I recently read an article by Lincoln Allison titled Are Novels a Waste of Life?. The question of the title explains all. For Allison, it is the sense that time is being wasted that destablises his ability to finish a novel. “Life seems too short for other people’s imaginings,” especially when there are more pressing fact based writing to consume. “Making intelligent young men read the Brontë sisters when they have never even heard of David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion or John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty might just be the worst idea in the history of education.”
These stark ideas led to me to seek out an alternative position, and by chance I found it that same day on BBC Radio 4 in the guise of a Will Self point of view. (The Power of Fiction)
Self examined the ability of novels to lure us into a belief that a fictional character has time and choice ahead of them. He states that whilst we don’t credit Anna Kerenina any existence beyond the pages of a book, “we certainly do believe that Anna Kerenina believes herself to be a free agent responsible for making decisions that will alter the course of her life” – and yet we only need to turn to the last page of the book to see that her future pathway is resolutely mapped out. It is this aspect of fiction that Self believes we find storytelling so affecting and believe in their self-consciouses so whole heatedly. Why? Because in truth we all suspect that our lives have far less “wriggle room” for contingency and free will than we typically state, and that secretly our lives have a last page that, if we were able to turn to, we could read the denouement of the story we privately entertain has a fixed, predetermined ending.
My own experience of reading fiction has always been tied up with the new possibilities of seeing that I might thereafter consider a choice I could make. Voices speak to us through words; fiction fosters new vantage points.