On the Experience of Fiction

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Long before we learn the first things about books and specifically novels, we are already fully acquainted with the most sophisticated devices of narrative fiction. Books belong in libraries and book­stores, novels can be the stuff of rarefied criticism, but fiction is everywhere all the time, as permanent a feature of daily life as the air we breathe, as embedded in ourselves as our personal memo­ries and hidden desires. Storytelling is no less natural a gift than language itself. Differences in the degree of proficiency cannot conceal the fact that most of us are born narrators, much in the same way that Molière’s bourgeois had spent his whole life speaking in prose without even noticing it. We tell stories and listen to stories, we trade them all the time with parents and friends and lovers, even with complete strangers with whom we strike up a conversation on a train. We brood over remembered stories; and through the act of remembrance, we modify them by suppressing unnecessary minor details or by picking out the most meaningful moments, exactly as a novelist does. Memory tells us stories, but so does oblivion. And some­times we go as far as to make up a whole story on the spur of the moment, seeking to hide ourselves behind a shaky lie, or just out of sheer vanity to elicit in our listener a flattering image of ourselves. Some of our most cherished stories we bring along with us throughout our entire life, polishing them along the way, like that work in progress a reluctant novelist never finds good enough to submit to the editor.