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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  1. Really enjoyed reading this, thanks!

    I think you’re right in your comparison of sport to fiction. After all, sport’s pointlessness and arbitrary rules (e.g. there’s no reason why we have to get a ball in the back of a net only using ones feet) enables us to package everything we normally experience in our messy and incoherent life into a small time-frame. For those 90 minutes on a football pitch or the 10 seconds in the 100m sprint, we care that a goal is scored, a record is broken or adversity overcome. Because let’s face it, it’s only a week later and I can’t remember who I was shouting at through the television screen to row harder at Eton Dorney, and why I felt the elation I did when they finished first. But I guess, sport similar to fiction, captures an essence about being human and what’s important to us in our life, even though rationally it’s absurd.

  2. “the paradox of fiction, by eliciting emotional responses in us that we know are unlicensed by the facts.”


    Thank you for this beautiful article. Reading it triggered multiple thoughts and the very basic question of how we human beings process information.

    At least at the emotional level, we do not distinguish between reality and our own imagination. The physiological effects of imagining ourselves in any situation are very similar to actually being in that situation. The story we tell ourselves about something has the same emotional impact that experience the same something.

    We also seem to have very clear preferences for the stories we relate to. The study of myths found very common themes in cultures that were not connected. This led psychologist Jung to postulate a collective unconcious. Surprisingly, the most common theme was the hero; the hero myth appears with similar features accross multiple cultures.

    I believe we like the stories they tell us because we make the olympians our heros, our champions, and while listening to the media stories we tap into the hero story.

  3. Thanks for this. I am one of those “keen sports spectators” as well as being a lover of literature and philosophy. To answer one of your questions,“How on earth do keen sports spectators manage to survive this kind of emotional torment every weekend?” it’s not always easy, but it is rewarding. It is just like reading many novels can make the act of reading a novel more enjoyable as you come to understand the conventions and references. And it is worth noting that following sports consistently rather than every four years amplifies the effect that you are talking about. When you see a player come up as a rookie and grow and develop into a good or great player and then slowly decline or seeing promise that never develops or a great career cut short it is much more powerful than getting spoon fed the information from the commentator.

  4. A fascinating article….thanks Claire!. The implications as far as religious belief is concerned are particularly interesting and I’d love to have your thoughts on that.

  5. That’s a great post, Claire, and I’ll now think about it and the issues you raise. Not sure I can contribute anything to the dialogue until I’ve gone away and done that, although like everyone else I’ve been thinking a lot of late about the Olympics, and sport, and their significance.

  6. Emerson has a lovely quote about how the ordinary man doesn’t think he’s a poet, but then he waves a flag for the country and roots for a sports a team – that we’re all poets in the end… (probably in “The Poet”, though I don’t remember for sure). Great post!

  7. Claire, that’s a very interesting account of your experience. I’m another sport-avoider who got quite caught up in the Olympics this time, having mostly ignored the last few.

    I approach this from a rather different philosophical direction than you. I don’t see any paradox in our emotional response to fiction or sport, because I don’t think there is any sort of requirement or demand on our emotions to track the truth. Our emotions just are what they are. We can explain them, but we can’t justify them. The heart wants what the heart wants.

  8. hi claire,
    it is sooooooo coincidental that u shared and i stumbled upon your realization, b/c thru-out the Olympic coverage, some friends and I (and apparently tons of folk, based on the internet buzz, bashing NBC’s coverage…hehe), have wondered about and questioned the several fluff vignettes and human interest pieces, of length, that aired when other “not-your-every-day” competitions (weight lifting-{men & women}, archery, javelin, trampoline, skeet shooting, taekwondo, fencing, etc) could be shown in various lengths during prime time for that overall Olympic experience. obviously, given your type of blog and your normal “lack of excitement about sport”, we come from quite different pts of view. but… i learned something just the same. for you see, those like me who are sport watchers or athletes, we pretty much viewed the coverage as…say…the Olympics as reality show, with its contrived narratives that are prone to hyperbole, rather than the televising of a sporting event. for us athletes, we think that during the Olympics, even the non-athlete feels what we feel. that is, that a “story” for the competition is nonessential. that is to say, that we’re tuning in to watch some of the best athletes on the planet compete at their disciplines at the highest levels, regardless of nationality, gender or background, purely to appreciate and marvel at their level of skill and expertise. it is when u call your 10 yr. old daughter in from the other room and say, “hey, watch this little lady lift that weight, that is heavier than your go-cart in the garage, clear over her head and hold it.” and w/ that brief context and no background story, your daughter watches in amazement and admiration of the performance on its own merit. she had no lead-in on the athlete to become emotionally invested, but she appreciated it b/c she SAW the very heavy weight rise over the athletes head with a “poetry in motion” that made it look easy 🙂 THAT is what we are thinking that everyone watching is getting, but your revelation shows that many folk DO need that “story” and is likely why NBC packaged it the way they did. admittedly….it never occurred to me/us. thanks claire, and please see this link for a comical view on the thought 😛

  9. Fiction and Patriotism | Talking Philosophy - pingback on August 15, 2012 at 10:55 am
  10. Claire Creffield

    Lots of very interesting comments. Thank you. I was really aware as I wrote the piece that as a sports ignoramus I should make sure not to impute my story-seeking mode of viewing to others who are more knowledgeable about sport. And so it is interesting to read MBlack’s comment about stories being inessential and distracting. I completely accept the possibilities of different modes of viewing. I had thought of them as increasing along with one’s technical knowledge of the sport, but there is also the experience MBlack cites of the 10 year old who simply admires an intuitively graspable great achievement of lifting something heavy or running very fast and so on. I do that too. We watch in multiple ways I suppose. The comedy clip is very funny and apt. I’d find that level of story-making very intrusive. The UK commentary wasn’t too bad overall I think.

    I also liked really gene’s comment about how increased knowledge of sport, and consequently much more informed spectatorship actually advances the complexity and worth of the story-seeking mode of viewing. You can construct a much richer narrative and you can do so with greater knowledge of the genre. Very interesting.

    Rick’s comment about possible implications for religious belief is very fertile. I’d love to try and write something about that another day.

  11. Hi Claire, you might want to take a look at Stephen Mumford’s ‘Watching Sport’ which was published last year by Routledge. He essentially argues that there are several ways of watching sport, mainly divided into the partisan and the purist, and that these two spectators see a different event even if they might be watching the same thing. It’s a good read, would recommend.

  12. Claire Creffield

    Yikes! For any thought that it is possible to have, someone has already published a book on it! I’ll look out for it, thanks. This was just a piece I plunged into because I was keen to get started with the blog. Something I find very liberating about blogging is that because it is relatively conversational it seems kind of permissible to just plunge in with a passing thought, but of course that has its perils.

  13. Agreed -only for some works of fiction.
    Your point in the jargon of psychology:
    Being unpredictable -coupled with a constant promise of reward- brings about strong anticipation, be it breath-holding while watching the game or page-turning.

  14. Jay Smooth has a wonderful description of how sports is in fact an instance of fiction:

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