Novel Ideas by Barton Swaim

Novel Ideas

Barton Swaim on the Fictional Value of “Things That Never Existed”

There is a long and venerable tradition among Evangelical Christians of viewing the genre of fiction with apprehension and mistrust. The idea that there is something vaguely unsound or improper about the reading and writing of tales that aren’t true is an old one, dating back at least to the seventeenth-century Puritans. The Puritans, as every undergraduate English major knows, shut down the playhouses because (among other reasons) dramatic productions are fabrications.

Over the succeeding generations, those suspicions waned but didn’t die. Defoe went to great lengths in the preface to Robinson Crusoe to deny that his story was “an invention imposed on the world”; he admitted the story was “allegorical” but insisted that it was also “historical.” Defoe knew that a great number of readers would not have read his book if they thought it was fiction, which of course it was.

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Barton Swaim works as a speechwriter and is the author of Scottish Men of Letters and the New Public Sphere (Bucknell, 2009). He is a member of First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, South Carolina, a church of the Associate Reformed Synod.

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