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August 20, 2012 | by  | in Opinion |
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Paradox of fiction

We are the storytelling apes. From the earliest campfire tales to modern Hollywood blockbusters, the delights of a finely spun yarn have demanded attention in human society. Narrative fiction is of such enduring importance because it allows us to exercise our artistic imagination and use it to reflect on whatever social issue the author chooses to focus on. The mark of good literature has always been the ability to allow us to inhabit world which are totally unlike our own, and empathise with the characters there. Successful fiction can do this even when basic premises of reality are abandoned, which is why the travails of Harry, Ron & Hermione or Bruce Wayne are memorable despite their implausibility.

But a potential puzzle looms. It is just obvious that (good) fiction can have an emotional impact on us—which is why we cry when Bambi’s mother die. It is also obvious that no-one really believes that the stuff that is described in novels and movies is true—which is why we don’t keep crying at the end of the Bambi DVD. So why do we have genuine emotional reactions to things that we know are just make-believe? This is often called the paradox of fiction, and its main contention is to try and establish that there is something deeply irrational about the way humans interact with fictional worlds.

How might you respond to this? You might suggest that we have a special attitude of ‘make-believe’ which means we temporarily really do think of fictional characters as existing. Or maybe the tears or fears that fiction elicits are just fake emotions; fictional-fears and quasi-tears. Whichever way you choose to look at it, a solution to the paradox of fiction implies something mysterious about our imaginative abilities. Perhaps we ought to be more wary of those peddlers of the narrative dark arts.

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