The literary imagination

Writers of fantasy are often singled out for their feats of imagination. I never really got that. Alternative worlds and imaginary beasts and magical creatures – flying horses and enchanted boats and magic dragons and the like – seem to me relatively easy to conjure up. What really requires imagination is not the depiction of fantasy worlds, but, rather, the depiction of our own, from perspectives other than our own. To enter into the mind of  someone like Karenin, say, to depict in the minutest detail how a mind such as his works, to examine how it reacts as he observes his marriage breaking down, to understand why he thinks and acts as he does – all of this seems to me a far greater feat of the imagination than the creation of any number of Middle Earths.

26 responses to this post.

  1. Absolutely, but with a caveat.

    The my-little-pony type of fantasy is weak and boring. I know, we all chuckled at the parallels between the modern world and the antics in Bedrock or Hill Valley, but as you say, how much imagination did that really entail.

    However, there is another kind of fiction which plays fast and loose with the ol’ Aristotelian unities and presents characters stepping out of one layer of the fiction into another layer, characters talking back to the author and rebelling against the author’s wishes, worlds metaphorically removed from reality without seeming like Barbie’s Dream Castle or the land of the Weebles.

    I’m sure such authors as Angela Carter, Flann O’Brien, or Salman Rushdie should not be called fantasy authors but some readers might consider then as such. I don’t think one has to write realistic fiction to qualify as a literate and imaginative writer. … nor does one have to include zombies and vampires in their fiction to be identified as a hack … but it certainly helps.


    • Hello Mike it’s an interesting issue. My short post above was, I admit, designed to provoke, but the fact is that, for whatever reason, I find myself highly resistant to fantasy. It’s not that I always crave realism(and let’s not get bogged down here trying to define the term): I love Dickens & Dostoyevsky & Kafka, who were hardly realistic writers; and Gogol could be as fantastic as anyone. But, somewhere along the spectrum spanning the pole of pure reality and the pole of unbridled fantasy, a curtain descends for me, and this curtain I cannot penetrate. I really don’t know why. I never, for instance, got the point of “magic realism”: much of it seems to me merely silly. (And yet, at the same time, I love ghost stories: I suppose transgressions of the natural order appear more shocking when one is particularly wedded to the concept of “natural order”.)

      I do, however, contest the notion that the imagination is best displayed in I gaining the fantastic, and that depiction of reality is but “observation”. Tolstoy’s depiction of reality is about as extraordinary an act of the literary imagination as I can think of.


  2. Posted by alan on August 12, 2012 at 10:40 am

    I notice that you didn’t say “any number of Gulliver’s Travels”. Often the contempt of conservatives like yourself allows subversive ideas to be communicated via the mechanism of fantasy, so I suppose I should thank you for reinforcing that.
    I don’t see what you are describing as necessarily a greater feat of the imagination but as a different feat of the imagination. From what I see around me, some people are better at empathy, at imagining other’s minds, than others. For some people this comes naturally, and for others it is very hard work.
    Completely off topic, a blog post from you on this would be interesting…


      1. The most remarkable feat of the imagitation in Gulliver’s Travels is Swift’s imagining what goes on in Gulliver’s mind.

        I’ll have a read of the article you link to later today.


      • Lemuel Gulliver is not a great character to me, not if we’re using Tolstoy’s as standards, and being just pages away from finishing War and Peace I can see why it’s hard not to be astonished by Tolstoy’s construction of his characters – Pierre, Marya, Nikolai and Andrei are the stuff of life, the true stuff of life.

        Much of the charm of Swift’s book comes from the satire and parody, and the absurd situations he invents, not from any particularly powerful psychological insight of Swift into man’s condition.

        All humans are mind readers; although writers like Tolstoy have a more refined ability to see things from other perspective, we all in our daily lives enter other people’s heads and see things through their eyes; human life would be impossible without such power of discrimination, mediocre as it may be compared to Tolstoy’s.

        On the other hand, imagining fully-formed worlds, creating believable creatures that are not real, aren’t even human, to put them in worlds that don’t obey our laws, oh yes, I do think that’s a great feat of imagination and worth celebrating!

