Tall Tales

Major Contentions

  • Fictional narratives cannot mirror reality and only need be true to their own premises.
  • Consumers of these narratives find it difficult to accept their artificiality in part because academics consciously attempt to deny it as they seek out its “truths.”
  • The reason we fail to see the unbridgeable gap between fictional reality and our own is rooted in the way all persons process reality.
  • We take for granted the mimetic nature of our perceptions and reflections, which must imperfectly represent an external reality to consciousness, but this attempt is so often thwarted or distorted that much of our quest for utility is marked by an effort to pierce the perceptual wall to find a reliable mimesis.
  • Fiction gift wraps a representation intended to be intelligible to reason because it is an artificial and conscious creation that makes its reality far more accessible to its consumer than the external reality she seeks to comprehend.
  • Our eager embrace of this artifice satisfies a real need to comprehend but does it by an intentional act of creative self-deception that consumers find difficult to resist; this effort is well expressed by Coleridge’s phrasing: “a willing suspension of disbelief.”
  • Such is the perennial attraction of narrative fiction, but in the anomie and moral vacuum of the twentieth century, fiction’s satisfactions assumed an inescapably moral dimension: in the absence of other moral authority, the protagonists of narrative media became models of moral conduct.
  • These largely unnoticed cultural shifts were accompanied by a moral flexibility necessary to accept them; one change was a restriction of moral truth to the experiential, and combined with the existential axioms of the antihero, this focus on private experience and moral autonomy sought the same comprehensiveness from personal reality as could be found in fictional realities of movies and novels, inevitably producing further alienation and ironic cynicism that now permeates popular cultures.
  • The issue is further complicated by the aesthetic requirements of artistic creation, which impose even greater artificiality onto the creations of contemporary narratives as producers seek to make their creations aesthetically satisfying to consumers.
  • We can clearly see these artifices at work when we compare an historical biography to historical fiction, the result being that “based upon a true story” most clearly signifies “untrue.”
  • The temptations of narrative fiction have been recognized since Plato’s Republic, but they were denied by Aristotle’s invention of the archetype and Romanticist embrace of “emotional truth.”
  • These developments were supercharged by the collapse of institutional authority in the twentieth century, producing a moral vacuum that narrative media quickly filled with the archetype of the antihero, which by the last third of the century had thoroughly permeated popular cultures as stereotype.
  • Postmodern critiques began with a specious elevation of “text” as propagandistic tool of entrenched institutional power, which required two approaches: first, to treat all discursive prose as “grand narratives” equally inventive and implicitly false, and second, to “deconstruct” the putatively buried truths in such texts that revealed putative social prejudices, but the underlying supposition that fiction aspired to truth remained unexamined.
  • Moral direction cannot be transferred from the created reality of fiction to our own reality, so all efforts to seek it in narrative media are inherently distortive and ultimately false, revealing that our reliance on narratives as moral exemplars is the most delusionary of all grand narratives.


Even while I studied and taught literature, I was always troubled by the loose linkage between stories and reality. I am not talking about the reality depicted in the stories themselves. It has always struck me as right and proper to object when they violate their own premises. This might be as simple as the continuity errors that eagle-eyed viewers always point out in movies. Look. Her glass was half-empty and in the next shot is three-quarters full. A more serious failing is the deus ex machina that rectifies a failing story line at its climax. Or perhaps a character acts entirely contrary to her nature without sufficient cause, leading the reader to scratch her head in bemusement or throw the book down in disgust. Still, the bar I set for fiction was pretty low. It need not mirror life, an act critics call mimesis, so long as it remained true to its own premises. If pigs can speak to spiders in the first chapter, if choruses burst into song in the first act, I only asked that the same rule applies later, and if things change, that the change is explained so as to allow the work to remain internally consistent. Stories exist in their own world, and that is what pleases us about them.

