Feelings and the Fictive Distinction Between Fiction and Non-Fiction

Feelings and the Fictive Distinction Between Fiction and Non-Fiction March 12, 2019

What an odd path my academic life has followed. They say truth is stranger than fiction. I pursued study of the Bible bringing with me naïve assumptions about its historicity. Study challenged those assumptions. I then undertook research and then taught and continued researching the Bible using methods of historical critical analysis. Teaching gave me the opportunity to branch out into areas like the study of science fiction, which led me to write science fiction. That has led me to try writing historical fiction. And that is proving surprisingly relevant to the work I do about history, in all sorts of ways. I have begun revisiting ideas, hunches, and hypotheses about the history behind the Bible, discovering that the effort to turn those possibilities into stories, with plausible character motives and events, is providing a more rigorous testing thereof than any other critical analysis I had subjected them to.

As I have sought to narrate the thoughts as well as the conversations of characters, I have regularly wondered about how to make those sound plausibly ancient and at the same time plausibly human. We do not get access to the inner lives of ancient people, and that in itself is a fascinating topic for anyone interested not only in biblical literature but any aspect of the ancient world. To what extent did ancient people think and reason like us? Did they have a comparable inner monologue or dialogue, and in what ways might it have been different?

Nautilus had a piece that explores why ancient fiction doesn’t talk about feelings, which is a good starting point. I really do think that this is a truly fascinating subject, especially in relation to biblical literature, because it is the ancient literature that is probably most widely read in the modern English-speaking world. And yet I suspect that most readers of the Bible have not noticed the absence of this element that we take for granted in modern storytelling, because we take it for granted in our own experience.

It is true that the lack of focus on the inner lives of characters reflects the norms and interests of the ancient world. But it seems to also be the case that, conversely, ancient people had trouble discerning the motives and feelings of others because they didn’t have the sort of fiction we take for granted that provides an omniscient narrator’s perspective.

Of related interest, the issue of history, fiction, genre, and the blurriness of any distinctions we make along these lines is not in any way limited to the field of biblical studies. The Guardian had an article on the subject a while back. Of related interest, see also:

Narrative History or Non-Fiction Historical Novel?

How Archival Fiction Upends Our View of History

Through a 3D Glass Starkly, New York 2140 Redux

It might be worth making a comparison with the point I’ve made before about scholarship and apologetics representing a spectrum rather than a watertight distinction. This too is not a matter limited to biblical studies. A political scientist can be an activist and a scholar. A historian can be working as a scholar and yet draw conclusions driven by nationalistic ideology.

See also the discussion of the use of the term “medieval” that was in the news recently.

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  • John MacDonald

    Great fiction is an important way to live ideas.

    I especially like fiction within fiction, such as the use of Moby Dick’s Ahab in Star Trek First Contact, and even fiction within fiction within fiction, such as the imagery of Gilgamesh in the context of a fictive society that communicates by metaphor, in the fictional “Darmok” episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

    I also like the way fiction can enliven my life, such as a good heated debate can be experienced in the light of a crucial light saber battle in Star Wars,with the exciting back and forth.

  • Tim Bulkeley

    “…they didn’t have the sort of fiction we take for granted that provides an omniscient narrator’s perspective.”

    And yet the omniscient narrator is common to Hebrew Bible narratives…

    • Maybe I needed to say instead that the omniscient narrator doesn’t seem to care about anyone’s feelings?

      • John MacDonald

        I always thought Sappho (620 BCE–550 BCE) was a great presenter of feelings. I found this synopsis on the web:

        Perhaps the text that best represents the more purely poetic influence of Sappho is number 31, which catalogues the physical symptoms of love longing in the writer as she watches her beloved chatting with a man. This poem is preserved in On the Sublime (circa first century A.D.), whose author, traditionally known as Longinus, cites it as an example of the attainment of great sublimity by skillful arrangement of content. Noting the great passion, the accuracy of observation, and the felicitous combination of detail, he asks, in the impressionistic way characteristic of Sappho’s admirers, “Are you not astonished?” For this critic, Sappho illustrates “the most extreme and intense expression of emotion,” and his reading surely exemplifies the primary way in which her work has been read. For all her metrical complexity and innovation (one of the meters in which she composed her poems later became known as the “Sapphic” meter), for all the vowel-rich melody of her verse, it is the content that has fascinated her readers. Her poems are, for all their dazzling craft, repeatedly praised as spontaneous, simple, direct, and honest.

  • Brandon Roberts

    i thnk good fiction can allow us to escape and have fun or touch our hearts or be used to get us to think about things in a way we wouldn’t anyways.