 10:02 pm

    I got the sense from McDonald’s examples, that what we think of as good fiction is non-overlapping. Case in point, in this post, I gave Aesop’s fables as an example of (to me) bad fiction. Aesop’s fables have been popular and successful for millennia, and perhaps that needs an explanation. But I am neither an academic, nor a teacher, nor a commercial writer, so I don’t really have to account for anyone’s taste but my own.

    McDonald’s series, therefore, did not assure me that his pattern fits fiction that I actually like, and instead assured me that it fits fiction that I think of as bad.

    But aside from that, the other objection is, if fiction has a thesis/armature, how does it make its argument? It doesn’t make direct rhetorical arguments (Atlas Shrugged excepted). It doesn’t provide evidence. On the surface, it merely provides a plausible narrative. To an analytic nonfiction writer, such a conclusion is appalling, as if to say fiction is all about using logical fallacies, and good fiction is about using logical fallacies effectively.

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  3. Siggy November 17, 2015 / 10:10 pm

    Incidentally, I can immediately identify the armature of my own novel (on indefinite hiatus): stories can hurt people. So I’m not necessarily disagreeing with the armature idea, but I find it puzzling. If it works, how does it work? Is it a good thing that it works?

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  4. Sara K. November 18, 2015 / 9:38 pm

    Brian McDonald makes it clear in Invisible Ink (the book) that it is not about taste: there are stories which have good Invisible Ink but which McDonald strongly dislikes anyway. The book is an attempt to explore what makes a story successful with a significant segment of the audience, especially if it is over a period of time. I think that some parts of Invisible Ink are *ahem* not so successful, but over time, I have found, the armature idea is actually a good explanation most of the time of why some stories are more successful than others.

    From this perspective, it’s the fact that Aesop’s fables have been popular for a very long time, and not one’s personal tastes, which counts.

    I’ll give an example: I love The Mysteries of Udolpho way more than Pride and Prejudice (for starters, I actually read The Mysteries of Udolpho all the way through, whereas every attempt I have made to read Pride and Prejudice has failed). In Ann Radcliffe/Jane Austen’s lifetime, The Mysteries of Udolpho was much more popular than Pride and Prejudice, but ever since the mid 1830s … well, I think you know which novel has been far and away more popular.

    Much as I like Udolpho and dislike P&P, I have to admit, P&P is much better on armature than Udolpho. People who like Udolpho like it in spite of the fact that the plot is a meandering mess, not because the plot is a meandering mess. Armature is the best explanation I know of why P&P has been much more successful than Udolpho after Austen’s death.

    In Invisible Ink, McDonald speculates that stories are a means of transferring experiences from one person to another. You could learn that those mushrooms are lethally poisonous by eating them yourself, or you could hear the story of someone whose little girl died after she ate those mushrooms (the armature of the story is “those mushrooms are poisonous enough to kill people”). Even a story about how the mushrooms bear the curse of a local deity would still have the most important information (for survival purposes), even if the part about the deity is not literally true. Information embedded in stories sticks better to people’s minds than if the information is delivered straight, and in a non-literate story, having important information stored in a very memorable way is critical. Likewise, a story which does not embed some kind of key message … does not function, at least according to McDonald.

    The purpose of the story is not necessarily to prove that the message is correct (I erred in my earlier comment – I overreached in saying that the parts of the story are ‘arguments’, though in some stories the parts could function like arguments) but to make the message vivid enough to stick well enough that the audience will heed the message when needed.

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  5. Siggy November 18, 2015 / 11:42 pm

    I think it’s impossible for it to not be about taste. Talking about what makes fiction “successful”, particularly over long periods of time, implies some positive valuation of those kinds of works. And it only really makes sense if you happen to like most popular and classic works, even if you don’t like every single example. I just don’t think that is true for me. I really don’t like most popular fiction, and I trash classics as well.

    But perhaps this is all besides the point. I think the sort of fiction I like, even if not popular, still follows the same rules.

    In the OP, I was not saying that good fiction doesn’t have a thesis. It may very well have a thesis. However, I argue that this appears to work best when it’s a thesis you already broadly agree with. Thus, if there is a thesis, the point is not to persuade you of the thesis, but allow you to reflect upon the thesis.

    So you could identify armatures in lots of stories, particularly the most successful ones. But how many of those armatures actually consist of controversial propositions?

    I think what I was trying to say is not altogether unlike what you’re said about stories allowing information to stick better in people’s minds. You don’t need to persuade people of a new idea in order to do useful work. You just need to tell them what the idea is, help them figure out the consequences of the idea, and make it easier to remember.

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  6. Sara K. November 19, 2015 / 5:50 pm

    That reminds me of something Bernard Pomerance (playwright) said … I can’t find the exact quote, but it’s something like “In my plays, I don’t try to tell people something new, I remind them of things they already know.”

    Yes, stories generally do seem to be most popular when most of the audience already agrees with the premise, but there are exceptions. For example, I changed my stance on the death penalty after seen “A Short Film about Killing” (from The Decalogue, a set of ten films which each focus on one of the ten commandments. Whether one works better than the other partially depends on the storyteller’s goals – if the storyteller wants to change people’s minds, they may prefer changing a high percentage of a smaller audience’s minds over being very popular with a choir who already agrees.

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  7. Siggy November 19, 2015 / 7:27 pm

    When I reflect on stories that might have actually changed my mind, I mostly think of fiction which changed my mind about fiction or its aesthetics. Which is maybe too meta to count, but it is something, and I do like those books.

    Oh, and there was Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, which was fairly didactic, but enjoyable enough.

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