Only they don’t and it doesn’t. Three-year-olds can effortlessly navigate the gulf between created reality, the made-up world of fiction, and the common reality we all participate in, but something odd evidently happens to grown-ups, and the problem only grows more serious with education. Sophisticated critics and professors of literature engage in an interesting sleight-of-hand in examining the relationship between real and imagined. If confronted outright with a request to define the connection per se, they will deny any explicit linkage because even a moment’s thought will introduce the iron curtain that divides the real from the imagined. But five minutes later they are enthusiastically dissecting mob mentality in Billy Budd or the moral implications of the Grand Inquisitor chapter in The Brothers Karamazov. They seem at least to sense the problem, so they seek cover by referring to Melville or Dostoevsky’s view of things, but what do they expect their often-captive listeners to do with the analysis they are conducting? Are we to confine the novel’s meaning to the fictional world of the nineteenth century whaler or a Russian orthodox monastery? Are we to infer that these two brilliant creative geniuses have nothing to say to the common reality they inhabited — or perhaps to the one we now inhabit — that their brilliance is curtained by the imaginary worlds they created, worlds so rich and dimensioned that we can drag ourselves back to reality only by an effort of will and once returned remain strangely lost, with one foot in the real world and the other in the somehow richer world pinned to the pages or etched on the DVD? Adolescents emerge from the theater lobby with plans to play quidditch or kick-box or buy an assault rifle. Adults finish Macbeth with a richer understanding of the perils of ambition. Really?

I’ve been bothered by this issue for many years, but like so many other super-macroscopic cultural issues, it seemed few others shared my concerns. But in a recent TED talk, the famous sociobiologist E.O. Wilson was asked about our zeitgeist’s obsession with narratives, an issue about which he expressed some concern. I think it time to delve into my own discomfort.

Like so many other big-picture problems, this one suffers from a poverty of proper terminology. Wilson observed that our evolutionary bias is toward confronting reality. But, of course, we can’t do that directly, for before “getting” it, we must construct our version of that reality, both moment-to-moment and in toto.  An entirely accurate construction that mirrors reality in perfect detail is, of course, an unattainable goal yet one we cannot help pursuing and compositing in all of our truth, goodness, and beauty claims (see “What Makes It True?“). The mimetic process that occurs in our minds as we attempt this construction occurs constantly and may be considered the perpetual goal of all of our perceptual and most of our rational efforts. Our struggle to identify the true, engage our natural and preferential freedom to choose the good, and negotiate the difficulties of appreciating the beautiful occupies most of the moments of our lives (see The Tyranny of Rationality). But not all. Wilson implied that the created reality of narratives provides us with just what we have been exhaustively searching for: a consistent and comprehensible world that we gradually come to understand, but unlike our own, one that we merely observe rather than feel forced to make choices in. By that logic, we jump on continuity errors and narrative inconsistency with an almost feral anger, for our minds are led to think of these created worlds as being the thing we most seek: a mimesis without self-contradiction. Further, our poor brains, exhausted by the creative effort of half discovering and half creating a common reality that we but poorly understand, gratefully absorb the balm of the fiction we indulge ourselves in, absorbing at one level the completeness of this intelligible but imaginary reality yet simultaneously engaging in the same kind of logical analysis that we bring to every conscious moment of our existence. We naturally do so.

When I taught literature, I had to remind students that nothing in the created reality of a piece of fiction occurs by chance. Everything is intentional in the made-up world. They found that notion incredible because real life doesn’t work that way. That intentionality is what we yearn for in common reality. It energizes the world’s religions as, I suspect, it sustains the scientist’s sanction of her method. There is power in creating an imaginary world fully furnished with simulacra of the one we are assured a greater Author created, and there is comfort in turning past the title page or watching the opening credits, knowing that what follows has order and meaning. We delight in immersing ourselves and trusting that world for a very good reason: it differs from the real one, so often dull, bewildering, and meaningless. If narrative literature only existed to produce that delight, it would have paid its way in this weary world. That immersion into another world, into the author’s consciousness, justifies what Robert Coles termed “the call of stories” in his excellent book of the same name.

But it seems our brains are made so as to ask more of literature than it can deliver. We cannot help but mine stories for meaning, to ask them to cross over.

