Fiction Shmiction: How Writing Creates the World

Today's task is pretty straightforward: I want to show you why I believe that fiction isn't just important in the realm of fiction—why stories aren't just stories—why the word "just" is as unjust as you can imagine. Because stories ... stories are everything.

We've Missed a Jump

I've wanted to write this article for a while. Specifically, after writing my scathing review of 1984, I was surprised by the backlash. Now, some commenters made compelling arguments to counter my complaints, including arguments that brought in alternative interpretations, historical details, and other fascinating points. That's awesome. But there was another recurring critique of my critique: That my complaints were off base because 1984 is a work of fiction. Like these comments ...

About 80% of this critique is because you couldn't treat the book as a work of fiction.

So, the largest critique is that 1984 was a work of fiction?

1984 is a fictional book and it's useless to look for logic or something!

In other words:

I realized many of my complaints were based on core beliefs about the nature of fiction, and I'd (incorrectly) assumed others were already on board with those beliefs. Then I realized that these core beliefs of mine aren't even things I've always believed. They've been developed in the years of studying literary theory, social psychology, and (to a lesser extent) social anthropology.

Now I want to unpackage and translate all that for you ... in this one article. (Try not to panic. I'm going to make this as painless as possible.) Let's start with the view that seems to underlie the counter-arguments noted above: Fiction should get blanket amnesty on its representations of the world and its explanations of why things work the way they do. Here's the problem ...

Everything Is Fiction

Fiction doesn't mean "untrue." Rather, its original meaning is "fitting fact to form." To demonstrate why everything fits this definition, let's start with the most unfictional thing most of us encounter on a regular basis: Science! (And yes, science! should always have an exclamation point after it.)

There are only two types of theories: Incorrect and incomplete.

There are simple, undeniable facts in this world. When you drop something over open air, it will fall to the ground. It's a fact. It will happen. The context and consistency of these facts can be observed and confirmed through empirical study, and after observing a set of facts that fall into a pattern without exception, we can call the action-outcome combination a law. The explanation of why, however, comes in the form of a theory—a narrative structure that allows us to explain everything we know about the topic.

Let's be really clear: In science, "theory" does not mean unproven, untested, or uncertain. It means that we've developed a narrative that accounts for all known facts. So theories can't be "true," but they can (and must) account for truth. To paraphrase a scientific adage, there are only two types of theories: Incorrect and incomplete.

At a broader level than the narrative of a scientific theory, however, we have an overarching "system of knowing." It's through that system of knowing that we decide what foundational assumptions are correct, what devices and methodologies are considered valid measurement tools, what claims should be rigorously questioned, and what questions should be asked. This system of knowing is a narrative structure: It's the story about how the stories connect with one another.

On every level, we use narrative to fictionalize the world around us—to fit the facts of the world into a comprehensible form. It's true in stories, it's true in science, and it's true in every human life.

Stories Are Life's Building Blocks

If I ask you who you are, you will tell me a story. Past and future, roles and relationships, ambitions and regrets—it all comes back in the form of story. In the end, the "self" (the life we live, the identity we claim) is the story we tell ourselves about our self. Or, in other words, as a wise Doctor once said:

But our stories aren't independent from other stories. Beyond the way we appear as characters in the stories of those around us, we also learn which stories to tell through the narratives we're exposed to or experience. Like the "system of knowing" in science, our individual stories take place within a broader system: A collective story about stories.

The Collective Story

This story about stories is spoken of in different terms dependent on your discipline, but there are two theorists I feel make a solid, clear, and directly applicable argument: literary theorist Mikhael Bakhtin and sociologist/anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu.

Every new story we create shapes the collective narrative, and so influences the fictions we enact, embody, and portray.

Bordieu referred to the story-of-stories concept as "habitus." To him, it was the internalized framework of what we've witnessed in the outside world. This framework constrains our thoughts and actions, but doesn't control them. Importantly, the framework is also influenced by our thoughts and actions. For different people in a given culture, the habitus is similar but not identical, and each person's internalized framework is influenced but not controlled by the speech acts, actions, and stories of others in that culture. The interpersonal ways in which we acquire and influence habitus make it a collective story.

Similarly, Bakhtin referred to this underlying structure as the "dialogic"—an ongoing cultural conversation that shapes the meaning of fictional stories and the stories we experience in the real world. Every act of writing, argued Bakhtin, is inevitably a political act since it inherently contributes or responds to the existing assumptions of the dialogic in which it takes place.

Or, to try to get this into simpler terms, our individual story resides within and is shaped by a broader, collective narrative. That collective narrative (habitus, dialogic, whatever you want to call it) is the sum of all the stories that breathe and breed together in a culture. As a result, every new story we create—through writing, through our actions, through our speech—shapes the narrative structure in which our fictions reside, and so influences the fictions we enact, embody, and portray.

Picture a spider web. We cling to it and it clings to us, but we can also tug it, extend it, or tear at it. While we're not controlled by this network of stories, we find the meaning of our own stories and roles through this collective narrative. It's not a conscious comparison, and perhaps for that very reason, it holds immensely powerful influence over our day to day lives.

