Dark Turns of an Imaginary Past


Maybe we can start by going very quickly through the history of how we think about writing’s relationship to life. In the eighteenth century, probably the most common way to consider this relationship was to think of it as a didactic one. Fiction was something that was meant to teach us something about life—or even to teach us how to live. It was instructive and, as such, was judged by the degree to which it either succeeded or failed to instruct us. Good fiction encouraged us to be good, bad fiction either failed to teach us anything or encouraged us to be bad. That’s a view that goes all the way back to just before the beginning of the common era, where we find Horace, in his Ars Poetica, suggesting that poetry should at once ‘delight and instruct’. So, we enjoy reading something, but we learn from it: the enjoyment is there to keep us in what Samuel Johnson called ‘pleasing captivity’…