Clive Staples Lewis was a celebrated Anglo-Irish novelist, academic, medievalist, literary critic, lay theologian and Christian apologist whose impact and influence lives on.

Site maintained by: Dr. Bruce L. Edwards

Subscribe to the site via RSS

Follow @cslewisnews on Twitter!

Find the C.S. Lewis Review on Facebook!

That's Why They Call it "Fiction"

July 15th, 2008 | Skip to comments

Copyright 2008 by Bruce L. Edwards. (Click here for Permissions information)

The genre of fiction, by modern reckoning, consists of invented stories of various lengths that depict the actions and monitor the thoughts of imaginary characters in their engagement with the conflicts and circumstances that ensue. Novels, tales, vignettes, novellas, short stories, are among the names given to the individual products of the human imagination referred to as “fiction.”

The word fiction itself is derived from the Latin, fictio, which means simply to make or shape. The term fiction begins to appear in English texts around 1412 with the sense of “invention of the mind,” and, by 1599, is in common use as a term to describe generally any imaginative prose literature, distinguishing it from putatively non-fiction works, and from “poetry” as such. (It is obviously possible to tell stories through poetic discourse as well, but fiction is typically expected to be ordered by plot, dialogue, characterization, setting, etc., in a deliberate and recognizable pattern, rather than by the building-blocks and conventions of metre, rhythm, diction, etc. that comprise the art and reception of poetry.)

Anglo-Irish author and critic, C. S. Lewis, draws attention to fiction’s core element succinctly when he says stories simply are “accounts of events that did not take place” (The Personal Heresy [Oxford: Oxford UP, 1939], 120). The question then becomes, why do human beings in general and Christians in particular create narratives depicting “events that did not take place,” instead of just rendering straightforward reports of real deeds done in their own time and place—or recalling past deeds and personages with as much accuracy and integrity as they can muster?

There is no civilization on record that does not have its own stories, its fictions; in fact, to qualify as a “civilization,” even to be recognized and/or recorded as one, in some sense requires from that civilization recoverable stories that can capture what it was like to be part of that society and culture at such-and-such a time. What we know of antiquity, and of what we tend to call the “pre-modern” ages, we know through stories as much as we do “histories”—stories that are to be heard, read, reflected upon, and thus responded to, as humans trying to understand themselves and others, including others far away and long ago.

The simplest answer to the question “why stories?” has been offered many times within Western civilization, especially among cultures exposed to the Biblical tradition: in being “sub-creators” we emulate and reflect the behavior and character of a creator God who made us in His image. Humans cannot create ex nihilo (“out of nothing”) as God can, but we can “form” (“fictionalize”) with already existing “natural” materials: the materials of human life, our common predicaments, our common challenges, struggles, triumphs, poignancies, our experience of birth, marriage, child-bearing and rearing, and death, our many legacies, destinies. As humans we long to tell our story and compare them with others, believers seeking to find the hand of God in their lives, while nonbelievers pondering their fate under the shadow of death.

The Greeks, the Romans, the Norse, among other peoples from European and Asiatic regions over the past 3000 years, produced a rich mixture of histories, myth/legends, poems, and narratives that captures the exploits and adventures of the gods and their human protagonists and antagonists. The Bible (“the Book”) itself is the preeminent book of stories for a vast majority of Western inhabitants of the past two millennia. It is the foundational volume for understanding a world ordered by beginnings, middles, and ends and the divine themes that govern them. These literary traditions, sacred or secular, have sometimes been called “meta-narratives,” sweeping cultural epics and grand, encompassing sagas that dare to suggest they are both particularist and universal in their origins and impact.

For instance, the Bible by telling the story of one people (Israel) intends to tell the story of all peoples (Gentiles, or non-Israelites), i.e., when one fathoms the Hebrew Scriptures and then willingly continues on to engage the New Testament. Its vocabulary and symbol system provide the literary skill set and building-blocks for subsequent story telling and for both self- and group-expression. These “supreme” stories take on an authoritative role in the cultures in which they are read and revered and, as such, raise the stakes on the question: why fiction?