No wonder children emerge from the theater’s cocoon with their fingers pointed and thumbs cocked. No wonder critics knit the imagined world of the narrative not only to their own world view but to the real world itself, drawing out of the created world lessons for the one we all inhabit. Though the process is a natural one, the imaginative interweaving is facilitated by the ease with which students of literature deal with figurative language, especially metaphor (an issue I’ve addressed in another context in “The Problem of Metaphor in Religion“). They are used to thinking of one thing in connection with another, but the relationships they establish are necessarily imprecise and allusive. And so they shy away from a discursive and frank appraisal of the relationship between created and common reality. The term they would use to disparage such an attempt is reductionist  (see “Reductionism for Dummies“). I see nothing amiss in asking the critic to state with some precision what relationship the events in a fictional world have to the reader’s participation in the real one. If the author intends to communicate some wisdom about common reality through narrating the experiences of characters or the voice of some speaker, fine. It strikes me that we often communicate our experiences in just that way, intending to impart some wisdom to our listener. But that common sense view runs into two major roadblocks in regard to fiction.

The first involves the limitations of experience. Of the correspondence truth tests, undistillled experience is both the most commonly applied and the most unreliable (see “Better Blended Systems of Knowledge.) We build our knowledge largely from experience, which explains both why we find reality so difficult to comprehend and why the transference from fictional experience to our own seems so natural. But experience’s limitations should caution us in this temptation. As a justification for truth and goodness claims, experience suffers from contextualization. It is necessarily unique and unreplicable, so the lessons learned from each experience are only loosely applicable to later and similar ones. And as experiences are perceptually registered, they are altered in ways we cannot be conscious of, since sense data is filtered preconsciously so as to present us with a fully-constructed picture of reality. This distortion is profound enough to support postmodern charges that experience itself must be private and subjective. I argue in opposition to this charge that our reasoning about experience, though not the experience itself, may produce a degree of intersubjectivity that allows us some broad degree of consensus.

This universal reasoning faculty applied to subjective experience is the anchor that moors us to a common reality. But what do we reason about when we think about a movie or novel? What facts of experience can we accept as true in this created world? As we seek them, we face a tempting but illusory advantage: here at last is a world of heft and substance, an unchanging reality of consistent perspective that lays bare the experiences of its protagonists. Every spectator sees through the same eyes a fixed landscape with but a single perspective. So not only is the fictional world intentionalized; it also forms the shared reality we all seek but can never find. It is little wonder the narrative fiction by its nature is so intensely attractive, for it scratches an itch we hardly know we feel.

The second problem concerns the intent of the creator. A novel or a movie is a work of art, subject to conventions governing its genre and aesthetic considerations that shape its substance and style. Those seeking that it also somehow convey the truth in its storyline are asking it to accomplish a second and divergent goal, for as we all know to our sorrow, unvarnished common reality could rarely be mistaken for art. To make it so, the creator must distort reality as a sculptor must mold her clay.

To illustrate the issue as it affects literature, contrast a reaction to a biography with a response to a piece of serious fiction. I just finished Christopher Hitchens’ short biography of Thomas Jefferson and David McCullough’s fine life of John Adams. Both works were polished pieces of craft with distinctive styles and authorial expertise. Both followed genre conventions for biography. I consider both to be fine artistic creations. Both paint a fairly unflattering portrait of Jefferson. While I may have quibbled with a few incidents or details, I approached their portraits of the sage of Monticello with equanimity. Here were expositions of another life and another time. Like all actual lives in all times, there were loose ends and unknown motives, questions and inconsistencies. All of the telescoping of perspective or framing of events, the innumerable intentional omissions or sharper focus each author effected, I judged to be in service to the attempt to convey a true account of a real life that I was free to further investigate and confirm or dispute. In contrast, at the same time I was reading Edith Wharton’s novel House of Mirth, whose storyline chronicles the rise and fall of a social climber in the Gilded Age, Lilly Bart. It was as rich in historical detail as the biographies, with a comprehensive picture of the social environment of her times. The machinations forced upon Lilly by her class and gender roles were as deeply affecting as they were exotic to this twenty-first century male reader. But at the novel’s end, what was I to do with these insights? I had entered a richly furnished late Victorian room and had read the minds of all its denizens, had observed their triumphs and bitter falls, and upon closing the book had stored it all in memory. What part of that memory may I think real? Edith Wharton actually inhabited rooms like those she portrayed, joined the social elite, and undoubtedly was acquainted with many a nouveau riche. But what of it? Her admirers will infer that her novel will give us the “flavor” of that life, or an “insight” into it that somehow translates into knowledge of it. But they ask for too much, for at the same instant they wish for the novel to also exist as a unique aesthetic object, one crafted intentionally to produce an emotional response. These purposes are of necessity in conflict. Two examples of that inevitable conflict should suffice to make my point. First, we know from the title page on that something will happen in House of Mirth, and — wonder of wonders! —  it will happen to the central character. That is a piece of luck! Funny how life turns out differently. Furthermore, somehow the novel’s reader will know enough about the characters and events of the novel to get a pretty rounded picture of not only what happens but why and how and, even more miraculously, some causes and effects of the events depicted.

