Is it not monstrous that this player here,
But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,
Could force his soul so to his own conceit
That from her working all his visage wann’d,
Tears in his eyes, distraction in’s aspect,
A broken voice, and his whole function suiting
With forms to his conceit? and all for nothing!
What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,
That he should weep for her?
From Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2
Indeed. And, for that matter, what’s Hamlet to us? What’s Desdemona to us, that we should weep for her? What’s Achilles? Or Falstaff, or Sancho Panza, or Emma Woodhouse, or Emma Bovary, or Dorothea Brooke, or Hedda Gabler, or Count Dracula? Made-up names of made-up people. And why should we – fully grown adults, with, presumably, some measure of intelligence – care what happens to made-up people with made-up names? Is it not – as the made-up Hamlet says – monstrous that we can so force our souls to our own conceit?
Perhaps it is true that fiction is but a childish game, something we should have grown out of, and that failure to do so is merely indicative of immaturity. Perhaps this is why Philip Roth tells us that he no longer reads fiction because, he says, he has “wised up”. The interviewer does not press him on this point, although it is surely worth asking, given Roth has neither repudiated his fiction nor stopped writing it, why he considers himself more “wised up” than his readers. But Roth’s comment is similar to what I have heard from many others: apparently, with age, we grow out of fiction – we grow out of all that stuff about people who never existed and events that never happened. When we read a bit of history, or a bit of science, or a bit of philosophy, we actually learn something: such books are all so much more worthwhile than mere storybooks.
So, is fiction really a leftover from our childish selves, which we put behind us as soon as we “wise up”? It is not, I think, possible to argue against such a claim, any more than it is to argue for it: no real evidence can be produced on either side. But before we join Roth in rejecting fiction, it might be worth considering just what it is that we are rejecting. It is not merely short stories and novels: if fiction is a depiction of invented people and of invented events, then its range includes The Ramayana, The Iliad, The Oresteia, The Commedia, Hamlet, Paradise Lost, and even – why not? – the Bible. That’s quite a lot of substantial literature to leave behind. And the novel and the short story make, I think, equally strong claims. In the last few centuries, prose fiction has, perhaps, established itself as the major literary form: it is not, I think, too far-fetched to claim that some of the most deeply felt, most profound, and most life-enhancing of artistic visions can be found within the pages of Don Quixote, Clarissa, Tristram Shandy, Mansfield Park, Dead Souls, Madame Bovary, Moby-Dick, Middlemarch, Anna Karenina, The Brothers Karamazov, The Ambassadors, Ulysses, In Search of Lost Time, The Trial, and so on, and so forth. And even forgetting for a moment such lofty peaks of achievements as these, would we really want to do without the likes of, say, The Three Musketeers, Treasure Island, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, The Code of the Woosters, Flashman at the Charge? Roth & co may: I certainly wouldn’t.
The question I find more interesting is not so much “Is fiction worthwhile?” (I know from my own personal experience that it is, and that’s good enough for me!), but “Why am I so affected by what I know is merely made up?” Is it merely that I am not “wised up”? Of course, I do not refer to all fiction. Much of fiction nowadays does leave me wondering why the author should expect me to take an interest in these non-existent, made-up people. But that is not the case with the best writers, and everything deserves to be judged at its best: the best authors of fiction, by some magic that cannot be analysed if only because its nature differs from writer to writer, do involve me with their made-up characters; and I can find myself shedding tears at the fate of Desdemona, or feeling the hairs at the back of my neck stand up in terror at the appearance of Peter Quint, even though I know that neither of them has ever existed.
Perhaps there is no clear answer to these questions, except perhaps to say that we are not as rational as we would like to imagine ourselves. The enjoyment of made-up characters and made-up events is as irrational as is the enjoyment of certain arrangements of sounds; but for all that, neither the enjoyment of fiction nor the enjoyment of music can be dismissed: it is enjoyments such as these, irrational though they may be, that make us what we are. And one can only be grateful for that. If we were so rational as to be able to forgo fiction – if we were sufficiently “wised up” – just imagine what we’d have missed! (Although, I must confess, that when I talk about fiction, I’m not entirely sure whether or not to include Holmes and Watson: they existed, goddammit!)
Somewhere in the Spanish town of El Toboso, I believe there exists a museum dedicated to Dulcinea – Dulcinea del Toboso, a character who, even in a fiction, did not exist. But who else has come from the town of El Toboso to compare with the peerless Dulcinea? There are times, as Don Quixote (the creator of Dulcinea, and himself a fiction) well knew, when fiction can be more potent even than life itself. I am sure Philip Roth is well aware of this. And I have no idea why, being aware of it, he should choose to denigrate the very form in which he has himself been so distinguished a practitioner.