leideninternational relationsblog

The Function of Fiction

The Function of Fiction

'Non-fiction can distort; facts can be realigned. But fiction never lies.' -- V.S. Naipaul (1981: 67)

[This was a response to J. Furman Daniel and Paul Musgrave's article in International Studies Quarterly, and has appeared as part of a symposium on this piece. In their original article, Daniel and Mugrave propose a theory of how fictional narratives influence the behaviour of actors.]

In the age of Fox and Fake News, V.S. Naipaul’s pithy observation rings more true than ever. Within this context, Daniel and Musgrave’s intervention may seem counter-intuitive – for it is the character of fact, rather than fiction we ought to be probing. But, considering the range of disciplinary queries IR has limited itself to, it is an important intervention. By taking the specific case of Tom Clancy’s novels and how they ‘buttress[ed] the ideological edifice of Reagan-Bush era policies’, Daniel and Musgrave take us into the little-explored research question of how fiction influences international politics. However, that fiction shapes the world for us and around us is not an unusual claim to make – most other social science and humanities disciplines would indeed consider it fairly obvious. The assumed novelty of the authors’ arguments points more towards the pathologies of IR as a discipline – the American positivist version of it in particular – and this is what I will focus on.

Words of fiction are world-making in many ways. Think of Chinua Achebe (2009) who, as a child, hated the ‘guts’ of Africans. They spoilt the adventures of his white hero every time he encountered them in his school-book stories by Rider Haggard, John Buchan, Joseph Conrad, among others. All the while he took ‘sides with the white man against those savages’, until it dawned on him that he was one of those savages. Or, consider that mildly-intoxicated African-American person who, after watching ‘Black Panther’ – the first ever Hollywood black superhero film – proclaimed: ‘Ah, this must be how white people feel like, every day!’ (Coates 2018)

Superheroes may be fictional characters, but the mass audiences’ ‘synthetic experience’ of these caped crusaders goes beyond Daniel and Musgrave’s argument that they change or reinforce beliefs; they also constitute individual and social identities. For instance, any effort to understand Rudyard Kipling’s ‘white man’s burden’ by process tracing its reception in Roosevelt’s administration would fall short of assessing its real world-making function: that of constituting ‘whitehood’. Fiction makes people and their ideas of personhood – or, in the case of western fictions about colonial subjects, the lack thereof.

The turn to fiction is welcome for another reason, too: it opens the space for greater engagement with the non-western world. In violent (post)colonial contexts, fiction has provided the greatest scope for subversion. By escaping the compulsion to narrate facts, fiction writers have repeatedly chased the ‘truth’ in (post)colonial situations. Fiction has allowed such writers greater leeway to subvert state and sovereignty (only comparatively so, of course – there is a long list of fiction writers jailed, exiled or killed for their work). Fictional detours have regularly fingered the constructed nature – if not outright fictionality – of the State (that we in IR take for granted), in a manner that academic writings in the Global South rarely have. By revealing the absurdity of the (post)colonial state, focussing on sensibilities ‘of touch, sight, hearing and smell’ rather than abstract data, fiction ‘captures the drama of the colonial and the anticolonial’ (Thiong’o 2012: 47). As the Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o argues, it was ‘fiction [that] first gave us a theory of the colonial situation’ (p. 48).

The social function of fiction therefore is multi-layered. Fictions purport to create ‘sympolitical’ individuals, to use Beneditto Croce’s term – those who view the world through the lens of politics, not unpolitical ones. Hence to assume that fictions only transport individuals into the story world may not be doing full justice to their operations of power, for they also work to bring back individuals from a state of alienation into reality. To only focus on the belief-suspending notion of fictions is to rob them of their ‘history’-making character and strip them of their essentially political nature.

Even the State is aware of the politically charged nature of fictions and their ability to subversively approach reality: otherwise how does one explain the absurdity of the situation where the central character in Ngugi’s novel, Matigari – a revolutionary leader – was issued an arrest warrant by the Kenyan police! The archives of state brutality as well as anticolonial struggles are more wholly captured in works deemed fiction.

Finally, fiction also turns the gaze on the inhibitive rituals of academic labour. The producer-labour relationship of the knowledge economy of IR has ensured that non-western authors are only the native informers in the world of theory. How many non-western authors, who have studied in their home countries, have published in premier IR academic journals? Even an impressionistic eye would reveal to us that fiction writers have represented the non-west far better and more numerously than academic ones. When the tools of academic thinking are tied to resources and procedures naturally advantageous to the West, imagination is the most viable non-western resource. While this may point to the unequal world of academic knowledge production, it may not be so bad after all. As Achebe (1988: 149) says: ‘privilege is one of the great adversaries of the imagination; it spreads a thick layer of adipose tissue over our sensitivity’.


Achebe, Chinua. 2009. ‘African literature as restoration of celebration’, in The Education of a British-Protected Child: Essays. Penguin, 2009, pp. 107-123.

Achebe, Chinua. 1988. ‘The truth of fiction’, in Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays. New York: Achor Books, pp. 138.154.

Coates, Ta-Nahisi (2018). The Atlantic Interview (with Jeffrey Goldberg), Episode 17, 15 March. Podcast available: https://www.theatlantic.com/podcasts/the-atlantic-interview/

Naipaul, V. S. (1981). The Return of Eva Peron: With the Killings in Trinidad. Huston: Vintage.

Thiong’o, Ngugi wa (2012). Globalectics, New York: Columbia University Press. Ebook.

Thiong’o, Ngugi wa (1987) Matigari, London: Heinemann.