In some circles fiction has a bad name. Why, ask intellectuals, would anyone waste time on stories, when there is much to learn and so little time to do so. They dismiss the racks of romances, Westerns, thrillers, and crime novels in airport bookstores; give credit to Shakespeare not because he was a great storyteller but because of his complex metaphorical prose, rich historical allusions, and Biblical references. The fact that his Comedies are as silly and vaporous as any romance written today is lost on them. Faulkner and Joyce are begrudgingly given credit thanks to their understanding of historical context, psychological perception, and revolutionary use of language; but they are the exceptions. In the main, intellectual critics aver, fiction is a minor art, practiced by amateurs to satisfy romantic illusions.
While this is true to some degree – potboiler storytelling and racy novels unfit for young women were very popular in the 19th century, many serious authors like Charles Dickens, considered one of the best storytellers in English literature, serialized their work. During that Victorian era, the line between "quality" and "commercial" literature was not distinct.
Serialized fiction surged in popularity during Britain's Victorian era, due to a combination of the rise of literacy, technological advances in printing, and improved economics of distribution. A significant majority of "original" novels from the Victorian era actually first appeared in either monthly or weekly installments in magazines or newspapers. The wild success of Charles Dickens The Pickwick Papers, first published in 1836, is widely considered to have established the viability and appeal of the serialized format within periodical literature. (Wikipedia).
As importantly, the first English novels of the 18th century were very serious affairs indeed:
The early English novels concerned themselves with complex, middle-class characters struggling with their morality and circumstances. "Pamela," a series of fictional letters written in 1741 by Samuel Richardson, is considered the first real English novel. Other early novelists include Daniel Defoe, who wrote "Robinson Crusoe" (1719) and "Moll Flanders" (1722), although his characters were not fully realized enough to be considered full-fledged novels. Jane Austen is the author of "Pride and Prejudice" (1812), and "Emma" (1816), considered the best early English novels of manners (Tracy Stefan, History of the Novel, 2011)
Fiction, of course, is much older than the English novel. The plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles are perhaps the seminal works of Western literature. Combining drama, psychology, history, and human nature, they are works of intellectual rigor, insight, and expressive writing. Without Oedipus there could have been no Hamlet.
Given this long, rich, and storied history of Western (and Eastern) literature, it is surprising that so many intellectuals not only prefer non-fiction but dismiss fiction. After all there is really no such thing as fact. History is always written by the victor and not the vanquished. Fact itself is given as much to subjective recall and interpretation as any fiction. History, an assemblage of a few objectively verifiable events (the Battle of Borodino did happen, and there are rusted cannonballs and muskets to attest to it) but more personal accounts and second- and third-had reconstructions , cannot be considered absolute and undeniable.
French citizens who witnessed the craven events of Vichy France still dismiss it as an aberration within an otherwise heroic underground Resistance. German citizens deny popular complicity in the Holocaust and believe in the irrepressible will of Adolph Hitler. Europeans and Arabs dispute the iconic French account of Roland’s and Charlemagne’s victory at Roncesvalles and focus more on the explosive, spiritually-driven Muslim march across North Africa.
Recent psycho-social research has all but debunked the testimony of eye-witnesses to crimes. In one well-publicized case, all four witnesses swore that they saw two black men fire from a blue sedan, when later forensic and other objective evidence (airtight alibis) proved them wrong. Browning’s The Ring and the Book, Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet, and Kurosawa’s Rashomon are all stories about the subjectivity of perception.
Historical novels have become increasingly popular. Readers of this literary genre understand the fallible nature of historical records and accept that fictional interpolation is simply a matter of filling in ‘what was’ with ‘what might have been’.
The real point, however, has little to do with either the subjectivity of history or the fallibility of human perceptions. Literary fiction may be the best if not the only way to understand the past.
Shakespeare knew this. He observed that the one common denominator to all history was human nature. Jan Kott, a noted Shakespearean critic noted that if one were to array Shakespeare’s Histories in chronological order, the stories would all be the same.
Richard III, Henry V, the Dukes of York and Lancaster, King John, or Henry VIII all acted out of self-interest, territorialism, expansionism, a desire to accumulate wealth and property, and to assure the prosperity of their offspring. What interested Shakespeare was the wonderful diversity in acting out these primal drives.
If one can feel the nature of Richard III, Iago, Edmund, Goneril and Regan, Tamora, Dionyza, or any of the Kings and Queens of England depicted in his plays, one can understand the foundational basis of history, not just its twists and turns.
Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom is a story about the intersection of American values, race, regionalism, and family dynamics; and is perhaps the best book ever written about the South. In only a few pages Faulkner recounts the story of the development of the South, the emergence of the complex and sophisticated relationships between black and white, mulattoes, octoroons and quadroons, and its impact on one family. While thousands of volumes have been written about the social, economic, historical, and cultural antecedents to slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction, no one book can sum them all up in a dramatic, personal, and familiar story like Absalom, Absalom.
Hawthorne in both The Scarlet Letter and especially The House of the Seven Gables does much the same thing. Like Faulkner he writes of the influence of the past on the present and how familiar human dramas are played out within a temporal context. Trust, betrayal, compassion, deceit, morality and immorality are all conditioned by the past. Hawthorne’s novels are both about the weight of history, family, and culture; the individuals struggling to survive under it; and the unavoidable forces of human nature that dictate their fate.
In other words, if one can understand through fiction why events happen – i.e. the human principles that underlie all human actions – then the pursuit of facts and ‘reality’ is unnecessary if not irrelevant.
Of course facts will always be a factor in our personal assembly and understanding of the immediate world. We need to pay attention to tax rates, run-ups to war, consumer spending, and economic disparities. We have to negotiated traffic cameras, the rising price of butterfly lamb, and the meaning of rock-bottom oil prices. Facts form the architecture of our world.
However, at some point sooner rather than later, the need for underlying truth becomes more important than an illusory display of it. Fiction is not a refuge for those wanting to ignore unpleasant facts or difficult ideas It is the very place for understanding them.