The Anxiety of Imaginary Literature

Don’t worry, you’re only imagining things. The mature advice deflates what has come to be called imaginative, or worse, imaginary, literature, and the professorial ushers, their narrow torches leading tourists down dark aisles to witness the Literary Canon, every day are followed by fewer readers. Deflationary lit.

The word “imaginary,” used in discussions of “imaginative literature,” sets up a road block and confusion, defining literature in a narrow, denotative way, and it sounds like we’re about to embark for the circus – it sounds, in another word, childish. That’s the road block. For adult readers don’t like being considered childish. But the confusion comes with not knowing what to do with a Wall Street report that turns out to be purely “imaginary,” or a political speech that is rife with metaphor. And where do we place propaganda – with fiction or non-fiction? Or consider Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est”: the strength of this war protest poem is that it is not imaginary at all. Or consider Thoreau’s Walden: does Thoreau not “imagine” a new way of living? The woods, populated with metaphors, are imaginary, yet we classify the book as non-fiction, an essay. And E. O. Wilson is not finished imagining his science, as his imaginary short story, Trailhead” (New Yorker, January 25, 2010) illustrates.

The term “imaginary writing,” having replaced “creative writing” in classes that teach the writing of literature, leads us to an inadequate definition of literature. Texts mention “oral literature,” pre-literacy tales, but there’s little evidence that the users of this form of literature at all considered it “imaginary.” And to consider it imaginary even now deprives it of its magic, for the stories are not “true”; they are “only” fiction, the writers only imagining things. They don’t belong on Main Street – and we miss the fact that Main Street is also part of the great “fiction.”

The Bible is often read as literature. But the Bible is not imaginary, but the language expresses truths through the use of metaphor, symbol, image, and other literary tools. For the etymology of literature includes “letter,” and specifically a holy letter : “A writing, a written book, a story. holy lettrure = Holy Scripture” (OED).

Imaginary literature used to refer to a specific sub-genre of literature, describing science fiction or Poe’s extraordinary tales. Most modern literature is profane, a secularization of what used to be sacred (an experience consecrated through metaphor) and treated as such, something profound (“downward, inward extent”). To reach the truth of the imagination we must learn to read again, as children who live in imaginary worlds, as the neuroscience journalist Jonah Lehrer explains in a post published last spring titled “Childish Creativity” – we must learn to read fiction as if we are not reading fiction. All stories are true – you are not only imagining things, after all. Now how do you feel, the critic wants to know.

The adult world is carefully protected by terms like “imaginary literature,” and perhaps in this sense literature is a disease, like hypochondria, and adults have enough anxiety trying to hold on to their reality as it is.