Now even if we are willing to suspend disbelief sufficiently to correlate these unlikely findings with reality, we face yet another problem regarding the insight we are being handed: we are being asked to trust that the author is skilled enough in her authorial craft to accomplish her artistic ends and at the same time observant enough of realities in the world to communicate an experience truthfully and reliably, and not just any old experience, but one that conveys some essential truth that cannot be communicated discursively (if it could be, it would be, for discursive language is far easier to employ than writer’s craft). How are we to judge any single feature of her novel as a piece of experiential truth? After all, every representation is from some angle dictated by aesthetic rather than reportorial requirements, and we cannot know how accurately any imaginative creation mirrors what it reflects. If Wharton had slipped in some anachronism as a private joke, would I have known? If she grossly exaggerated Lilly’s paralysis in the face of rigid gender roles to drive home some private grievance or authorial machination, if she employed some Dickensian character or plot twists to dramatize her storyline, if her unflattering foray into the consciousness of her male figures was prompted by some misanthropic impulse to stereotype…. How would I know? Can I ever separate my memory of the watering holes of fin de siècle society imparted by her creativity from the histories of the era I have studied? Should I try? I hear a great deal of talk about “artistic truth,” “theme,” and “deeper meaning” in discussions of literature. I would like a clearer understanding of just what knowledge such ideas entail, not to mention the more difficult issue of how such truth claims are warranted. How does artistic, creative genius, and authorial skill translate into depth of knowledge of what is grandiosely termed “the human condition”?

This problem is easier to grasp in some artistic media than others. Fiction makes far more pretensions to reality than some kinds of contemporary art, for instance (see “Three Portraits“). As a finished artistic creation, the novel stands on its own to enfold us as a unique intentional work to produce the “disinterested delight” that Kant said characterizes all works of art. And we happily immerse ourselves in the delusion that stories are real, at least while we are being swept along in them, an act of eager self-deception best expressed by Coleridge’s felicitous phrase: “a willing suspension of disbelief.” This immersion into an alternate and thoroughly intelligible world is what we are paying for. I get that. But just because it has those qualities, I question any “lessons” the work can offer us: lessons about history, sociology, psychology, or, in the words of the English teacher, “life.” Can an artistic creation be both unique and educative of a common human experience when each human experience is uniquely tied to context? Who is to assure the reader that what she has learned has been intended by the author and correspondently true? My brain cannot help but to form the same synthesis with this imaginary and created world as it does with the mimesis of the real world I construct to discern truth and choose goodness. After all, mirroring reality is what it does for a living. Though natural, I am convinced such an effort is delusionary and dangerous and should be resisted rather than embraced.

Plato recognized the danger. In Book X of The Republic, he envisions a utopia without creative arts. We largely discount his warning today unless we buy into his theory of forms, whose architecture allowed him to see artistic creation as a mirror of a mirror. Since common reality for Plato was merely a reflection of the ideal, any artistic creation that fulfills a mimetic role must reflect an imperfectly limned reality, thus distancing the observer even farther from contemplation of the ideal. One hardly needs to subscribe to the Platonic vision to make that complaint. Consider Augustinian objections to secular literature still exerting their force in the closure of theaters during the English Commonwealth and Jefferson’s well-known quarrel with reading fiction.

