Fiction as evidence

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Because of a debate about books with few (in this case no) female characters, we were reminded last week that Lord of the Flies has shaped the view of power enjoyed by several generations of English-speaking children. They would have got a different perspective from Ballantyne’s Coral Island had they read it. Ballantyne’s didactic expression of colonial hope would hardly get on the syllabus these days but Golding’s novel seems to have been there forever; preferred originally, I presume, because it seemed to offer a morally bracing opportunity to look at the darkness of reality.

How real is it? Very real thinks Lucy Kellaway (FT 28 May 2016); she cites it as ‘evidence” (along with “fiction” in general) against the argument of Dacher Keltner’s The Paradox of Power which argues that power goes typically to those best able to use it for the common good. Is Lord of the Flies a good source of evidence here? I don’t think that the vast body of mystery novels enjoyed over the last century and a half are evidence that murders are usually committed by fiendishly intelligent people whose crimes are detected by amateur sleuths of equally amazing capacity.

Kellaway also cites as evidence “the world as commonly observed”. I suspect that this will turn out to be, in good measure, the world understood in the light of Lord of the Flies. We can all, it is true, cite cases from real life that contradict Keltner’s thesis, but that may be because acquisitions of power by the wrong people are so much more available to memory than the unremarkable cases when things went well.

I don’t say Keltner is right. But Lord of the Flies is no better evidence than Coral Island would be.