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From the November/December, 2009
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Novel Ideas by Barton Swaim

Novel Ideas

Barton Swaim on the Fictional Value of “Things That Never Existed”

There is a long and venerable tradition among Evangelical Christians of viewing the genre of fiction with apprehension and mistrust. The idea that there is something vaguely unsound or improper about the reading and writing of tales that aren’t true is an old one, dating back at least to the seventeenth-century Puritans. The Puritans, as every undergraduate English major knows, shut down the playhouses because (among other reasons) dramatic productions are fabrications.

Over the succeeding generations, those suspicions waned but didn’t die. Defoe went to great lengths in the preface to Robinson Crusoe to deny that his story was “an invention imposed on the world”; he admitted the story was “allegorical” but insisted that it was also “historical.” Defoe knew that a great number of readers would not have read his book if they thought it was fiction, which of course it was.

An Idle Pastime

In the first half of the nineteenth century, Protestants of a conservative disposition were still expressing their misgivings about novel reading. Zachary Macaulay, the father of Thomas Babington Macaulay and a member of the “Clapham sect” of Evangelicals, allowed his children to read novels—but only at night. Reading novels in the daytime, he said, was like “drinking drams in the morning.”

And since novels weren’t true or educational in the way other kinds of books were, novel reading was widely associated with idleness. “The great object of habitual readers of novels is to kill time,” wrote Thomas M’Crie in 1817—M’Crie was an erudite Presbyterian minister—“and they are not very scrupulous as to the means which they employ to rid themselves of this troublesome companion.”

But the underlying reason M’Crie and many others couldn’t reconcile themselves to the legitimacy of fiction was the old one: It wasn’t true. (Indeed M’Crie’s quip came in a hostile review of Walter Scott’s Old Mortality, a historical novel the reviewer thought to be reckless with the historical record.)

George Eliot, in one of her early letters—written when she was a 19-year-old Evangelical Christian named Marian Evans—expressed deep aversion to the whole idea of fiction. “As to the discipline our minds receive from the perusal of fictions I can conceive none that is beneficial but may be attained by that of history.” This remarkable letter (it comes to about 2,000 words) is a sustained attack on novel reading as detrimental to both moral and intellectual development. “For my part,” she concludes, “I am ready to sit down and weep at the impossibility of my understanding or barely knowing even a fraction of the sum of objects that present themselves for our contemplation in books and in life. Have I then any time to spend on things that never existed?”

Dislike of Christian Truth

I was pleased to discover recently that this venerable tradition lives on—and I use the word “venerable” without irony. Banner of Truth, a small Evangelical press based in Scotland, has recently published an engaging little book by Iain Murray, The Undercover Revolution: How Fiction Changed Britain. Murray is a highly competent scholar and the author of many books on Christian subjects, among them an excellent biography of Jonathan Edwards and a history of “revivalism” in America.

In 1870, more works were published in Britain on religious subjects than on any other. By 1886, fiction was at the top of the list. Murray contends that this transformation had to do with more than simply tastes in genres. The writers of fiction who rose to prominence during these years

used fiction to present something they believed to be better than the Christian life. . . . Yet it can be shown that their motivation did not spring from the finding of something better; it came rather from a dislike of the evangelical truth which most of them knew in their childhood.

Murray says in the book’s preface (really, it’s more of a pamphlet than a book—only 95 small pages of text) that he only intended to raise the subject, not to deal with it fully. Still, I would not have advised him to emphasize Robert Louis Stevenson’s role in the transformation he laments. It is true that Stevenson rejected and became rather pompously contemptuous of the Evangelical faith of his father, just as his friend Edmund Gosse did. But nothing I remember in Stevenson’s books suggests the author’s animosity to Evangelical Christianity or, indeed, to religion generally.

Murray’s inclusion of Thomas Hardy, by contrast, is entirely appropriate to his argument. He chooses to deal with Hardy’s personal character rather than his fiction, but the latter supports Murray’s contention quite as much as the former. Hardy’s parents were kind, affectionate, and solidly Evangelical, and he felt a deep sense of guilt over rejecting their faith. Indeed, it’s clear to me at least—though not to his biographers for a variety of reasons—that fiction became for him a way to justify his loss of faith by portraying life in Christian England as emotionally stultifying and socially repressive.

That portrayal was in essence dishonest. Hardy did not experience anything close to the cruelty and bigotry to which he subjected many of his characters, though the realism of the “Wessex” novels carried the strong implication that he had. I’m thinking especially of the egregious Jude the Obscure, a novel in which Hardy strings out a laughably convoluted plot for the sole purpose, it seems, of dragging his hero through the mire and bringing him to a miserable end.

Grounds for Suspicion

All this raises a question worth thinking about. Should fiction be trusted?

Murray says he is not questioning the legitimacy of fiction itself, and points to the works of Bunyan and Milton as evidence of fiction’s spiritual usefulness. Yet his last chapter is entitled “Is Christianity fiction?” and argues—correctly in my view—that the viability of Christianity depends entirely on historical fact rather than on highfalutin notions of “myth.” The impression left at the end of Undercover Revolution is that Iain Murray is deeply suspicious of fiction as fiction.

While I don’t share that suspicion, I’m not prepared to dismiss it either. On the one hand, I’ve read many novels in my life and profited from a substantial minority of them (I think in particular of V. S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas and—ironically enough— Middlemarch). It’s impossible to assign objective values on matters like this, but to my mind, great works of fiction are intrinsically superior to great works of history or of social commentary. The latter, though based on fact, become obsolete and aren’t capable of engaging and captivating the whole person, mind and emotions, the way the best novels do.

On the other hand, fiction is fiction, and I wonder whether there isn’t something dangerous about allowing a talented writer with an unsound or twisted idea to invent his own universe and present it to readers as “true” in a moral sense. The historian can be proved wrong or prejudiced or imbalanced. A misguided social critic or philosopher must answer objections by recourse to logic and evidence. But the writer of fiction almost never faces objections other than aesthetic ones. If he has created a sufficiently attractive book, that book becomes in effect unanswerable, whatever its moral or philosophical import.

Vast Interpretive Power

Leibniz could pour all of his learning and energy into the Theodicy, but Voltaire in Candide had the luxury of inventing his own material—a ludicrously improbable series of disasters meant to ridicule rather than disprove or contend with Leibniz’s ideas (insofar as Voltaire knew them). I have not read the Theodicy and don’t intend to; nor do I know anybody who has. And why should I? We all know, don’t we, how preposterous its Panglossian thesis is.

A more recent instance comes to mind. A few years ago, the Australian critic Keith Windschuttle published an essay in the New Criterion exposing Grapes of Wrath as a work of Marxist propaganda, wholly detached from anything resembling verifiable historical evidence. Alas, Penguin Classics did not ask booksellers to remove the novel from their shelves; nor did AP English teachers across the nation remove it from their reading lists.

Fiction dominates our mindset. In varied forms, from novels to film and television, we live in it, breathe it, and, much of the time, can’t tell the difference between it and the reality it mimics. And, if I were honest, I’d admit that I wouldn’t have it any other way.

But maybe it’s unwise to allow things that never existed to hold such vast interpretive power over things that do. Maybe the Puritans had a point. •


Barton Swaim works as a speechwriter and is the author of Scottish Men of Letters and the New Public Sphere (Bucknell, 2009). He is a member of First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, South Carolina, a church of the Associate Reformed Synod.

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