Ever since Plato equated poetry with falsehood in the fourth century BC, the value of fiction has been in doubt. No convincing case for its value has since been made, beyond the obvious pleasures experienced by readers and audiences.
Today, fiction in the form of narratives – or, more simply, stories – permeates almost every aspect of our culture, from entertainment to law, medicine, and identity. We are also in the age of post-truth politics, where telling a demonstrably false story can be more compelling than telling the truth. Could overexposure to fiction account for the devaluation of truth that dominated the recent presidential elections, where both candidates lied and the most extravagant liar won?
Philosophers, critics, and artists have long attempted to offset the potential dangers of fiction by proposing various links between the experience of fiction and competing conceptions of truth. The tradition of defending fiction was founded by Aristotle and includes Horace, Sir Philip Sidney, Dr Johnson, and Matthew Arnold.
Since the contribution of Friedrich Schiller at the end of 18th century, the theory has been known as aesthetic education. Such theorists argue that art provides an indirect but integral education in ethics, a moral education by aesthetic means. Contemporary advocates include Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Martha Nussbaum. Of course, claims about the psychological and behavioural benefits of engaging with sophisticated and popular fictions vary wildly in strength.
The question of whether the ubiquity of narratives has devalued truth or enhanced morality prompts a further question: what exactly happens to us when we read books or watch films? There is a paucity of empirical evidence in this field.
The most frequently-quoted study on the topic was published by psychologists Evan Kidd and Emanuele Castano in 2013. They conducted five different experiments on samples of between 72 and 356 participants, each of which was divided into two groups. One read short passages of literary fiction (understood as being complex or challenging) and the other short passages of nonfiction or popular fiction.
The results indicated that participants who had read the literary fiction performed significantly better on a theory of mind test – which measures the ability to understand the mental states of others, a precondition of empathy – than those who had read either nonfiction or popular fiction.
Sounds like it backs up the aesthetic education theory, right? But the limitations of the study have been widely acknowledged, and its validity in this case is also doubtful. Literary narratives are, like their theatrical and cinematic counterparts, designed to be experienced as a whole. We cannot assume that the benefits of the literary experience will simply be the sum of the experiences of its parts. The same objection applies to the failed attempts to replicate Kidd and Castano’s findings in 2016.
If the evidence for the effects of engaging with fiction is so limited in quantity and quality, it seems prudent to seek an answer from a comparable field in which there has been more research. The obvious example is the relation between video-game violence and aggression. Video-games are designed to entertain and may or may not cause aggression in players; fictions are designed for the same purpose and may devalue truth, enhance morality, or have no secondary effect at all.
In a multiple analysis published in 1998, Karen Dill and Jody Dill claimed that there was a link between exposure to video-game violence and aggression, but advised caution on the basis of the limited quantity and quality of studies published.
Then, in a multiple analysis published 25 years later, Malte Elson and Christopher Ferguson lamented both the continued lack of standardisation and the frequency with which academics and others made controversial claims that were not supported by the data. They found that the evidence for a causal link between video-games and aggression was at best inconclusive.
Given that the research in the video-game field has been extensive, and unearthed no answers, it is hardly surprising that so little is known about the effects of experiencing fiction.
Fiction is nonetheless valuable in at least one way: its falsehood. In representing undisguised untruth, fictions present what psychologists call counterfactual thinking and philosophers call possible worlds.
In watching Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle, we experience a representation of what a world in which Germany had created the atomic bomb before America would look and sound like. Aside from its entertainment value in engaging audiences on sensory, imaginative, and emotional levels, the series provides a detailed example of how an America run by right-wing extremists might have looked and might look like in the future. In doing so, it highlights the significance of avoiding that possible future.
The truth value of fiction is in the various ways in which it enlightens by deviating from the truth. Undisguised fictions will continue to be of value, no matter how many fictions presidential candidates disguise as facts.