For Science! The Facts of This Fiction

Even with several different theorists contributing to my view, there are times I stutter in these beliefs. I've often wondered ... is this just me being self-absorbed? Like the carpenter who has only a hammer and so sees every problem as a nail, am I taking my role (someone who tells stories) to an extreme, trying to make it central to human existence?

As it happens, though, there's some astounding scientific backup. One compilation of studies was published in Narratives from the Crib, which looked at how children come to understand the world through a reflective storytelling process. As Jerome Bruner, a psychologist participating in that project, stated:

[Narrative is] the only way they have of organizing the world, of organizing experience. [...] They turn things into stories, and when they try to make sense of their life they use the storied version of their experience as the basis for further reflection. If they don’t catch something in a narrative structure, it doesn’t get remembered very well, and it doesn’t seem to be accessible for further kinds of mulling over.

Adults do something similar, though often in a less conscious way. The stories we're exposed to and the stories we tell have a profound and lasting impact on how we perceive and interact with the world around us, and much of this change happens at an unconscious level. The conclusion of the Narratives from the Crib research are similar to the conclusions of dozens of other studies: Narrative is factually important in how humans understand the world. 

When we critique fictional work, that "fiction" status doesn't give it a pass. When we write, the status of fiction doesn't mean we can disregard how we're representing people from different social groups, ethnicities, genders, and backgrounds. We can't ignore the logic we portray as sound, the narrative explanations we portray as valid, or even the assumptions we leave unquestioned. After all ... fiction isn't just the fabric of entertainment. It's the fabric of life itself. And stories aren't "just" stories. In human life, stories are everything.

Want More?

I realized after writing the first 1000 words of this article that I'd bitten off a bit more than I could chew. I was really hoping to share more of the scientific evidence (especially the research on how stories influence unconscious beliefs), but this article is running long as it is. I'd love to do two more articles in the "Fiction Shmiction" lineup, the first of which would cover the scientific backing of the theories I bring up here. And there's a lot of scientific backing.

The second article would explore some of the difficult questions on how to approach writing when viewing it as an inherently political act. Do we portray the world as it is or as we idealize it? Is there a way out of that binary conception of the question? They're questions well worth unpackaging.

Before writing those articles, though, I'd love to hear who among you would be interested. I mean, I get it: Not everyone is a fan of critical theory. But if this is your cuppa tea, I'd love to brew another couple kettles. Let me know in the comments, or by sharing, liking, or tweeting this article.




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babygears81's picture
babygears81 May 7, 2014 - 1:28pm

Yes, I'd love to read the follow-ups!

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like May 7, 2014 - 5:06pm

Until publishers are required to have their books lab-tested before they hit the market, I guess readers will just have to bear the responsibility for not taking fiction too seriously.


Robbie, considering the "original" meaning of the word 'fiction', do you draw a distinction between the concepts of 'fiction' and 'narrative'? If so, what is it? Or are all narratives works of fiction?

Natso's picture
Natso from Mongolia is reading Moby Dick May 7, 2014 - 9:05pm

And that, ladies and gents, is why I don't read about serial killers.

Do it Robbie, brew us another kettle. I could use some tea in literal sense, too. You won't believe we're having a snowstorm in freakin' May here.

L.W. Flouisa's picture
L.W. Flouisa from Tennessee is reading More Murakami May 8, 2014 - 12:09am

I don't believe in 1984 for reasons that would spoil the book.

Sofia's picture
Sofia from London, UK is reading everything May 8, 2014 - 6:12am

Looking forward to the next instalment.

SammyB's picture
SammyB from Las Vegas is reading currently too many to list May 9, 2014 - 7:32am

Please, do continue this. I'm not sure how to look at stories. My ideas are conflicting. On one side, I believe that stories make us who we are. They can teach us empathy, we can learn to relate to people who are different from us, and we can use them to process our own experiences and beliefs. In fact, most of what I write is in an attempt to understand the things around me. Without stories, we wouldn't know what some ancient civilizations were like. It would be difficult to understand how they processed the world and viewed themselves. Plus, the knowledge of what was cultuarlly important to them would be lost.

On the other side, there are people who take fiction a little too seriously. I see this with my students who get so wrapped up in their YA books that they start hating others for not liking it, or they hate the author for writing the story in a way that upset them.  I was discussing this with a colleague the other day. We spend our days absorbed in the classics, trying to teach our students about literature and culture, etc. On our time off, both of us enjoy reading stuff that will not change the world or our view of it. We call them potato chip books because they are as empty in intellectual stimulation as chips are in nutrition. But even with the classics, I can understand when people dislike them for various reasons. 

Books, whether we like it or not, are very personal to those who write them and those who love them. I may view a book as empty, while another person finds it life changing. 

Sorry for the long post. I finished my grading, so I've got a little too much free time on my hands haha :)

YouAreNotASlave's picture
YouAreNotASlave from Birmingham United Kingdom May 23, 2014 - 6:15am

I would definitely love to hear more from this series. Also are there any more academic texts--like journal articles--that are similar to the bourdieu or bakhtin? I'm writing an essay on something similar and would be very useful. 

CSolunar24's picture
CSolunar24 from Chicago is reading Mere Christianity May 26, 2014 - 6:59pm

Love it! Would love to hear more