What is the relationship between fiction and knowledge? How much can Crime and Punishment tell us about the habits of Russian pawnbrokers? Would you know how to build a raft after reading Huckleberry Finn? Could Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho be construed as a guide to sniffing cocaine and murdering your date? There’s no doubt that one learns things by reading novels – and by writing them – but is that something rightly termed knowledge, or are we simply talking about the sparks that jump at you from the centre of an interesting blaze? You might argue that good novels depend on being able to dramatise what people don’t know: the author may know things, and so may the reader, but people not knowing things is always more interesting than what they know. In a good novel facts will seem incidental. Tolstoy gives us a picture of life on the Napoleonic battlefield no history book can compete with, but this isn’t because of the information that War and Peace contains. Even novels in which almost nothing happens – John McGahern’s, for instance – will speak in historical whispers, aiming to ‘disimprison’, as Coleridge once said, ‘the soul of fact’.
LRB 14 July 2011 | PDF Download