Fiction: Make-Believe or Something More?

Special note: This blog post was written by Edward Reges, M.A. ‘16, East Carolina University Department of English, as part of a special series highlighting the Stuart Wright Collection.

“Robert Penn Warren.” Stuart Wright Collection – Robert Penn Warren Papers (1169-014) East Carolina Manuscript Collection, J. Y. Joyner Library, East Carolina University, Greenville, N.C.

Few could hope to have such an accomplished life as Robert Penn Warren. Three time Pulitzer Prize winner and the first Poet Laureate of the US, Warren’s prolific and versatile career includes ten novels, a collection of short stories, and numerous poems, dramas, and literary criticisms. He is also one of the most influential of the New Critics, a group that evaluated literary work by close reading and valued highly polished, difficult works characteristic of the Modernist period. Warren was taught by fellow Stuart Wright Collection author John Crowe Ransom.

Among several typescripts, manuscripts, and personal correspondence, the Stuart Wright Collection boasts more than 40 poems and over 60 pieces of literary criticism by Warren, many of which are unpublished or include revisions to original text in the poet’s own hand. This work of literary criticism preserves Warren’s remarkable views on literature. One such essay, titled “Fiction: Why Do We Read It?” shows the passion and importance he invested in fiction. On page 5, Warren quotes Freud’s assertion that the “’meagre satisfactions’ that man ‘can extract from reality leave him starving.’” What then can slate our hunger? According to Warren, it is fiction. On the same page, Warren asserts that:

In it we find, in imagination, not only the pleasure of recognizing our past, but the pleasure of experimenting with experiences which we deeply, and perhaps unwittingly, crave but which the limitations of life, the fear of consequences, or the severity of our principles forbid to us.

Thus, it is Warren’s belief that the act of reading fiction is not an escape from reality, but rather an escape to fiction (p2).

This is not the only role of fiction, however. Throughout “Fiction, Why Do We Read It?” Warren compares fiction to a daydream accessible to multiple individuals. It is this accessibility that makes fiction a social experiment of sorts. Warren explicates this concept on page 7:

To enter the publicly available day dream you have to surrender something of your own identity, have to let it be absorbed. You must identify yourself with somebody else, and accept his fate. You must take a role.

A reader may wonder at this point what value there is in surrendering a piece of their identity. After all, it is a piece of us, it is us in a sense. To sacrifice any bit of identity seems to compromise our sense of self. Warren doesn’t think so, however; in fact, he believes the opposite:

Play, when we are children, and fiction, when we are grownup, lead us, through role-taking, to a knowledge of others. But role-taking leads us, by the same token, to a knowledge of ourselves, really to the creation of the self. (9)

What Warren is saying is that to understand ourselves, we must have something to compare ourselves to, much like the relationship between light and darkness or hot and cold. Our concept of self, however, stems from within, not from perceptive senses like sight or touch. In order to make a comparison of who we are and who others are, we must take the role of someone else. At this point we can start to make statements such as “I’m not as brave as Aragorn” or “I could never fall in love with a vampire.” Comparisons such as these allow us to understand what we are and what we are not as individuals.

One would think, with the importance Warren grants fiction, that he would be an enthusiast of education in fiction writing.. In fact, Warren was adamant that fiction should not be taught in a university. On the second page of a literary essay titled “Courses in Writing,” Warren states:

It [the university] should realize that writing, except as a craft [technical and trade writing], is not to be taught – that the ideal is to create some semblance, however modest, of the natural community in which writing is learned by process of trial and error, of self-exploration of form.

Warren believes that fiction comes about from experimentation and peer review, not instruction. To instruct someone on how to compose fiction is to deny fiction its intrinsic value, supplementing it with popular styles and format in an effort to make a piece successful. To the new critics, nothing could be more villainous.

For more information on the New Critics, try the summary given here. For more insight into the mind of poet, author, and ersatz philosopher Robert Penn Warren, request one of his boxes from the Stuart Wright Collection and head to the third floor of Joyner library to enjoy.