As in so many things, Aristotle disagreed with Plato, and at least a whiff of his argument attends every subsequent effort to find truth in the narrative arts. The power of fiction according to Aristotle’s schema in The Poetics is to distill the essence of experience rather than any particular and therefore unique perspective. Just as he envisioned our knowledge of abstractions to be gradually constructed of multiple exposures to their instantiation, so too did he see the artist’s role as distilling the essence of experience into its essential archetype, the defining characteristic of the essences portrayed in the narrative. Macbeth is an imaginary king as Shakespeare portrays him, but his approach to gaining and retaining power typifies a certain type of monarch, or so we like to think. The muthos of the play, its essentials, are thus both imaginative and didactic. The author both creates and instructs. The audience responds to effective archetyping with catharsis, which Aristotle saw as an emotional purging. We might grow as callous to blood as Macbeth himself if we actually knew him, but we retain our emotional distance when watching him onstage just enough to explore regicide as an idea and experience our response to it as a vicarious emotion. So we are double winners, Aristotle claims. We derive the emotional charge of involvement with the intellectual depth of detachment. We end the narrative emotionally spent but rationally energized.

Aristotle’s arguments are powerful, but they fail to bridge the gap between the imaginary and the real. Certainly, what we experience in Macbeth is a powerful emotional ride that leaves us exhausted well before Macbeth loses his head. But only the catharsis is real, not the manipulated events that produce it, and what experiential truth can derive from events that are so clearly manufactured? I do not mean to say that immortal characters and events cannot be consensually discovered in great literature. We approach our Willy Lomans and Don Corleones with too much reverence to claim that our emotional response to narratives cannot build immortal archetypes. But these are cardboard cutouts compared to any living person. Their power derives from the crispness of their definition, and that clarity is entirely a product of their being merely artifacts, framed by intent. As for the intellectual power we derive from our experiencing their fictional world, I would argue that it is precisely these singular great characters and storylines and the profound implications they generate that produce the greatest intellectual dissent among critics and literary experts. Our emotional response is molded by the intelligence creating fictional narratives — this is after all a world created to elicit it — but our attempt to interrogate that response and extrapolate its significance to common reality must splinter into private conviction and public conjecture when it crashes against the wall between created and common reality. Archetypes there may well be and catharses they may well produce, but when we attempt to derive real-world truths from them and put those truths into discursive language, we enter the thicket of controversy that fuels a hundred academic journals and a thousand websites. The deepest wells of the narrative arts — the Hamlets, the madeleines, the Rosebuds, the monolith — that in Aristotle’s schema should produce the deepest and most powerful consensual truths lead instead to the most vociferous dispute among experts who try to frame those truths in the discursive language of the academic article or popular essay. Why is that? Could it be that the “truths” thus communicated about “the human condition” are as numinous as a religious conversion? Could it be that no reliable truths about “real life” can be produced by the portrayal of an unreal one?

That the narrative arts must serve mimetic purposes seemed relatively undisputed until the Romantics refocused the spotlight upon themselves. But this was hardly an improvement since it necessitated exchanging the universal for the personal, with all the attendant temptations of private experience proffered as artistic genius. These nineteenth century obsessions were magnified by the growth of popular culture and the rise of literacy, cheap publication methods, and universal education. By the twentieth century the new narrative forms of film and television guaranteed the ascendency of the narrative not only as art form but as educational tool. And a new philosophy emerged to spotlight the narrative form, to place it at the very center of its premises.

I have often written about the early twentieth century transition from modernism to postmodernism in these pages (see “Postmodernism Is Its Discontents”). Its veneration of creativity and subjectivity was matched only by its disdain for empirical science and rationality. When joined to the new technologies that celebrated the narrative form, it stimulated a powerful effort to link created and common reality.

