Spelunking, Simulation, and Slime
On Being Moved by Fiction
Works of fiction induce in appreciators thoughts about people, situations and events; let's say that they induce appreciators to imagine them. The imagined people, situations, and events are frequently ones that do not really exist or occur, but we can (as we do) speak of them as constituting a "fictional world," the world of the novel or story or film.
This much is not controversial. But it is important to realize how little it comes to, how much remains to be explained. Why should we be interested in these nonexistents? Why should we bother thinking about or imagining them? We haven't yet distinguished novels and other fictions from a mere list of sentences -- sentences used in a grammar lesson, for instance. When we read and understand these sentences, they induce us to entertain the thoughts that they express. But that is all. Fictional worlds seem so far to be worlds apart, worlds having nothing to do with us, ones that we merely peer into from afar. As I put it in Mimesis as Make-Believe:
If to read a novel or contemplate a painting were merely to stand outside a fictional world pressing one's nose against the glass and peer in, . . . our interest in novels and paintings would indeed be mysterious. We might expect to have a certain clinical curiosity about fictional worlds viewed from afar, but it is hard to see how that could account for the significance of representations, their capacity to be deeply moving, sometimes even to change our lives." 1