Is it possible that the idea of “realism” as a guiding principle for fiction is itself unrealistic? After all, there are no Newtonian laws in stories—an apple can just as easily fly upward from a tree as drop to the ground. Characters can ride a magic carpet as easily as walk. Any restrictions are imposed by the author, not by any external “reality,” however defined.
The first storytellers understood this intuitively. That is why myths, legends, folk tales and other traditional stories recognize no Newtonian (or other) limitations on their narrative accounts.
These were the first examples of what Ted Gioia calls “conceptual fiction”—in other words stories that delight in the freedom from “reality” that storytelling allows. Conceptual fiction plays with our conception of reality, rather than defers to it.
In the past, conceptual fiction existed at the center of our literary (and even pre-literary) culture. Nowadays it is dismissed by critics and typically shuffled off into “genre” categories such as science fiction and fantasy. Realism gained preeminence as a supposedly rock hard foundation for fiction. From that moment on, Newton’s laws (and a million other laws) gave orders to the imagination, with the stamp of approval of the literary establishment.
But here is the more interesting question. Is it possible that this trend is reversing, and that conceptual fiction is now moving back from the periphery into the center of our literary culture?