What is Fiction? And, for that matter, what is art?

I've been thinking quite a bit about why we read fiction. Here is how I'm defining it, I'll explain it afterward. Fiction, and art in general, is a make-believe conceptually modeled simulation of reality, often exaggerated and distorted into hyperreality, that is useful for emulation learning as well as being an entertaining and enjoyable end in itself.

Basically, I've come to the conclusion that we read fiction, and appreciate art in general, for two different reasons. One, to prepare for life, to practice life. To try to understand and wrap our minds around people and situations. In this sense fiction is a distillation of life. A novel is a sort of potion, essence of life. The second reason is almost the opposite. Sometimes we read fiction, or delve into art, to escape life. Decisions and problems are too much. We are worried, we are frustrated, and we need to go somewhere else, do something else, be someone else.

I will probably delve more into this in the future. There are some great minds that I want to pull from like psychologist Jordan Peterson, zoologist Desmond Morris, ecologist James Gibson, and the philosopher Aristotle. But, there's something that can drive home all of the points that I'm making faster.

I was reading a book about aesthetic philosophy called "Mimesis as Make-Believe" by Kendall Walton. He had the same basic idea as I have, but he put a lot more time into researching it. At one point he mentions a game that kids in concentration camps played called going to the gas chamber. I had never heard of this. I've read a lot of Viktor Frankl, I've read "Night" by Elie Wiesel, and I've made a number of other inquiries into the subject over a fairly long time period now. I knew kids played some games in the camps, but I thought it was probably a distraction. It turns out I had been wrong.

In a roundabout way I found a book called "Children and Play in the Holocaust" by George Eisen. His father had been in the camps while he and his mother were able to escape to another country when he was a child. Later in life he was doing research for his dissertation, which was on another subject, and stumbled upon some diaries that mentioned unusual games in the camps. It's quite extraordinary.

Peter Gray in his book "Free to Learn" talks about Eisen's work so well that I think it just might blow your mind.


In the ghettos, the first stage in concentration before prisoners were sent off to labor and extermination camps, parents tried desperately to divert their children’s attention from the horrors around them and to preserve some semblance of the innocent play the children had known before. They created makeshift playgrounds and tried to lead the children in traditional games. The adults themselves played in ways aimed at psychological escape from their grim situation, if they played at all. For example, one man traded a crust of bread for a chessboard, because by playing chess he could forget his hunger. But the children would have none of that. They played games designed to confront, not avoid, the horrors. They played games of war, of “blowing up bunkers,” of “slaughtering,” of “seizing the clothes of the dead,” and games of resistance. At Vilna, Jewish children played “Jews and Gestapomen,” in which the Jews would overpower their tormenters and beat them with their own rifles (sticks).

Even in the extermination camps, the children who were still healthy enough to move around played. In one camp they played a game called “tickling the corpse.” At Auschwitz-Birkenau they dared one another to touch the electric fence. They played “gas chamber,” a game in which they threw rocks into a pit and screamed the sounds of people dying. One game of their own devising was modeled after the camp’s daily roll call and was called klepsi-klepsi, a common term for stealing. One playmate was blindfolded; then one of the others would step forward and hit him hard on the face; and then, with blindfold removed, the one who had been hit had to guess, from facial expressions or other evidence, who had hit him. To survive at Auschwitz, one had to be an expert at bluffing — for example, about stealing bread or about knowing of someone’s escape or resistance plans. Klepsi-klepsi may have been practice for that skill.

In play, whether it is the idyllic play we most like to envision or the play described by Eisen, children bring the realities of their world into a fictional context, where it is safe to confront them, to experience them, and to practice ways of dealing with them. Some people fear that violent play creates violent adults, but in reality the opposite is true. Violence in the adult world leads children, quite properly, to play at violence. How else can they prepare themselves emotionally, intellectually, and physically for reality? It is wrong to think that somehow we can reform the world for the future by controlling children’s play and controlling what they learn. If we want to reform the world, we have to reform the world; children will follow suit. The children must, and will, prepare themselves for the real world to which they must adapt to survive.


I'm still trying to process that, but it reinforces my thoughts about fiction and art so strongly, which I had been debating with myself, that I find I have almost no doubts about it at the moment.

I completely understand the escapist part of fiction. That's why I watch sitcoms. I've found that they are a great coping mechanism when life has dealt, or continues to deal on a daily basis, blows for which you are not fully equipped to handle. But... but... there's more to fiction. Much more. It's a simulation of reality distorted to certain ends. Our imagination is the only place where we can run behavioral patterns, where we can make decisions and take actions, and not have them turn out badly even if the decisions and actions are bad. Great fiction even has the ability to change fundamental beliefs. They had to invent a new term for that in 2015, "experience-taking." Living a thousand lives through books is not just a cliche saying, it's a real psychological phenomenon that has real consequences in the real world. Amazing, amazing stuff.

There is so much to unpack here. I do not see an end to me thinking about this subject.


I've written two fictional pieces that I like so far.

"The City of Peace" - A future history science fiction utopia/dystopia action adventure in a framed story of a father telling his son a story about the child's grandfather.


"The Birth of Hanniba'al" - A dark, somewhat alternative, historical origin story for the Carthage General Hannibal.


Here are three of my most popular posts.

"The Making of a Great First Line in Fiction"


"A Letter to My Niece in 2034"


"The Most Important Question in Philosophy - Part 4 of 4"


You can find more of what I'm doing here: http://www.JeffreyAlexanderMartin.com

You can support this page at https://www.patreon.com/JeffreyAlexanderMartin


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