Discover more from A User's Guide to History
Fiction and life
In the 1954 film The Barefoot Contessa, Harry Dawes, a screenwriter and director played by Humphrey Bogart, summarizes the difference between a movie script and real life. “A script has to make sense. Life doesn’t.”
The comment explains why some people prefer fiction over nonfiction in literature, films and other forms of storytelling. The fans of fiction like their stories to make sense. The sequences of events, if not predictable in advance, at least are explicable in retrospect. The conclusion grows out of what came before.
In nonfiction—in real life—events are often inexplicable even after the fact. Why did Napoleon invade Russia? Why did Hitler make the same mistake? What prompted the stock market crash of 1929? Why did the QWERTY keyboard catch on and Esperanto not?
To be sure, historians offer explanations, but these are always provisional. Historians, especially of the academic variety, never stop arguing. What caused the Reformation? Were American progressives of the early twentieth century enlightened democrats or crypto-fascists? Was World War II caused by Hitler’s demonic vision, or was it simply the unfinished business of World War I?
For the history-minded and others who prefer nonfiction, the ambiguity of the genre is part of the charm. You finish reading the history book or watching the documentary, and you still have questions. But that’s okay; it inspires you to continue the quest. You know you’ll never reach the end; the journey is what counts.
Fictionalists, by contrast, like their stories tidy and wrapped with a bow. This is their prerogative—with one important proviso. So long as they are simply amusing themselves, what they do with their time is their own business.
But when they extrapolate from fiction to the real world, they can go wrong, not for themselves only but for others too. Devoted fictionalists—authors and readers alike—often make claims about a higher truth that novels and films reveal. This is a seductive idea: Read a great novel, be moved emotionally, and come away with a deeper understanding of the world.
Would that life were so simple. But that’s the problem: it’s not. Fiction acquires its power by simplifying, in the same way that the laws of classical physics get their power by simplifying. In Newton’s law of gravity, planets are reduced to point masses. This works, to a useful approximation, because the objects under examination are, for the purposes of the discussion, simple and interchangeable.
Humans, however, are not simple, and they are not interchangeable. Moreover they respond to the influences they encounter in complicated ways. A physics analogy is the three-body problem. Newton’s gravity equation applies to two bodies; throw in a third body and the situation gets complicated—so complicated as to be noncomputable. Life is not a three-body problem but an n-body problem, which is even more intractable.
Yet fiction lends the illusion that life is simple. This is precisely its appeal. A typical novel has a protagonist who encounters a conflict over something important; the conflict is resolved, and the protagonist is changed by the experience. And so is the reader vicariously.
Readers of the best fiction, viewers of the best movies, definitely gain something by the experience. They develop a greater appreciation of what it means to be human. They encounter characters and events unlike those they meet in their own lives, and they can benefit from the exposure.
Yet the more moving the fictional experience, the more likely it is to be misleading. Every fictional character is an ideal type—ideal not in the sense of perfect or unblemished, but in deriving from an idea in the head of its creator. Cervantes’ Don Quixote is definitely not perfect but he’s nonetheless a type, which is why he’s so memorable, and why he’s been distilled into an adjective: quixotic (and its equivalent in other languages).
Pick your character from fiction: Odysseus, Hamlet, Elizabeth Bennett, Tom Joad. What we remember of them—what Homer, Shakespeare, Austen, Steinbeck make us remember of them—is a stylized slice of human nature. To borrow from another art form, it’s stylized in the way Michelangelo’s David and Rodin’s Burghers of Calais are stylized. In each work there is an essence that the artist brings to our attention in a way we can’t forget.
But essence is just that: essence. Real people are much more than essence, or they are many essences rolled into a single sack of flesh and bones. To say that fans of fiction have a simplistic view of life would be . . . simplistic. But if they have a complicated view—which is to say, a more realistic view—it doesn’t come from their fiction.
To put it yet another way, as critics of Broadway musicals sometimes do: You know it’s a hit if audiences come out of the theater whistling the tunes. This is a reasonable and commendable goal for a work of the imagination. Its counterpart for a reality-based work is improbable and often not even desirable. Messy stories—the stuff of real life—can be fascinating, but they can’t carry a tune.