Fiction in literature, as a serious aesthetic experience, took a long time in coming. Many literary scholars have difficulty in determining the date of its emergence. Some of the possible dates are the sixteenth century in Spain, 17th century in France, and the 18th century in England.
The difficulty in determining the origin owes a lot to the difficulty a traditional culture, long under the yoke of revealed religion as the sole standard of truth, had in understanding fiction. The very establishment of “fiction” as an epistemological possibility between the traditional concepts of truth and falsehood is actually a huge accomplishment of a culture. The ability to appreciate fiction is an enormous cultural resource.
But what is fictionality? It should not be confused with what is “true,” for that is the province of history, nor should it be labeled as manifestly false, for that is the province of legend or fable. Fiction helps us to perceive what is believable, without asking for our beliefs, and also, represents without referring to any real person or event. Hence, fiction is representative.
Since fiction does not refer to anyone in particular, it teaches us about everyone in general, up to and including ourselves. Reading fiction aids in identification, which is the greatest pleasure of reading that frees us from the moral obligation towards those about whom we read. Fiction also enables self-reflection, which is the most important virtue of reading.
Fiction allows the imagination to bloom magnificently, far surpassing the intellect yet it also integrates the intellect with feelings. In literature, fiction teaches us truths that are not factual or specific, but general and philosophical. In the older societies, this was called “wisdom.”
Regrettably, today in the age of information we have less and less use for both reading and fiction. Some of the causes is the attitude of scientism (the only worthwhile knowledge comes from scientific disciplines), the dominance of pop culture (reality programming and memoirs) and the transformation of education into simulation. These activities come at a cost: our ability to imagine, think and feel our way into other people’s experiences without pretending to be them. This is the ability to hold similarity and difference at the same time within the mind.
However, not all is lost. In Deaf culture, ASL has a unique role that can provide an escape hatchet from the hegemony of infotainment. A proficient ASL speaker can restore the luster to fictionality with his or her command of the language. The signer is capable of holding an audience’s attention with an intoxicating rhapsody, a beautiful rendition of Whitman’s poems, or a dramatic epic. Not being beholden to the fundamental rules of speech or text, perhaps ASL has a distinct quality that can express the best of both modes of languages, which in turn, preserves an enormous cultural resource for the community.