Books, Literature, Top Stories

The Purpose of Imaginative Fiction

When I learned that the 2020 International Booker Prize was going ahead in spite of London’s lockdown, I rejoiced at the organisers’ resourcefulness and resilience. But then I began reading the posts about this year’s prize on the Booker website and my enthusiasm dwindled. Surveying press responses to publication of the shortlist, the organisers spotlighted the Guardian‘s observation that nominee Marieke Lucas Rijneveld is only 28 years old, “identifies as male and uses the pronouns they/them.” The New York Times, we are told, had noted that four of the six shortlisted nominees are women, and the Sydney Morning Herald had informed its readers that one of these women is a refugee who fled to Australia from Iran. A separate post made mention of “such enormous themes as intellectual freedom, sexual identity, political unrest, and loss.” I find it unfortunate that the literary industry, eager to advertise its diversity credentials, panders to the media’s obsession with secondary considerations such as choice of subject matter and author identity, rather than focusing on essential considerations such as talent and literary merit.

“What’s it about?” is usually the first question we ask when someone recommends a new book, and it’s the wrong question. What is The Old Man and the Sea about? It’s about a man who goes fishing. If you want a somewhat lengthier synopsis, it’s about a man who goes fishing, catches a large fish, then loses it to sharks on the way home. That’s all. Still, it won Hemingway the Nobel Prize for Literature and it remains one of the finest novels of the 20th century. If you set out to read it in order to acquire information or to inform yourself about the social issues of the day, you are wasting the opportunity the story presents. As Joseph Heller once snapped in response to an interviewer’s irksome questions about the subject matter of his work: “Fiction is not about the what, it’s about the how.”

When I started writing short stories a few years ago, a well-meaning friend suggested that they ought to be informed by the facts of my biography—what we often hear referred to as “lived experiences”—for added “authenticity.” Presumably, authenticity means accuracy in detail. That is important—but only to a degree. Hemingway was an accomplished fisherman, and The Old Man and the Sea contains precise instructions on how to rig a harpoon, re-bait a line, and straighten a skiff in rough waters. But if learning this stuff is the reason you bought this seminal text, then return it to the bookshop and buy a fishing manual instead.

The International Booker Prize press pack also reminded me of an exchange I stumbled across on Twitter in January 2019:

In that casual tweet, Mr. DeLano put his finger on the essence of imaginative fiction, in which subject matter is of little importance and the identity of the writer is of no importance at all.

The identity of a writer, their personality and experience, do play a role, but in an altogether different genre—non-fiction. If a writer is knowledgeable, intellectually curious, has strong views and can express them clearly, chances are they would make a good columnist, or essayist, or analyst of current affairs. Add rich personal experiences and a gift for turning a phrase and this writer might be Derek Thompson. But no amount of knowledge, experience, good ideas, or linguistic proficiency will make someone an artist. A writer can work with excellent material, spend months researching a subject, study characters, develop interesting insights and style but without a mind of creative order—in plain words, without talent—the result will not be literature.

And even if a writer does have the talent, writing from personal experience is not a good idea. It makes for second-rate fiction. There are exceptions, of course, such as Tolstoy—but then a genius of Tolstoy’s calibre could afford to transgress all sorts of norms. The rest of us can’t. “The personal life of the artist is at most a help or a hindrance, but is never essential to his creative task,” wrote TS Eliot in one of the foundational works of New Criticism. Now, I am not a fan of New Criticism—most of its postulates are little more than brilliantly articulated mistakes. But this one is spot on. For example, what can we tell about Shakespeare’s personality from reading Hamlet? In whose voice does Shakespeare speak? It’s surely not Hamlet’s. My money is on Polonius. But then again it may be Claudius. And what does Elsinore reveal about the writer? Or Verona? Or Athens? Shakespeare never left England and, by all accounts, led a fairly parochial sort of life. But he still wrote a magnificent work of imagination entitled Hamlet.

A writer’s identity is deemed important because experience, it is said, determines “narratives.” This claim, routinely used to justify preferential treatment for writers with minority credentials, might be significant if it were true. But it isn’t. Oliver Twist was not written by a Victorian orphan, nor Coriolanus by a Roman warrior, nor Michael K by a persecuted refugee with the mind of a child. Many of the most memorable female “narratives” were created by men. Natasha Rostova. Nastasya Filippovna. Emma Bovary. As for the most memorable male narratives… well, to be fair, these were also created by men. But there have also been exceptional male characters created by women, such as Mehring in Nadine Gordimer’s The Conservationist and the men in the novels of Jane Austen.