      • Hello Miguel,

        Yes, I agree that Gulliver is not a psychologically profound character in the way that Tolstoy’s are. However, what really puts the stamp of greatness on this book for me, what – again, for me – makes it such a great masterpiece is Gulliver’s succumbing to genocidal hatred of his fellow human beings. I find this uniquely disquieting. This feature becomes apparent towards the end: in that final part, the ground really does open at our feet. But even early in the novel, when Gulliver first encounters the Lilliputians, his first instinct is to pick up as many of them as he can and to dash their brains out. It is very, very disquieting.

        Obviously, the merits of “Gulliver’s Travels” are very different from those of “War and Peace”. And yes, I do accept that Swift’s imagining of the various worlds visited by Gulliver is marvellous. But if we didn’t have Gulliver’s own view of it – if we didn’t see his mind darkening as the book progresses – then we would, I think, have had a far lesser work than the masterpiece we have now.

        As I explained in my reply to Mike above, I do have a problem when it comes to fantasy literature. Perhaps my mind is too earthbound to appreciate it. As soon as the depiction gets too far from the world I recognise as real, something inside my head switches off: I really don’t know why. I did, I admit, write my post above intending to be a bit provocative, but it is true that the acts of the imagination I personally appreciate most are Tolstoyan rather than Tolkienian.

      • “However, what really puts the stamp of greatness on this book for me, what – again, for me – makes it such a great masterpiece is Gulliver’s succumbing to genocidal hatred of his fellow human beings.”

        He was a wonderful misanthropic satirist, I think that reveals more about him than Gulliver. It’s satire to prove a thesis, that all humans are filth, basically, no more different than Voltaire’s Candide, a satire of Leibniz’ best of all possible worlds. I love both books, but I don’t think the characters are fully developed, individual voices. They’re mouthpieces, even if fascinating in their own right.

        “I did, I admit, write my post above intending to be a bit provocative, but it is true that the acts of the imagination I personally appreciate most are Tolstoyan rather than Tolkienian.”

        War and Peace, shorter than The Lord of the Rings, didn’t bore me a tenth as much as that insufferable drag out, so I think I understand you. Although I love fantasy, I do hate it when people downplay the imagination of writers like Tolstoy, as if a giant of a novel like War and Peace didn’t take considerable imagination to be written, as if he were just plucking things in front of his eyes and putting them into the novel willy-nilly, without thought and effort.

        But there is a lot of charm in fantasy too. It uses a different language, perhaps it even has different aims, but in its own way it achieves fascinating things, it can be funny and moving and witty and incisive.

  3. Posted by Brian Joseph on August 12, 2012 at 1:20 pm

    Interesting post Himadri! I generally agree with you. Yet, I do love some of the better written fantasy works especially if there is some depth to them. When it comes to artistic merit and aesthetic quality the fantasy fiction rarely approaches the levels of history’s great writers. However, sometimes such books do have something important or artistic to say. For those works that are original, the author is presenting them in a new and different way. Variety is one of the wondrous things about human culture.

    The way I see it is that a dinner at a gourmet five star restaurant is incomparable. However, would not want to completely eschew an occasional well made meal heavy with french fries and other fried foods served at my local bar.


    • I don’t see it like that, five star restaurants and fast foods, as if one is better than the other. For one thing I’ve never been to a five star restaurant, and I’m suspicious of them. I like to eat a lot, and I wonder if they’d leave me well served 🙂

      I see it more as changing between a marvellous Portuguese stew and a Chinese smorgasbord – I love both, but I can’t eat them all the time, a change of flavours is necessary not to get sick of them.


  4. Posted by Carolyn & Malcolm on August 13, 2012 at 8:15 pm

    I can’t believe that I didn’t save my post that I thought I had sent. The blog was bouncing around as I typed in a most disconcerting way but was showing the print, so I assumed it was okay. Let’s try again, maybe a little more succinctly.

    I think the imagination that people admire in good (or even not so good) fantasy writing (and I read very little of it too and what I do read is mostly children’s fantasy – Harry Potter, The Hobbit, Where the Wild Things are, Not Now Bernard) is the ability of a writer to create a new world that feels accurate in its details and “real”. The admiration that people feel towards the imagination in realistic writing is quite different, almost the opposite. They appreciate the writer showing them aspects of character or situations that are new to them, or shown in a new way, ie in an imaginative way.

