In Seven Types of Ambiguity Elliot Perlman wrote: “Fiction, at least some fiction, can also confront us with truths we might otherwise never have encountered. It can provide us with insights we would never have gained elsewhere.”
Readers are drawn to literature for many reasons but among the foremost are the truths they find there. To be sure, a reader never knows when they will be found or what writers and in what books they write, they will they chance upon them. Their discovery is unpredictable, unexpected, surprising. It is also one of the most powerful effects of reading literature.
Literary truths are not organized in a body of knowledge like they often are in science. They are hard to pin down, to remember, and apply when you might want to. To be sure, some are more salient than others. Yet readers differ widely in what they regard as the truths in a particular work of literature. Additionally, it is often claimed that literary truths are difficult to find elsewhere. This usually means they are not readily or in principle discoverable by scientific inquiry.
In the March 24, 2008 issue of The New Yorker Jill Lepore considers this issue, in terms of the truths revealed by historical novels and non-fiction histories in general. Her account dealt with one of the major reasons I continue to be so interested in fiction. For it is in works of fiction that I seem to find far more truths about myself and others than I find in the human sciences I know best.
The central ideas in Lepore’s essay can be gleaned from the following passages I marked:
…the best novels boast a kind of truth that even the best history books can never claim.
But is “historical truth” truer than fictional truth? The difference between history and poetry, Aristotle argued is that “the one tells what has happened, the other the kind of things that can happen.
...many historians worried that the seriousness of history, its very integrity as a discipline, was in danger of being destroyed by literary theorists who insisted on the constructedness, the fictionality, of all historical writing—who suggested that the past is nothing more than a story we tell about it. The field seemed to be tottering on the edge of an epistemological abyss: If history is fiction, if history is not true, what’s the use?
The novelist is the better historian—and especially better than the empirical historian—because he admits that he is partial, prejudiced, and ignorant, and because he has not forsaken passion. The writer of romance is to be considered as the writer of real history…
Fiction, in other words, can do what history doesn’t but should: it can tell the story of ordinary people. The eighteenth century’s fictive history…is the history of private life; the history of what passes in a man’s own mind…