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Useful Fictions: The Role of the Novel in the American Public Sphere

by Rachel Morrison

Assistant Professor of English Thomas Koenigs joined the Scripps College faculty in 2014. He teaches courses on 19th-century American literature, African American literature, the history of the novel, and novel theory, among others. In his writing, he has argued that scholars have underestimated the role of fiction in culture; whereas others have seen the novel as frivolous entertainment, Koenigs sees it as a tool for social change. 

 Koenigs walks readers of Scripps magazine through a history of the novel and shows how fiction can help us understand real-world truths.

Scripps Magazine: In elementary school, many of us our taught the pneumonic device: fiction equals fake, non-fiction equals non-fake. Our first introduction to literary studies is that fiction is not real, or not to be trusted. Why does fiction get such a bad rap?

Thomas Koenigs: Yes, fiction is a story, but not one that is in opposition to truth: it contains certain truths. I became interested in the question of fiction because in our society, we tend to take it for granted—we are comfortable with the idea that by consuming fiction we are just engaging in light entertainment. We don’t find fiction-reading odd or worrisome. But that has not always been the case. I argue that in the early Republic, fiction was seen as something dangerous and suspicious. Many early American educators and politicians didn’t see fiction as an alternative conception of truth, but as a form of lying.

 SM: So, while there is a longstanding idea that fiction is frivolous, there is the concurrent idea that it has the power to disrupt certain power structures. Can you give an example of “dangerous” fiction you’ve studied?

 TK: The idea that fiction is frivolous and the idea that it might be dangerous were closely related in the early U.S. People worried that fiction-reading would both distract readers from their responsibilities and get them a false, even delusive, sense of reality. The book that immediately comes to mind for me is Tabitha Tenney’s 1800 novel Female Quixotism. It’s about a young woman in Pennsylvania who reads too many novels and romances, becomes completely deluded, and has all of these hijinks and adventures. It’s both fun reading and a warning about the types of writing that 19th-century women should be avoiding—a warning that fiction might render women unfit for normative femininity in the early Republic.

If a book like Female Quixotism captures early anxieties about fiction, it also shows early Americans’ great faith in the power of fiction to shape readers’ behavior for good and for ill. While modern readers usually take for granted the idea fiction is a literary work of art, this is an understanding of fiction that only becomes dominant in the mid- to late-19th century. This is a conception of fiction that is evident in a lot of the so-called canonical works of 19th-century, from Hawthorne and Melville to Wharton and James. But the early view was that fiction, from the mid-1700s through the early 1800s, was meant to educate—it taught good lessons about moral conduct. For this reason, a lot of earlier critics dismissed early American fiction as “bad art,” but my argument is that these fictions are not failed artworks; they are just guided by a different theory of the purpose and value of fiction.

 SM: And now you’re working on a book project that goes deeper into that question.

TK: In my current project, which spans 60 years of literary history, I’m exploring the ways in which we take for granted how fiction is just a literary art form—I want to understand alternative understanding of fictions. So, instead of just relegating early fiction to this category of “bad art,” we see the political and cultural uses of that fiction, and thus reveal the narrowness of our understanding of literature and what it does. And predictably, many of the writers dismissed as sub-literary and overly didactic were women writers.

SM: What gives fiction it’s power to do these things? As we discussed above, it’s made up, fake.

 TK: The first fictions were fables, which no reasonable person would construe as real or “fake”—people understood there purpose as fantastical tales or parables. As the literary critic Catherine Gallagher has argued, later on in England, the first fictions weren’t fictions at all, they were fictionalized stories about real people, in which readers were meant to figure out who they were about; they were a way to convey court gossip without getting charged with libel.  But eventually there was no particular reference, the stories took on a life of their own. And this is where our current conception of fiction, of the novel, comes from: there something different about the stories that emerge in the 19th century, and that has to do with the plausibility and everydayness of the stories—these are not kings and queens but people you can look up in the phonebook.

SM: And that everyday, generic quality of the characters and stories is what gave fiction in early America its power.

 TK: Yes. Fiction had been seen as fantasy, as cleverly screened non-fiction, as a distraction from political life, but I argue that some writers in the early posit fiction as ideally suited to political engagement. There had been this idea of the separation of the world of the public and novelistic worlds of drama and fantasy. But some writers saw the political value of fiction: There is a cognitive flexibility involved in reading fiction—it’s not just about whether it’s true or not, but whether it’s plausible or possible. Some early writers saw in fiction the potential to ignite speculative reasoning processes, which is a type of training in democratic decision-making.

SM: Are novels still doing this?

TK: Certainly, novels still can be instruments for political and social change, as they often serve as a powerful means of using individual stories to speak to wider social and political issues. This was one of the reason, for example, that Harriet Beecher Stowe turned to the novel to critique slavery in the early 1850s. Stowe’s use of fiction for political and social advocacy would prove controversial, because many reviewers argued that made-up stories had no place in political debate and would distort public sphere discussion. She even published an entire book, A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, that used nonfictional materials, such as court cases and newspaper articles, to authenticate that her fiction had some basis in reality or fact. This controversy itself, however, is a testimony to fiction’s ability to have a profound impact on political discussions. I think it continues to have this potential, but it’s hard to imagine a novel having the effect on the political conversation that, say, Uncle Tom’s Cabin had because the novel has been displaced as the dominant narrative form by television.

SM: And yet, you’ve always argued that even in modern America there are suspicions about fiction and its value in education.

TK: Yes, a contemporary version of this suspicion of fiction does still emerge in surprising ways, like in the Common Core Curriculum [a set of math and English language standards for K-12 students in the U.S.]. It set up this required ratio of fiction to non-fiction in the curriculum. So, as a first grader, a certain amount of fiction is acceptable, but as you go along you should be reading less and less fiction. I think that this reveals an ongoing belief that fiction-reading is opposed to the concerns of the “real world.” And certainly, policymakers underestimate fiction’s educational value.

SM: Is that part of what led you to want to explore these concepts in your Core II course on the theme of “truth”?

 TK: Even if the novel isn’t the primary narrative form in today’s culture, it is still able to help us develop cognitive skills to apply to real life. My Core II course focuses on the myth of self-creation and the multiplicity of selves often generated by such processes of self-creation. What does it mean to have a “true self” or “be true to yourself” in a culture that emphasizes self-creation and especially self-re-creation? Can your multiple versions of yourself all be “true”? In what ways? What does it mean to be “true” to multiple selves or is this impossible? On what terms?

We develop and engage in fictions every day, so learning to be insightful readers of them is an invaluable skill. Like the earliest U.S. fictionists, I believe that the modes of speculative and imaginative thinking encouraged by fiction-reading have the potential to make us better citizens.

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