Julian Barnes on how ‘Fiction explains and expands life’

Angst and Desire
2 min readJul 18, 2023

In the opening to Barnes’ collection of literary essays, Through the Window, he offers one of the best descriptions I’ve read for what fiction can do for us:

Fiction, more than any other written form, explains and expands life. Biology, of course, also explains life; so do biography and biochemistry and biophysics and biomechanics and biopsychology. But all the biosciences yield to biofiction. Novels tell us the most truth about life: what it is, how we live it, what it might be for, how we enjoy and value it, how it goes wrong, and how we lose it.

Novels speak to and from the mind, the heart, the eye, the genitals, the skin; the conscious and the subconscious. What it is to be an individual, what it means to be part of a society. What it means to be alone. Alone, and yet in company: that is the paradoxical position of the reader. Alone in the company of a writer who speaks in the silence of your mind. And — a further paradox — it makes no difference whether that writer is alive or dead. Fiction makes characters who have never existed as real as your friends, and makes dead writers as alive as a television newsreader.

This strike’s a similar chord to David Lodge’s formulation that: “The novelist has an intimate access to the secret thoughts of her characters denied to the historian, the biographer or even the psychoanalyst.” [The Art of Fiction] So fiction offers us insight into the lives of others, and by so doing, gives us explanations of ourselves.

Barnes’ ends his definition with a manifesto:

We are, in our deepest selves, narrative animals; also, seekers of answers. The best fiction rarely provides answers; but it does formulate the questions exceptionally well.

I don’t think Barnes’ means to suggest that a plot should remain unresolved, but that its conclusions shouldn’t be too neat. Overly neat endings can often feel trite, unconvincing, and give us nothing to chew over after we have turned the final page. Instead he calls on authors provoke and stimulate us. To not provide easy answers, but allow us to make our own conclusions.

He stands in good company with Chekhov, who fiercely defended his right to explore the morally grey areas of society without sermonising to the reader.



Angst and Desire

Curating the best of life advice from Philosophy, Psychology and Literature.