Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Book Review: The Man Who Invented Fiction

The Man Who Invented Fiction: How Cervantes Ushered In the Modern World
William Egginton

This is a pretty good book. I say that here, at the outset, because I'm going to spend most of this review taking pot shots at it.

What? I hear you cry. Is JT going soft? Why is he not airing out the ol' sarcasm vocab, the way he did here? Where is the steely-eyed dissection, like this?

The difference is that The Man Who Invented Fiction is an unambiguously humanist book. Most of what I read here falls, broadly speaking, under the the umbrella of . . . empiricism, I suppose, is the best label. Empiricist writing is about facts, while humanist writing is about interpretation. Or, alternatively: the empiricist writer seeks to inform; the humanist writer seeks to convince. To disagree with a humanist book is not (necessarily) a failure of the book, but (arguably, probably) a success. The author has a thesis. Agree with it, challenge it, disagree vehemently, modify it: these are all valid responses.

So here's the thesis. Before Cervantes, people wrote stuff that they and their audience knew wasn't true, but readers/listeners didn't experience it in the way that we call "fiction". Aristotle divided literature into history (the true) and poetry (the untrue), and had some very specific ideas on how the latter worked. Egginton's argument is that pre-Cervantean readers followed Aristotle in considering only certain forms of the not-true: fables, allegories, and satires, more or less.

Fiction--and here I'll agree with Egginton--is none of these. In fiction, we know that the story is not true, but we accept it as true for the duration. This willing suspension of disbelief allows us to identify with a fictional character in ways that we can't with a satirical or fabulous or allegorical one. When a favorite character hurts, we hurt. This doubleness of vision allows for a deeper and qualitatively different experience. And Cervantes (pace Egginton) is its inventor.

It's an interesting idea. I don't buy it. In the first place, some of what Egginton derives from Aristotle's theory of tragedy seems to me to be pretty strained (although I admit I haven't read the Poetics since high school). Anyway, the fact that Aristotle divided literature into a particular taxonomy doesn't prove anything about how actual people actually experienced it 1900 actual years later. Does Egginton seriously believe (for example) that the medieval consumers of the Arthurian tales didn't identify with Arthur--that they somehow were incapable of feeling along with him when Guinevere's adultery is forced into the open? Does he imagine that ancient Greeks couldn't grieve along with Odysseus, when his dog Argos--old, weary, sick, neglected--sees him, and recognizes, him, and dies? It seems highly unlikely to me.

Maybe Egginton would dismiss that and similar material as mere escapism, unworthy of the label of "fiction" (much less "literature"). That's his loss. I can assure him, from personal experience, that it is quite possible to identify with Arthur, Odysseus, Luke Skywalker, Mr. Spock, Dr. John H. Watson, Frodo Baggins, Alvin of Diaspar, Robin Hood, Beowulf, Horatio Hornblower, Philip Marlowe, Spenser, Clark Kent (the Christopher Reeves version), and a great many others besides.

Then, too, Egginton's claims can get pretty thoroughly imbrangled. For example:
What fiction permitted Cervantes to do in a way that no author before him managed was to juxtapose ideals and their inevitable disappointment in such a way as to force the reader simultaneously to acknowledge their value and to recognize the comic tragedy of their defeat. And because portraying the disappointment of expectations required him to draw on his own experience to imagine how those expectations would feel to those who held them, the shuttling back and forth between expectation and disappointment, between belief and its betrayal, or simply between different points of view in turn animated the characters he created, pulling them into relief by virtue of the difference between their views and those of their counterparts.
I wrote some papers in college that sounded very much like that, but I'm not proud of them.

And then there are blanket statements like this:
And it was not until Rene Decartes wrote his Meditations at the end of the 1630s that a rigorous distinction between how things appear to be to a person's senses and how they in fact are in themselves entered the philosophical lexicon.
Whaaaaaa . . . ? I don't know exactly what Egginton is trying to say here, but this is prima facie nonsense. This distinction has been around since Plato.

Then, too, Egginton just ignores the fact that Don Quixote really is satire, especially the first part. Cervantes is making fun of a popular genre of his day--the chivalric romance, close cousin of the trashy, never-ending series of fantasy novels that we know so well. (Seriously. Robert Jordan and Dragonlance are their spiritual descendants.)  There was Amadis of Gaul and Tirant the White and Palmerin of England and many more, each of which spawned sequels and imitators galore. Don Quixote's misadventures make copious references to this vast literature. 

In addition to literary criticism, The Man Who Invented Fiction has a substantial biographical component. Much of this is very good. Where it goes off the rails is where Egginton tries to substantiate his vision of Cervantes-as-inventor-of-fiction by interpreting the life of Cervantes-the-man. The weakness of this approach is made obvious by the liberal use of weasel phrases: "Surely Cervantes understood that ..." and "Cervantes must have felt ..." and "Clearly Cervantes intended ..." and "Perhaps this led Cervantes to write ..." and so forth.

Egginton, in short, has the luxury of constructing his own "Cervantes". "Cervantes" has some relationship to the actual, historical Miguel de Cervantes, but they're not identical. "Cervantes" serves as a vehicle for Egginton's ideas. This allows him to discover that "Cervantes" was a sympathetic character with a compatible world-view, and that his experiences made him the father of "fiction" per se. Similarly, a nationalist Catholic can discover that "Cervantes" was a devout and conservative man, while a liberal pacifist can discover that "Cervantes" was himself a liberal pacifist. (In English literature, we have a multiplicity of "Shakespeare"s with much the same effect.)

As I said, I don't buy it. But, as you may note, I did engage with it. I read the book with interest, taking mental notes and analyzing and (usually but not always) disagreeing. That makes The Man Who Invented Fiction a success on its author's terms, I think.

Don Quixote itself is well worth reading, even in an abridged version. It's still very funny in places, and wise as well. Honestly, there's not much "classic" fiction that can be read for pleasure by the general reader, but the Quixote is an exception.


  1. You know I read The City and the Stars at least four times over one summer when I was 14 or so, and yet I failed to recognize the protagonist's name tonight. All the others, yes they are ones I could identify with.

    That said the novel itself is read in translation in many lands and places, having outlived and outpaced many a lesser novel, so it may in regard of the title (at least?) be ushering in said modern age?

    1. I encountered The City and the Stars at just about the same age. It was one of my gateway SF books. Something about discontented outsider male teen protagonists, do you suppose? Robin read it on my recommendation when we were just getting acquainted, and was much less impressed.

      As far as Don Quixote, there's no doubt that it's one of the most influential books of all time. Equally, it's one of the first books that a modern reader would recognize as "a novel" (this isn't just me talking; it's a conventional critic's note). As far as its longevity goes, I think of it as akin to the longevity of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson: the characters, and the interplay between them, are so perfect that people from many different times and places can enjoy them--and adapt them to their own understandings.