Of the writer, TS Eliot also said this: “It is not in his personal emotions, the emotions provoked by particular events in his life, that the poet is in any way remarkable or interesting. His particular emotions may be simple, or crude, or flat. But the emotion in his poetry will be a very complex thing.” I refer you to Aleksandr Pushkin, the greatest Russian writer of all time. Pushkin wrote better than Tolstoy. He wrote better than Shakespeare, too. But because his main form was poetry, and due to the absence of adequate translation, he is not as well known in the West. In 1825, Pushkin wrote a short poem in six quatrains. It had no name, just a dedication: “To K***”. It is the finest love poem in the Russian language. “K” is Anna Kern, a Russian aristocrat and Pushkin’s one-time neighbour. In the poem, Pushkin refers to Kern as “the essence of pure beauty” (which sounds much, much better in Russian). At about the same time, Pushkin wrote in a letter to a friend: “Yesterday, with God’s help, I fucked Anna Kern” (which sounds much, much ruder in Russian). So why write such a magisterial poem for a woman about whom he so crudely bragged? Why not write it for his wife, a celebrated beauty of her time, whom he revered?

Because this is not how it works. As Eliot explained: “The poet has a particular medium… in which impressions and experiences combine in peculiar and unexpected ways. Impressions and experiences which are important for the man may take no place in the poetry, and those which become important in the poetry may play quite a negligible part in the man.” Exactly how this “medium” operates we do not know. But creative process is not altogether mysterious—Carl Jung’s essays on aesthetics argued that there is science to it. “Whenever the creative force predominates, life is ruled and shaped by the unconscious rather than by the conscious will,” he wrote. “The primordial experience is the source of the artist’s creativeness. It is nothing but a tremendous intuition striving for expression.”

Those of us who have tried our hand at both fiction and non-fiction know exactly what Jung was getting at. When I write a column, I collect facts, I analyse them logically, and I draw conclusions. The process is not always easy, but nor is it especially hard—it moves rapidly and, at all times, I am conscious of what I am doing and what I am trying to achieve. When I write fiction, most of the time, I just stare at the screen in frustration. If nothing happens, I eventually get bored and I give up. But every once in a while—very rarely—there comes a moment when the text starts to control me, when I have no idea where I am going, and what will happen next, but words, sentences, phrases sweep onto the page, and I approach my own story with curiosity, as if I were reading someone else’s thriller. Of course, imaginative fiction is not all spirit and intuition. It requires conscious effort, skill, and craftsmanship. If you study Pushkin’s drafts, you will see his remarkable stylistic skill in gradually transforming a poem as it passes from fine to sublime to divine. But skill and craftsmanship are not enough.

To Vox’s tweet, I replied: “Show me a woman or non-binary person who writes better than Coetzee, and I will spend weeks and months devouring their prose. Otherwise, it’s Coetzee.” And what this woman or non-binary person writes about won’t matter. They may write about the important social issues of the day. Or they may write political thrillers. Historic novels. Poems. Fantasies. Comic plays. Actually, if they really are writers, they may write about the death of a canary and, in Nadine Gordimer’s words, “make it stand for the whole mystery of death.”

And this is what literature is about. Harold Bloom said that literature helps us come to terms with our own mortality. According to Heidegger, literature (or, more broadly, art) immerses us into being, while changing the essence of being at the same time. Literature’s practical application is hardly of importance, so, if your goal is to learn new fishing techniques, put down The Old Man and the Sea at once. But if you continue reading, you will eventually come upon these lines: “A man cannot be defeated. Destroyed, but not defeated.” And something about the world will reveal itself to you.

A writer capable of prose with this kind of elemental force should be rewarded and rewarded generously. A writer who isn’t, should not. Artistic vocation is a privilege, not a right, and handing prestigious awards to mediocre fiction is of benefit to no-one, irrespective of the author’s identity or the social importance of the themes they write about. It is therefore my firm belief that the Booker Prize (and all other major literary prizes) should be judged blindly. I am aware that this will create practical problems (and that it will ruffle some feathers). But overcoming such problems is surely within the capabilities of the clever people responsible for judging the Booker Prize. Admittedly, this won’t prevent authors being nominated for tackling fashionable subject matter. But if the panels wish to avoid accusations of bias, it would at least help to re-establish literary merit as the pre-eminent criterion of worth rather than privileging authors for their sex or race. And assessing merit is the reason such awards panels exist, after all. Isn’t it?


Elena Shalneva is a London-based journalist, writing about books, film, and culture. Her work has appeared in Standpoint and City AM. She has published several short stories, and is currently completing her first collection. She is also guest lecturer at King’s College London. You can follow her on Twitter @ShalnevaE.


  1. I was in need of a plumber the other day. I could consult neighbors and friends for a recommendation. I could peruse the Internet for reviews. But what I really need is not credentials or expertise. I need a biography detailing the plumber’s race, gender beliefs, politics, disabilities, sexual orientation, socio-economic background and dietary choices. I want my plumber to bring a new point of view to my plumbing fixtures. Isn’t this how excellence is achieved theses days?