Made-up stories—as opposed to stories purportedly written or “authorized” by Divine fiat—potentially become rivals to these “old stories.” They change and challenge things, introducing newly situated characters who perhaps choose differently than those in other, previous stories, and present or forecast new realities and possibilities. There is a tug of war in human history between the originary tales and documents that organize and structure a society, village, or household, and those that come along side and suggest alternatives. Invasions, migrations, explorations—these all affect whole populations of human culture and change the way stories are told and of what they consist. Change a culture’s “meta-narrative” and you change their history—and their future.

Before there were technologies available to mass produce stories in printed form (and thus to create large, diverse audiences or “readerships” wherever and whenever the texts are linguistically available), the medium for fiction was oral discourse: the relay of one story and another and another from one generation to the next by literally telling the story aloud, then hearing it, remembering or memorizing it, and reciting it to others. Oral discourse is inherently more conservative and linear in its scope and impact.

The invention of writing, as rhetorician, Walter Ong, has well described, simultaneously made possible the preservation of this oral discourse and also signaled its eventual demise over time. Ironically, we come to know what was “said” by reading it in a “text,” and those texts inevitably tend to displace and replace the oral telling. “Tell me a story” is different from “read me a story,” if only because the latter may be a self-initiated and self-paced action.

Oral storytelling has its own conventions, staples, expectations; its construction depends not only upon what needs to be told and why, but also upon the techniques by which it can be told, for in telling a story one depends upon voice, inflection, tone, manner, gestures, the attention span of the local audience, and so on; we say things in one way or another because it cues or addresses or expresses an authorial or audience-centered need. Stories cannot merely be reduced to their “content”; how something is rendered/heard affects the meaning and reception of the story. We speak of those who “can tell a story well,” presumably in contrast to those who cannot—and yet the story as story would consist of the “same tale” no matter who was telling it.

The same circumstances and sets of issues accrue a hundredfold to fiction as written or printed text; the conventions of textuality, the expectations of the “book,” demand of their creators as well as their readers a certain technical expertise and an awareness of story in a much different sense than in a pre-literate context. In an oral context anyone might be a storyteller, reciting verbatim a tale long told, or embellishing it, changing it this way or that, or creating new versions with different features, plot turns and twists. Written text, printed text, is more “fixed,” formalized; there are more rules, more attention to be paid to the “fixedness” and technology of the text itself and its myriad conventions. (At least, this has been the case before the digital age, which has made revision and reformulation easier and more palatable. Many stories now have multiple “endings” or a “choose your own vantage point” invitation from the author.)

Oral narrative shape by their templates, and reflect their precedents, while determining their progeny; so, too, do printed narratives—but a special class of stories and storytellers follow, and the commercial aspects of story-making, of book-making come into view, post-Gutenberg. Literacy breeds both familiarity, and contempt. For an oral storyteller’s tale ends which he or she is through speaking; books have a life of their own, and “speak” wherever books make their way in the world. They are mobile and protean, thus enduring in varying formats, and all the more so in a digital age that foregrounds instant access as well as instant revision.

For much of their history, Christians and the institutional church have exercised a wary skepticism toward fiction as such. Tertullian’s 3rd-century lament, “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the academy and the church?” is as much an indictment of rival pagan storytelling as it is pagan wisdom. At the same time, Augustine, 4th-century Bishop of Hippo, decries in his Confessions his early indoctrination in Roman mythology as wasted effort that crowded out the Christian story that he later embraced as a forgiven sinner; at the same time, his thorough acquaintance with the traditions of Greco-Roman stories served him in his treatise, The City of God, defending the church against the charge that it brought the Roman empire to a halt, by establishing from Rome’s own “fiction” that the empire fell of its own internal corruption. This ambivalence and/or hostility toward such “fiction” holds sway for most of pre-modern age among Christians, and is destined to played out again in later sacred-secular splits in societies build upon The Book.

To be sure, over the next twelve centuries plenty of new stories emerge from Christian experience and reflection, but most would be expressed in poetic form (e.g., Dante’s Divine Comedy or Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales), and none would quite qualify as what we would consider “fiction,” i.e., sustained prose created to tell a fully realized story within its own evoked landscape; until, that is, we get to England’s John Bunyan, and his Pilgrim’s Progress (ca. 1678).