    I was listening to a man on the radio today, some sort of scientist associted with fantasy movies. He said they often make sure tiny little details, that people aren’t even aware of, are carefully included so the audience feels the movie is real and true. His example was of making a superhero’s landing make a slight footprint noise. These details ensure the audience doesn’t find some mild dissatisfaction they can’t even identify, but can feel.

    Perhaps a very clever fantasy writer can manage a completely new and original take and satisfy their readership, but I think generally it is the feeling of a well-defined world with characters people can understand and identify with to some degree that readers appreciate.

    Cheers, Caro.


  5. Where does that leave Animal Farm or 1984 ? Or the marvelous ‘The Darling’ of Chekhov? Can one really enter the mind of Olenka? This is the first time I am posting here, but your musings are a treat!


  6. Himadri – Not a new question, but always an interesting one. I’ll respond with a dumb sort of parable from a beginning drawing class I took once, where the instructor simply pointed out that there’s a difference between drawing something that’s inside your head and drawing something that’s there in front of you. Without making judgments about whether one or the other will make for a more successful drawing, it’s easier to see that we’re talking about two somewhat different activities. I don’t find depictions of unicorns particularly interesting (in art or in literature), but I could, well, imagine that were a writer to really get down in the trenches and do the work of creating and filling in the “there in front of you” observations about a unicorn that he or she can’t get from the so-called real world, a depiction of a unicorn might, hypothetically anyway, be quite interesting.


  7. Hello Mike, Miguel, Brian, Caro, R.Saroja, Alan, and Scott,

    I do apologise for being so late in my reply, and I hope you won’t mind if I respond to you all in a single post.

    First of all, thank you for your posts: I think that in terms of the ratio of the length of the original post to the number of responses, this one probably holds the record! (And welcome, R.Saroja, to this blog; and thank you especially for your kind words.)

    My initial post was, as I said, deliberately provocative, and somewhat glib. That imagining different world is certainly, I agree, a feat of the imagination – sometimes, as in the case of Swift, a remarkable feat of the imagination. But depicting the real world is not a mere process of observation: depicting the real world well is also a feat of the imagination – and, in the case of an author such as Tolstoy, a remarkable one. This is because we all see the world from a single perspective – our own; and if we were to write from that single perspective, the result would merely be navel-gazing (without naming names, I can think of certain contemporary authors who can see little further beyond their own navels). To leap out from one’s own individual perspective, as the finest realist authors do, seems to me to be an extraordinary feat of the imagination.

    Now, what I have said so far is, I hope, fairly uncontentious. The next bit will be more controversial, I think, and, if I may, I’d like here to call George Eliot, no less, as an expert witness on my behalf. In “Adam Bede”, she writes:

    “Falsehood is so easy, truth so difficult. The pencil is conscious of a delightful facility in drawing a griffin – the longer the claws, and the larger the wings, the better; but that marvellous facility which we mistook for genius is apt to forsake us when we want to draw a real unexaggerated lion.”

    I couldn’t have put it better myself. (That George Eliot had a way with words, didn’t she?) For me (and I should emphasise that –“for me”! 🙂 ) it is the depiction of an unexaggerated lion rather than the griffin that calls for the greatest feat of the literary imagination: it is the imagination required to look at the real world from beyond our own individual perspective that seems, to me, the greatest feat of the literary imagination.

    Gulliver’s Travels is, I agree, an extraordinary book, and I don’t know that I can do justice to it here. (I made a few comments about it in this post ). Of course, a major aspect of the book is the depiction of imaginary worlds, and the satire presented of human affairs. But it does seem to me that Swift goes beyond that. Swift explores what can happen to the human mind when it is overwhelmed with disgust for fellow human beings. It is this aspect of the book that makes it so uniquely disquieting: for if mankind really is as mean, venal and as despicable as the satire indicates, then it is surely natural to feel disgust for it; but where exactly does that disgust lead us? Now that we are aware (more so, perhaps, than in past ages) of the extraordinary atrocities humans can inflict on each other on so unimaginable a scale, Gulliver’s Travels seems more pertinent by the day: that last part, especially, I found almost too much to take in. But let us leave discussion of this book till later: as I said, I can hardly do justice to it here.