Its focus on creativity, criticism, and irony guaranteed that its approaches would be heterodox, so it took a while for postmodernism as a movement to reach full steam. Its groping for consistency coincided with the maturation of both the movie and the television industries into the powerful social forces we see today, and no one familiar with either could deny the countercurrent of sappy Romanticism that characterizes not only these media but also popular literature (see “Freedom, Antihero, and Zeitgeist”). Postmodernists embraced the individualist and subjectivist biases of the Romantics, along with a near deification of the artistic rebel. Their mature theory could be discerned in the works of a cadre of mainly French intellectuals by the mid-1970’s. They were academics and literateurs who found fertile soil for their theories, and indeed often communicated them, in literature rather than in philosophy. In appealing to literature to carry philosophical weight, they were honoring a long tradition that included Freud’s grounding his theories in Greek mythology and John Dewey’s reliance on Rousseau’s Emile to support his Progressivist educational theories. But the postmodernists sought even more pride of place for the narrative form. In their terminology, the great historical movements of the modern age were grand narratives, merely widely accepted stories that cultures tell themselves to justify the exploitations of institutional authority. Abstract and discursive political, religious, and moral theory is thus dismissed as mere storytelling with all of its fictionalizing. Ironically, postmodernists value another kind of story, mini-narratives, of individuals or of previously neglected and oppressed groups. They taught a generation of aspiring literature instructors to seek out truth in these untold stories. But note the difference between historians reading letters from Tuskegee Airmen and movies celebrating their service in World War II. In the parlance of the movie trailer, “based on a true story” is simply another way of saying, “not true.” Postmodernists also advocated subjecting what they scornfully called the canon of dead, white male authors to a critique using deconstruction, whose purpose is to mine their fiction and poetry for evidence of grand narratives perpetuating exploitative social orders.

While racist, homophobic, misogynistic, and capitalist undercurrents certainly swirl through the fiction of the canon, and while avid students pride themselves on uncovering it, I find it disturbing that they assume its molding influence on readers without asking what I think is the more basic question. Yes, readers are seeing in Tennyson or Hugo a disturbing misogyny. Yes, readers then and now should not have their prejudices confirmed, but not merely because we prefer our prejudices to theirs but because these imaginative works are neither sociological investigations nor psychological confessionals. Perhaps every human creation from cave paintings to kewpie dolls screams a political manifesto, but for my money the moral message is brought to the reading rather than derived from it. Deconstructing fiction is said to have given critics what they have always desired: equal partnership in artistic creation. And from cereal boxes to Joyce, every communication is thought to be an unintended confessional and self-indictment, a text, meaning a fiction. Notice how often commentators today refer to “the narrative” of a real event, the term’s connotation immediately instilling the likelihood of fiction. These are all efforts to tear down the iron curtain between a real mimesis and an imagined one.  I doubt if serious academics would have gone for it if they hadn’t already accepted the claim that fiction qualifies as another form of philosophy.

But the effort to find truth in fiction was only the first step, leading inevitably to the goal of all truth claims: finding goodness (see “Truth and Goodness Do a Dance“). Let no one think the postmodern method is morally neutral despite an implicit rejection of objective moral standards, for its program of social reform is built on the model of the human sciences (see “The Calamity of the Human Sciences”). In substituting sociology and psychology for the kind of pure aesthetic John Ruskin favored, postmodernists transform imaginative works into covertly polemical ones, replacing one exaggerated influence with another, using the narrative form to pursue weighty political ends it could never support. They mock Ruskin’s Romantic pretensions as the merest fluff while deconstructing literature for justification in what is an unabashed moral crusade. They shoot their rhetorical lead at bubbles in the air to vivify their deeply philosophical contentions, but  the tropes they target are simply too insubstantial to carry the weight of their hopes.

So what’s the harm? The child finishes the Harry Potter novel and eagerly reaches for the next in the series. The crowd files out of the movie theater marveling at the latest computer animation effect. The reader finishes House of Mirth feeling sorry for its damaged protagonist. No harm there, only a rich emotional immersion into a created world. But it is so hard to resist the next step. Presidents mimic action heroes. Romance novel fans inspect their snoring husbands with disdain. Serious and intelligent students learn to seek truth in the ellipses of the latest serious novel, yet they find no critical consensus on the wisdom it purportedly conveys. E.O. Wilson complained in his TED talk that our attraction to narrative prompts us to seek a simplistic, spurious intelligibility in the world around us. We want good guys and bad guys like in the movies. We seek the happily-ever-after of fairy tales. We yearn for the omniscience of the novelist’s world. In doing so, we disdain the open-ended complexity of the natural sciences, the hard work of sustained commitment, the doubt and uncertainty of finding truth and choosing the good. We want our stories to be real and reality to be as silky smooth as a heroine’s cheek, as transparent as a hero’s motives. But that can never be because none of it is or ever can be made real.

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