Pilgrim’s Progress is a thoroughgoing allegory of the itinerant Christian, a protagonist journeying through this world onto the one to come, engaging characters who exemplify specific vices and virtues, place names denoting trails and challenges to be faced before reaching heaven. It was and remains one of the most widely read religious “novels,” a proffered analogue to and enhancement of the reading of Scripture, and, eventually, a polemical provocation for other writers in and out of Christendom to consider embracing a new genre. It is important to point out that Bunyan had multiple motivations for crafting his story this way and helping to invent a new genre. Using its compelling “novelty” and, thereby, its stealthing ability to infiltrate the bastions of established protestant religion, Bunyan challenged form and substance of what he considered the Church of England’s illegitimate authority and false orthodoxy. (Bunyan had been imprisoned for daring to stage church services outside the precincts of the state-sponsored church.)

Technically and chronologically, pride of place in publishing the “first novel,” is usually awarded Daniel Defoe or Samuel Richardson, though both try to disguise their works’ origins as self-conscious literary inventions by portraying their tales either as “memoir” (Robinson Crusoe, 1719) or as a series of letters (Pamela, 1740). Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews (1742) or Tom Jones (1749) more likely deserves the designation, since each of these volumes is presented with full-blown literariness, that is, the story proceeds as a series of episodes chosen and arranged by its author for specific purposes in achieving certain literary effects.

In this new form, “the novel,” a life unfolds not according to God’s providence, but according to its inventor’s wit and thematic preoccupations. Fielding establishes, indirectly if not intentionally, that a novel need no be produced for edification and moral instruction—the presumed previous standard for creating or reading stories. An author may simply entertain, titillate, or satirize other stories, perhaps, including The Bible. The gates now open, the 19th Century witnesses an expansion both of the genres within and the motives for which to produce fiction; the commercial interests of publishers and writers now address perceived public preferences and tastes. A new profession is founded; and Samuel Johnson (Boswell’s Life of Johnson, 1791) can whimsically decree, “”No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” Christians now faced a unique dilemma, both as producers and consumers of texts; can be fiction be deployed in God’s service, or does the very act of writing and reading novels infect the soul with worldliness?

In the 19th Century, especially in America, fiction becomes a contentious battleground among conservative and revivalist protestants, who regard the genre at best as an enterprise that wastes precious time better spent in devotion to evangelism and Bible reading, and at worst one that artificially inflates their worldly passions and causes disaffection from their faith. A mid-19th-century article from the American Messenger (quoted in David Paul Nord, Faith in Reading: Religious Publishing and the Birth of Mass Media in America. New York: Oxford UP, 2004) captures the mood of the arch-pietists who despised fiction for its deleterious effects on the unsuspecting disciple.

This kind of reading enfeebles the intellect. It leaves the reader little room for the investigation of truth or the exercise of a discriminating judgment. It saves him the trouble of thinking for himself. He is apt to acquire a distaste for solid instruction, and to content himself with but the show of knowledge. He becomes the mere slave of feeling, and his intellect languishes amidst the sickly sentimentalism, the dreamy extravagance, of the romantic world (117).

Despite the controversy, both Protestants and Catholics undertake the business of writing fiction, recognizing that the public is going to read, and that the medium might still be redeemed and used for spiritual formation. The most emblematic American text of the late 19th-century in this regard is Harriet Beecher Stowe’s ante-bellum, anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which Abraham Lincoln helped credit as fueling America’s civil war. By the end of the century, it had sold an amazing 3 million copies, accentuating the power of fiction to prick the conscience and transform a society.

Into the 20th Century, two dynamics emerged for writers and readers of fiction, dramatizing the increasing secularization of Western culture. In America, Protestant Christians increasingly retreat from the general marketplace of ideas under the umbrella of “fundamentalism,” and begin to write primarily for a more marginalized audience, as mainstream American literature experiments with the genre, and evolves into manifold naturalistic and realistic styles of narrative that foreground doubt rather than faith as the thematic center of fiction. By the mid-20th century, a group of mostly dedicated Catholic fiction writers attempt to challenge this bipolar vision of culture and literature and address the need to re-anchor Christian perspective in the public square.

