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The plot thins

In The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark, the heroine teaches in Edinburgh in the 1930s. She has a special set of favourites amongst her pupils, loves one-armed Roman Catholic art teacher and WW1 veteran Teddy Lloyd, and sympathises with Mussolini. A member of her set, Sandy, eventually sleeps with Lloyd and then becomes a nun, writing a book called The Transfiguration of the Commonplace.   

What else is true in this novel? Is Venezuela the world’s leading oil exporter? Is the Indian Scout motorcycle produced in Springfield, Massachusetts? Is my father living in Chelmsford? And is it true that around 40 years later, Arthur Danto will write a work of philosophy called The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, named after Sandy’s book? After all, these are all things that were also true in the actual world, at the time when the book is set. 

The right answer here is that these facts are not relevant to Spark’s novel and shouldn’t be counted as true in it. Facts that are relevant include facts about the effect of WW1 on those who survived it, about class-conscious Edinburgh society, about the history of Presbyterian and Catholic relations in Scotland, and so on. But even so, not every actual world fact gets in. Most are irrelevant and would be distracting.  

Many philosophers writing on fiction have disagreed, however. For instance, Tamar Gendler writes that “import laws” concerning the admission of actual world facts into fictions are “extremely lenient”: “in general (though there will be numerous exceptions), if something is true in the actual world, it will be true in the fictional world”. Gendler here seems to be endorsing what Marie-Laure Ryan has called “the principle of minimal departure” (PMD), according to which “we reconstrue the world of a fiction … as being the closest possible to the world we know”.   

It’s true that we adopt something like PMD towards non-fiction, which aims to transmit information about the actual world to the reader. In light of that aim, it’s arguably a convention that the reader may “import” anything from the actual world – or perhaps more cautiously, anything she thinks the author believes. But fiction operates differently to non-fiction. No fiction is exclusively dedicated to the conveying of information.

A different reason to adopt PMD towards fiction would be if stories always described counterfactuals: that is, if they were explorations of ways the actual world is not, but might have been (e.g. “What would have happened, had Hitler won?”). In exploring a counterfactual, we consider some non-actual state of affairs against a background of what we believe to be the case. However, hardly any novels and stories, are exclusively aimed at exploring counterfactuals. Many genres depend on precisely not thinking about what else would actually be the case, if the story was true. As a couple walk off into the sunset in a romance, it doesn’t help fulfil the aims of the genre to think there is a 42% chance of their getting divorced. Thoughts about the anomalously high murder rate amongst Miss Marple’s acquaintances would somewhat spoil imaginative engagement with Agatha Christie’s novels. And so on.  

A historical influence on PMD’s popularity has been the article “Truth in Fiction” by Australian philosopher David Lewis. Simplifying a bit, Lewis proposes two rival principles, which he refuses to choose. The first, roughly speaking, is PMD. The second says, again roughly, that we should import into a fiction, any states of affairs widely believed to be the case at the time of the book’s writing. But both principles face problems, as Lewis himself notes. For one, in the context of the horror genre, a pale faced man with pointy teeth who hates garlic and sunlight is usually a vampire, even if the author doesn’t say so; yet were we to “import” facts (or widely held beliefs) about the actual world into the story, where there are no vampires, we should classify him only as an anaemic with dental problems. Equally, in Charlotte Brontë’s Villette, the motif of boxes and enclosures tells us something about Lucy Snowe’s repressed sexuality. Yet there is no room for this interpretation according to Lewis’s principles: in the actual world (or what is widely believed about it), the presence of boxes in someone’s life doesn’t indicate they’re sexually repressed.    

The central underlying problem with PMD and its ilk is that it doesn’t recognise the diversity of purposes with which fiction is written. A story might be written in order to explore a counterfactual, but alternatively might be written to thrill; explore a particular theme; achieve expressive effects with language; innovate artistically; indoctrinate; amuse; symbolise; fantasise; release reader’s emotions; sexually arouse; frighten; and so on. As these purposes have emerged, so too have a variety of conventional strategies for getting readers to respond appropriately. For many of these, PMD wouldn’t help, and may well hinder.

Why are philosophers drawn to PMD? It’s tempting to offer an anecdotal, possibly uncharitable explanation: being busy reading philosophy texts, philosophers don’t tend to read much fiction, tending to read only narrowly where they do. Gilbert Ryle once suggested, perhaps facetiously, that the only novels worth reading were Jane Austen’s. Wittgenstein had a great appetite for crime fiction. And if David Hume is right, and “we choose our favourite author as we do our friend, from a conformity of humour and disposition”, then many philosophers, including Lewis himself, apparently share the humour and disposition of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, so fond are they of using Sherlock Holmes stories as a source of examples. If philosophers aren’t fully acquainted with the vast range of uses to which fiction can be put, or even are more familiar generally with non-fiction than fiction, then it isn’t surprising that they tend to treat fiction as monolithic in nature, and so distort it. Basically, I’m telling philosophers of fiction to read more fiction! It’s the best fun you can have at work. 

Featured image credit: “Ophelia” by After Sir John Everett Millais. Public domain via The Met Museum.

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