    But I’ll content myself with saying that depictions of reality, if they are to be any good, requires far more than mere observation: it requires imagination – often of an extraordinary level. And, for someone like me who finds himself generally resistant to fantasy, it does seem to me to be the highest manifestation of the literary imagination – although I do appreciate that not everyone will agree with me on that point.

    All the best to you all for now,


    • How would you consider the supreme imaginary representations found in our religious literature, like the Bible?

      Imagine if a large portion of the world’s population congregated each Tuesday at a somber arena to have an ordained minister teach us of the glory and the truth of Gulliver’s Travels. Might we have a path for true enlightenment? I could poison the neighbor’s dog and confess that the Yahoos made me do it or realize that I must have not prayed hard enough because the Houyhnhnms didn’t grant my birthday wish and drop Kristen Stewart off for a romp.


    • Then again, if we can be less metaphoric, what is the difference between imagination and observation? I believe science has demonstrated that we tend to imagine what we observe. And if we want to get even more philosophical, our thought—our imagination—creates what we observe.


      • Hello Mike, I don’t know that I want to go where you appear to be leading! It’s controversial enough my taking pot shots at fantasy writing – I hink I’d best steer clear of the religion debate! 🙂 For what it’s worth, I am not myself an adherent of any religion, and tend to describe myself as “agnostic”; but that term, obviously, does cover a lot of ground. While I personally find it difficult to believe in a personal God, I do feel that our spiritual aspirations (if I may use so unscientific a term) are very real, and that to ignore them, or to downplay their importance, is significantly to misunderstand our nature, and is dangerously reductive. I don’t know that I want to go beyond that … for now, at least!

        On the question of observation and imagination – yes, indeed, our observations cannot be entirely objecive, and therefore, the demarcation line between the two is blurred. But that is frequently the case in matters of taxonomy: that an exact demarcation cannot be defined between A and B does not imply that the distinction between A and B is meaningless. For instance, I observe that there is a tree outside my window as I type into this PC: i am not imagining this … at least, I’m about as sure as it is possible to be that I’m not … I’m observing this. But if I think my colleague was being moody at work yesterday, then that “observation”, if we may call it such, is really little more than a subjective impression on my part. The genius of Tolstoy, say, is that he could look beyond mere subjective impressions, and, apparently, imagine the world from an objective viewpoint. This is presumably what Isaac Babel meant when he observed “If the Earth could write, it would write like Tolstoy.” And this ability goes beyond mere observation – which, as you say, is subjective: it is, i think, a supreme act of the literary imagination.

      • Two people looking out the window at the same tree might very well have entirely different observations: one may write about the thousands of green leaves rustling in the wind while the other may write about the unmoving strength of the sturdy trunk and branches.

        The minute we take an observation of the “real world” and transcribe it to writing (or other medium) we are creating an imaginative representation, colored by all the things that clutter our minds, all of our biases and opinions, all of our experiences and susceptibilities. I have referred to this for longer than I can remember by the phrase: It’s all fiction!

  8. Hello Mike, different people will certainly have different perspectives on the tree, as you say, but there can be no reasonable disagreement on the fact of the tree existing.

    Of course we all interpret reality in our own different ways. I agree with you fully when you say: ‘The minute we take an observation of the “real world” and transcribe it to writing (or other medium) we are creating an imaginative representation, colored by all the things that clutter our minds, all of our biases and opinions, all of our experiences and susceptibilities.’ This is precisely why it is so wonderful to come into contact with representations of reality that are the products of prodigious imaginations.

    But I can’t say I understand how this leads to the dictum that “It’s all fiction”. If everything were to be fiction, we wouldn’t even need the term “fiction” to distinguish that which is fiction from that which isn’t.


    • Parker’s Rule No. 9 states that the term “non-fiction” has no meaning ( Fiction is still a good term representing an aggregate of imaginative writing, from Swift to Tolstoy.

      Question: Is poetry fiction? What about Paradise Lost? For a blind guy Milton sure had a lot of imagination.

      Most divisions of writing are best used in the bookstore of your choice and not in a discussion of writing or literature. I tend to group literature quite simply—Fiction, Essay, Poem, Drama—but it’s not unreasonable to divide writing into Fiction, Advertising, Propaganda, and Legalese … but then, it’s all fiction anyway.