  2. Actually I believe interest in biography comes after the fact with artists. First we admire the Van Goghs, etc. then we wonder what inspired them.

    When the artist is Whitey though, it’s easy: racism inspired him!/s

  3. It appears that the Booker, like the Oscars, the Nobel, and every other major award, has succumbed to the WokeFlu. IMO the solution is not to attempt resurrection but instead create new life: I hearby announce the founding of the “blind” awards. Actually I prefer the “Seeing Eye Awards.” The judges, if they’re industry professionals or profs, may have to remain anonymous, for their career safety, but I think it could work!

    Could we get Quillette to be the sponsor?

  4. I don’t know if this characterization of the current Booker prize process is just, because I stopped reading Booker Prize nominees years ago, when I realized they had become boring. If there is a focus on identity politics now, it’s just a continuation of what’s been going on for a long time with all “literary” fiction: a prioritizing of ideology over story; a belief that stories are not about life, but politics, and all fiction is just ideological propaganda. This view traces at least back to Plato, and has become hegemonic since the rise of “critical theory”.

    The motivation for it also comes from Plato: a metaphysics which says that meaning comes from transcendental essences rather than from structure. In Platonism, the meaning of the word “horse” doesn’t come from the physical structure of horses, or their evolutionary history (Platonism strictly forbids evolution–this is the underlying reason Christians oppose it so). Rather the opposite: the physical structure of horses comes from the meaning of the word “horse”. (This is what philosophers mean when they say Western culture is “logocentric”, and is not coincidentally why the Gospel of John opens with “In the beginning was the logos.”)

    The consequence is that meaning comes from spirit, not from structure. Plato argued in the Meno that language and art could not communicate anything new, because meaning resides in the knowledge of categories, so if you don’t already know the essence of a category you can’t learn anything from being shown an instance of that category, and if you do already know the essence of a category, you can’t learn anything from being shown an instance of that category because you already know its essence.
    So, for example, the sentence “Trump won the election” can’t convey any meaning, since you already know the meaning of “Trump”, “won”, and “election”.

    If you study Aristotle’s epistemology and logic, you’ll find that the proposition “Trump won the election” is not knowledge, because it isn’t a timeless, universal, absolute truth, and hence can’t be represented in Aristotelian logic. It’s merely a statement about the outcome of a particular earthly event. This is the unstated lemma behind the modernist and post-modernist claims that representational art, and human language, can’t communicate meaning: meaning is defined as necessarily absolute and universal.

    Modernism and post-modernism are based not on an empirical epistemology, in which meaning is constructed from the bottom-up, by observing and describing reality; but on a rationalist epistemology, in which meaning is top-down. There’s no need to talk about who won what election; rather, you try to start at the top and directly intuit, learn through divine revelation, or logically prove, the eternal, absolute truths.

    This is incredibly stupid, but it is the basis of contemporary philosophy and art. Modern, non-representative art was explicitly founded on this argument that representative art could not communicate anything. Modernist fiction is also based on it. The fiction is still literally representative, but modernists believed that narrative similarly couldn’t say anything new about the world, and that art therefore had to be either about itself (the modern focus on style over content), or about contemporary politics and ideology.

    This resulted in 100 years of authors trying to see how far they could go in removing all elements of story from their work (e.g., plot, character arcs, characters, conclusion), which is why literary magazines are dead and nobody reads the stories in the New Yorker anymore. It’s also why literary authors have forgotten how to tell compelling stories, and why you don’t even find out what a typical Booker Prize nominee is about until you’re halfway through it.

    See Mark McGurl’s book The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing for a detailed argument that, since about 2000, only 3 types of literary novels could be published: post-modern philosophy (White Teeth or Life of Pi), depictions of the alienation alleged by Marx (often combined with other Marxist dogma, e.g., The Cave), and identity politics. See Marie-Pierre Pouly’s “Playing both sides of the field: Anatomy of a ‘quality’ bestseller”, Poetics 59 (2016): 20-34, for proof that White Teeth was chosen to be a great novel before it had even been written, and not because it was novel, but because it was not. It adhered to so many of the formulas of today’s literary dogma that publishers felt it was guaranteed to be critically praised, and it was.

    Note The Cave is named after Plato’s cave. This is also not a coincidence.

  5. Hence the Stuckists and the Remodernists, with their stubborn affirmation that representative art can be meaningful and can communicate.

    And to quote Lionel Trilling: There is no connection between the political ideas of our educated class and the deep places of the imagination.

  6. Not really. The underlying idea was that the spiritual aspect of art could be freed from materialistic representation to speak directly “spirit-to-spirit”. See Kandinsky’s 1912 essay in Der Sturm, Malerei als reine Kunst (Painting as Pure Art).