Notable here are American writers like Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy, whose plaintive ruminations on the plight of the devoted Christian writer trying to reach an audience with “no eyes to see or ears to hear” are nearly as important as the works they produced. O’Connor speaks for several generations of conscientious fiction writers evincing a supernatural faith while mindful of trends in the kingdom of letters when she suggests:

The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeking them as natural; and he may well be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience, When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs as you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume it does not, ten you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and starling figures. (“The Fiction Writer and His Country,” Mystery and Manners [New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1961], 33)

Writers like O’Connor sought to engage the culture they were indicting on its own terms, rather than retreating into ever more distant and desperate subcultures unable to speak to one another, let along the wider world of readers.

John Mort’s Christian Fiction: A Guide to the Genre (Greenwood Village, CO: Libraries Unlimited, 2002) suggests that as we move into the 21st Century, the universe of Christian imaginative writing exists both (1) as a genre unto itself, focused on explicitly Christian, often apocalyptic content (witness the massively marketed and consumed Left Behind series), and (2) as a series of self-consciously derivative subgenres, parlaying deliberately spiritual content in such categories as Biblical fiction (retold Bible stories with embellished plots); historical fiction (the spiritual dimensions of whole eras and landscapes); the family saga (extended multi-generational life stories); romance (chaste courtship, themed in modern settings); fantasy and science fiction (Middle-earth, Narnia, and their imitators); and, mysteries and thrillers (The Father Brown Mysteries; This Present Darkness).

Despite the sectarian partisanship that seems to characterize the history and present vitality of fiction, it seems to be the case that the human appetite for story structured by specific patterns is a universal that transcends any one time, one place, or even one faith. It begins in eternity, as we are God’s story, living it, moment by moment. It’s the venerable “hero’s journey,” exemplified in Adam and Eve and their descendents, and culminating in the coming of Christ, the story of fall, hope, despair, redemption, and consummation. This predominant narrative strand seems to be verified even by avowedly secular historians of storytelling. Building upon anthropologist Joseph Campbell’s well-cited compendium on the traceable fictional patterns around the world, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Christopher Vogler argues that

The Hero’s journey is not an invention, but an observation. It is a recognition of a beautiful design, a set of principles that govern the conduct of life and the world of storytelling the way physics and chemistry govern the physical world. It’s difficult to avoid the sensation that the Hero’s Journey exists somewhere, somehow, as an eternal reality, a Platonic ideal form, a divine model. From this model, infinite and highly varied copies can be produced, each resonating with the essential spirit of the form. (The Writer’s Journey. 3rd Ed. [Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions, 2007], xiii).

Selected Bibliography

  • Blodgett, Jan. Protestant Evangelical Literary Culture and Contemporary Society. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1997.
  • Booth, Wayne. The Rhetoric of Fiction. 2nd Ed. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1983.
  • Brown, Candy G. The Word in the World: Evangelical Writing, Publishing, and Reading in America, 1789-1880. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.
  • Buechner, Frederick. Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale. New York: Harper and Row, 1977.
  • Campbell, Joseph. The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1972.
  • Davidson, Cathy N. Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America. New York: Oxford UP, 1986.
  • Gardner, John. The Art of Fiction. New York: Vintage, 1991.
  • Jeffrey, David Lyle. People of the Book: Christian Identity and Literary Culture. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996.
  • Lewis, C S. On Stories and Other Essays on Literature. Ed. Walter Hooper. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982.
  • – – – . The Personal Heresy. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1939.
  • Lindskoog, Kathryn. Creative Writing for People Who Can’t Not Write. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1989.
  • Mort, John. Christian Fiction: A Guide to the Genre. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2002.
  • Nord, David P. Faith in Reading: Religious Publishing and the Birth of Mass Media in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
  • O’Connor, Flannery. Mystery and Manners. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1961.
  • Ong, Walter. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. New Accents. Ed. Terence Hawkes. (New York: Methuen, 1988)
  • Percy, Walker. The Message in the Bottle. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1975.
  • Reynolds, David. Faith in Fiction: The Emergence of Religious Literature in America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1981.
  • Vogler, Christopher. The Writer’s Journey. 3rd Ed. Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions, 2007.
  • Watt, Ian. The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1953.


    No comments yet.

    RSS feed for comments on this post.

    Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

    Back to top