      A good example of how books nominally referred to as non-fiction are just as fictional as The Wind in the WIllows: In Texas a panel of demagogues and oligarchs pick and choose what the youth of that state (and many others) will learn as truth and what they will be protected from considering. Yes, there really was an Alamo, but there are River Rats too. Add to this the Texas School Board’s edict against teaching any form of Critical Thinking in the schools and we’re doomed.

      Question: Is a Presidential candidate’s speech from the hustings considered fiction or non-fiction? Are lies, misrepresentations, and obfuscations classed as fictions?


      • Hello Mike, I had meant to respond to you, but I’ve really been tied up lately, and I’m afraid that, for various reaons, for the next week or so I won’t have access to the net. Sorry about this – but I’ll defnitely continue this conversation once I get back.
        Cheers, Himadri

      • Hello Mike, first of all, the points we agree on: i agree with you fully that “fiction is still a good term representing an aggregate of imaginative writing, from Swift to Tolstoy”. Absolutely. But this appears to me to imply that there exists also writing outside that “aggregate of imaginative writing” – official government reports, textbooks on microbiology, legal codes, logarithm tables, catalogues of art exhibitions … you name it ,,, and “fiction” is, it seems to me, an inappropriate term for these. But perhaps I am just being too pedantic yet again!

      • Consider the science textbook from Texas that presents Creationism as an alternative to Evolution: is that fiction? When I was a young schoolboy in California there was no mention in our textbooks of the Japanese Internment during WWII: does picking and choosing what is written in order to get a planned reaction )or in this case, non-reaction) suggest fiction to you?

        Official government reports, textbooks on microbiology, legal codes, logarithm tables, catalogues of art exhibitions, etc. are full of imaginative writing and I have no problem referring to them as fiction. Look at the political reports coming out of the campaigning for President in this country … now that’s what I call fiction!

  9. Posted by Carolyn & Malcolm on August 17, 2012 at 8:56 pm

    To me poetry is definitely fiction, but that’s not where it fits in the library Dewey system. There it is firmly non-fiction for reasons I find hard to comprehend, but presume makes it easier to keep it separate from novels. (But then many libraries keep various categories of novels separate – not my own local, admittedly, which only keeps large print, talking books and still maybe westerns (or maybe not) apart from other forms.

    A former library I belonged to separated literary fiction from popular and charged 50c for popular fiction – meant that my reading choices went up a notch, since I didn’t want to pay that. (Why not? – we could have afforded to.)


    • I think poetry can be described as fiction if we are speaking of narrative verse – the Border ballads, the Ancient Mariner, Paradise Lost, etc. But one would, I think, have to stretch the meaning of the word if one wanted the term to cover also the odes of Keats, th Four Quartets, etc etc. But perhaps it’s pointless getting involved in matter sof taxonomy. If a descriptive term doesn’t cover what one wanrts it to cover, one may simply redefine the term so that it does: it does seem a bit of a pointless exercise!


  10. Hello Mike,

    Creatinism as a valid alternative to Darwinism? Yes, I agree – fiction is a good term for that. Government reports? Well, I concede teh point there: my choice of example was a poor one.

    Historians who pick and choose what they present in order to fit a preconceived agenda? The best histories, I’d argue, don’t do that. And even those that do … is a half-truth necessarily a lie? I’m not entirely sure on that one.

    Legal codes? Sure – a legal code may be good, bad, or middling – but surely one would have to stretch the definition of “fiction” to class them as such?

    Textbooks on microbiology may contain errors of fact, and may promote scientific ideas that are subsequently shown to be unsound. But does that make them “fiction”?

    And I can’t honestly see how the definition of the word “fiction” can be stretched to cover logarithmic tables!

    As i write, I have next to me a mathematics textbook: “Calculus and Analytic Geometry”. I studied it as a student many years ago, and our boy has been studying it lately. I wll frankly take a bit of convincing that this is fiction! I have put a lot of work into that book, and would hate to think it was all for nothing… 🙂

    If everything were to be fiction, then there would e nothing that isn’t fiction; therefore, we wouldn’t even need the term “fiction” to distinguish that which is fiction from that which isn’t … since the latter wouldn’t even exist!


Leave a Reply to Brian Joseph Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: