What is Fiction?
Fiction is a prose narrative about imaginary persons and events. The two basic forms of fiction are the novel and the short story. The word "fiction" is derived from the Latin fictum, meaning invented. Fiction, therefore, is distinguished from nonfiction by being imaginative. In this general sense fiction also can be thought of as including narrative poetry and drama.
Fiction is probably the most popular literary form of modern times, and there are novels and short stories to suit every taste. Writers of fiction may draw their materials from history or legend, contemporary society, their own lives, or fantasy. The main purpose of most writers of fiction is to entertain. The best fiction, however, also stimulates the intellect. It communicates the author's view of life and thus gives the reader new insight into people, society, or nature.
A great work of fiction is generally a statement about human life that is universally true. It may also provide an intimate picture of the particular times of the author. A work of fiction often gives a better idea of a place and era than the most accurate historical text. No historian, for example, has duplicated the spirit and directness of Mark Twain's fictional presentation of life along the Mississippi during the 19th century.
In a novel the author may provide a comprehensive view of people and events. He may deal with a period covering many years, as Dickens does in David Copperfield, or with the events of a single day, as Joyce does in Ulysses. He may use hundreds of characters, as Tolstoy does in War and Peace, or only a few, as Hemingway does in The Old Man and the Sea. In a short story the author's scope is more limited. He cannot attempt to describe a whole civilization. The short-story writer must select his descriptive details with special care to create a sense of unity and completeness.
History of Fiction
Early Egyptian and Oriental narratives were composed about 3,000 or 4,000 years before the birth of Christ.
Before the 15th century most works of fiction were written in verse. Outstanding examples of such early verse include Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, the Greek tragedies, the medieval romances of chivalry, and Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Boccaccio's Decameron, made up of short prose narratives, called novelle, was a forerunner of the modern novel and short story.
Since the Middle Ages there has been a continuous increase in the amount and types of prose fiction. The English novel became firmly established in the 18th century, with the works of Defoe, Richardson, Fielding, and Smollett. The modern short story was perfected by the American author Edgar Allan Poe in the 19th century. Writers have continued to experiment with fiction and to broaden its scope. Modern fiction is so varied that one work may seem to have nothing in common with another. However, despite differences of style and subject matter, all modern fiction is concerned with human experience, and the best fiction illuminates this experience and makes it meaningful.