    NB. For those not familiar with art history, Wassily Kandinsky is generally considered the first significant modern non-objective painter although the Swedish artist Hilma af Klint preceded him. (Surprise, surprise). Kandinsky wrote extensively about his theories (see for example Kandinsky: Complete Writings on Art) and his writings are actually quite readable, though for those without some understanding of early 20th century spiritualist philosophy, they’ll seem a little strange.

    Kandinsky, af Klint, and many other artists of the period were heavily influenced by Blavatsky’s Theosophy and especially Steiner’s Anthroposophy, both of which encouraged artists to find new means of expression to more completely express spiritualist ideas. Unfortunately a good deal of this is skipped over in standard art history, probably because critics and historians don’t like the idea of their heroes engaging in what are now seen as oddball beliefs.

    Colour is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand which plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul. — Wassily Kandinsky

  7. Current literary culture, which valorises high OQ (oppression quotient) above all else demonstrates that it doesn’t think there is such a thing as artistic value, or at least that artistic value is secondary to political value (and politics understood only as a kind of oppression olympics sport). Our moral world rests on the epistemological privilege of the oppressed. If you can claim kinship in a group that is or has been oppressed then you have a superior right to say what is true and good.

  8. As in Stalin’s Russia, and in the China of Mao. Art subservient to one single higher ideal, the ruining/desctruction of the oppressive persons,forces and currents.
    True or not, neither good or not, are criteria to catch real art in: beautiful, convincing, raising emotions ( for/in some, yes that’s the problem of course): yes ,maybe.

  9. Yes he did, in the Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray. And he further expanded on this thought in his note to Bernulf Clegg:

    Art is useless because its aim is simply to create a mood. It is not meant to instruct, or to influence action in any way. It is superbly sterile, and the note of its pleasure is sterility. If the contemplation of a work of art is followed by activity of any kind, the work is either of a very second-rate order, or the spectator has failed to realise the complete artistic impression.
    A work of art is useless as a flower is useless. A flower blossoms for its own joy. We gain a moment of joy by looking at it. That is all that is to be said about our relations to flowers. Of course man may sell the flower, and so make it useful to him, but this has nothing to do with the flower. It is not part of its essence. It is accidental. It is a misuse. All this is I fear very obscure. But the subject is a long one.

    So was he right or wrong? Something to agree or disagree with? Or maybe just something to contemplate and explore further if one desires? That last would be my leaning. But as he says above, the subject is a long one.

  10. Hilarious. I’ll admit that sometimes when I’m observing pollination I feel embarrassed, and have to look away. And then I think how cowardly! Maybe I’m witnessing a rape! Or was the flower, with its garish colors, “asking for it”? I bet there’s a feminist studies project going on somewhere that’s asking these same important questions…

  11. @HalifaxCB I thought the subtext of that question was “Isn’t the artist using the beauty of his art to reproduce?”

    Is that something I imagined, or something you tactfully sidestepped? (If so, I’m confident you can do it again :wink:)

  12. Truth. One time the wife and I were at a wedding where we didn’t really know anyone at a back table with the other couples who didnt know anyone. As soon as the woman to my left found out I was an artist she was all over me, right in front of my wife and her husband. She hadn’t even seen any of my artwork.

    edit to bring it full circle: some competition can be just the ticket and wifey boinked my brains out that night. could have led to some reproduction if i werent careful

  13. I don’t think Wilde was particularly interested in that, at least after awhile :slight_smile:

    But seriously, I do think the creative drive (in any field) can be very similar to the mating drive, as it is the drive to preserve ourselves through the reproduction of one’s ideas into the physical world, rather like the way babies preserve our genes.

  14. I don’t know how far back in cultural history the idea goes, but certainly Freud popularized the idea that people sublimated sexual energy into creative energy. There’s a bit more here, but as I have never found Freud paricularly revealing, I don’t pay too much attention to it. I guess I look at these things as linked, but all integral to just being human.

  15. Reading this, Benita, Joana and Halifax, I remember a passage in a botany book I had to study (for the scientific causes, taxonomy and utility) that struck me and will always be in my mind. A botanist ,in a seldom mood of openness and emotion, explained that he could see a flower or structure one moment as an object of his science, and the next moment as a subject of beauty and thrill, more or less as the duck OR hare experience from psychology, so never at the same time, it was a or b, in a split second. Remained since then with me as an essential life lesson.

    Another one that crossed my mind heaving read on long ago: two friends, one more artist than the other, had a discussion on bird songs. The artist thought that it was out of joy and good feeling, the other (more intellectual) corrected him, it was merely a question of hormones and some instinct useful for reproduction. They really got angry about the fact, that they couldn’t convince one another of their right stance in this. Childish, I think, but even here on Quillette, I see the mistake made quite often!

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