Fiction in the World

In my second talk I consider the importance of fiction. Why do we care about people who never existed and events that never occurred? How can their stories shed light on our own lives? I argue that the key to answering these questions is to recognize that works of fiction are about the real world. I reject the claim that we become emotionally and cognitively engaged with fictions to the extent that we ‘suspend disbelief’ in their unreality, focusing on what is ‘fictionally true’ rather than what is actually true. Our emotional responses to fictional characters turn not only on how they are portrayed in a story, but also on facts about the real world – including the fact that many such characters do not exist. At the same time, many of the cognitive values often attributed to great works of literature – such as deepening understanding, enhancing empathy, offering insight – presuppose a basis in ordinary fact. Far from diminishing the value of such works, this conclusion explains why fiction matters to us.