Sport, Stories, and the Paradox of Fiction

Like a lot of British people, I have had two new experiences in the last couple of weeks, thanks to Britain’s hosting of the Olympic Games. One of these new experiences was a twitch of patriotism, felt while watching Danny Boyle’s impressive opening ceremony. The other was the experience of being emotionally engaged by a sporting event. I’ll come back to the patriotism shortly, in a fresh blog post, but for now I want to talk about the emotions involved in sports spectatorship. As I sat agonising about whether British cyclist Bradley Wiggins could pedal a few seconds faster than other cyclists in the Surrey time trials I had two thoughts. One was “How on earth do keen sports spectators  manage to survive this kind of emotional torment every weekend?” The other was a recognition of some similarities between my emotional response to viewing sport and my emotional response to fiction. Simply because I so rarely get excited about sport, I was groping for some sort of precedent to the kind of emotional tension that I was experiencing. And edge-of-the-seat moments in fiction were what popped into my head. Why? Given that the cycle race in Surrey was real and not fictional, how and why was my experience of watching it reminiscent of the consumption of fiction?

Here are some possible answers that come to mind. First, sport itself, like fiction, has a concentration of “heightened moments” – moments of triumph or defeat, of critical choices, of intense effort against adversity or pain or one’s own personal limits; and, like fiction, it has a final moment of resolution – the end of the competition – in which matters are brought to a fairly orderly and coherent conclusion, a happy ending or a sad one. Second, television commentators routinely build on sport’s inherent drama by supplying us with numerous mini-narratives that make use of standard themes common in fiction. As the camera cuts to a particular competitor, we will be told that he sustained a major injury last year that threatened his future as a cyclist, that he vowed to overcome it, that his mother has said he will not rest until he has won a medal for his country. The commentator has shaped a story for us. It may be a true story, in the sense that it is composed of propositions that are true. But its construction (the selection of some propositions for inclusion, of others for omission) is an artifice aimed at promoting drama, suspense, tension. Third, even though we might feel a little cynical about all this pat storymaking, we seem rather heavily programmed to be receptive to it. When a commentator informed me, at the start of the men’s 400 metre final, that Grenada had never won an Olympic medal, my loyalty for the duration of the race instantly went to the Grenadian runner Kirani James, even though a moment’s reflection told me that there were numerous other available facts that could equally have aroused a loyalty to any of the other competitors in the event. In fact, not only was I receptive to the commentator’s provision of a shaping narrative of the event, I was consciously seeking just such a narrative. I wanted excitement, I wanted to care about the result, and I was consciously willing to found my excitement on the arbitrary bequeathal of salience to the desires of one set of people (Grenadians) rather than another.

This brings me to the reason why I find the similarities between my sports spectatorship and my consumption of fiction rather interesting. Philosophers of literature ask the question “Why do we care about fictional characters?” As we read a novel, we feel anxious, angry, fearful, pleased, relieved, disappointed about the fate of the characters in it. If they are characters who arouse our sympathy, we adopt their needs, wants, interests as our own: we are satisfied when they are satisfied, frustrated when they are frustrated. And all this is the case even though we know that they do not exist. Our intense emotional engagement with a piece of fiction coexists more or less smoothly with our awareness that nothing at all is at stake. This is known as the paradox of fiction. Is there something similarly paradoxical in my emotional engagement with sports spectatorship? Is there, in both cases, a similar parting of company between my beliefs, on the one hand, and my emotional response, on the other? I think that there is. Unlike fictional characters, Kirani James and the people of Grenada really do exist and – let us assume – they will indeed be happier as a result of winning a medal.  But the state of my beliefs as I watched the race did not at all licence my emotional response.

To see this, let’s say that I have a belief that the best outcomes are those that produce the greatest amount of happiness that is compatible with effort and other forms of desert being properly rewarded. In that case, my anxiety that Kirani James should win his race would be sensitive to my beliefs only if I had good grounds for thinking that, compared with the victory of other participants in the race, his victory would produce the greatest amount of happiness compatible with effort and other forms of desert being properly rewarded. In fact had no idea whether it would or not, and more importantly I didn’t care about that when I transferred my loyalties to him. My normal commitment to the truth of the matter was suspended for the sake of my immersion in a story-shaped experience of the race, with suspense and a happy ending.

It might be argued that this is nothing like the experience of reading fiction: all that is happening as I watch the race is that I am forming a preference without good reason, which is something we do all the time. The goals that we adopt do not – or do not always – have to be sensitive to our beliefs about what is, in fact, most desirable.

But something more than simple “plumping” (i.e. unmotivated, unreasoned choosing) was going on as I watched that race. I formed my preference as the result of an engagement with a narrative that I and the sports commentator had evolved between us (about a tiny nation yearning for accolade in the theatre of all the nations), knowing the narrative to be radically incomplete, and knowing it to be shaped by stock narrative themes and by the commentator’s need to deliver, and my own need to consume, a story-shaped experience of the race. It wasn’t an ungrounded preference: it was entirely well-grounded – in a selection of data which I knew to be partial and distorting because I knew it to be an artifice aimed at dramatic tension rather than truth.

If the above considerations hold any water, it seems that the “paradox of fiction,” or something like it, extends also to elements of our engagement with the real world.

And not only are we willing to allow our emotions this particular kind of freedom from the austere demands of truth-tracking, it seems interesting to speculate about the possibility that we sometimes need to grant them this autonomy – not only by retreating into a good book, but sometimes also in real life. Sometimes, in response to complex situations where the best outcome is far from clear, we need to start from somewhere. We need a stance, an orientation, a set of loyalties, something to guide our action even while we are gathering the information that will hopefully  come to inform those loyalties, refine them, perhaps overturn them. Arguably, one such stance is patriotism, and in my next post here I would like to look at patriotism, and the ways in which, like sports spectatorship, it displays something like the paradox of fiction, by eliciting emotional responses in us that we know are unlicensed by the facts.

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