Believe or imagine

“Imagine me, reader; I shall not exist if you do not imagine me.”

-Nabokov (I know, I know, you’re all shocked.)

The word “believe” and its derivatives come up a lot when readers and reviewers evaluate fiction–especially realistic fiction. I certainly have used it, and I probably will slip up and do so fifteen minutes after I post this. But I think it’s an imprecise and unfortunate word choice in almost any case. “I just didn’t believe the story” and “It was full of unbelievable characters” are decent examples of post-last-page dismissals. You can think of others, I imagine.

Now think about the word “believe.” How does belief relate to pleasure? How does it relate to transcendent aesthetic bliss? (These are the goals of fiction. Keep your eye on anyone who mentions other goals first.) Does the need to exercise your capacity for belief lead you to read novels? I believe in gravity and evolution. I believe that I will ride my bike home in a couple hours on a near-perfect September afternoon. These beliefs alone give me no pleasure or pain. They are simply things I think are true. Whether I believe in Humbert Humbert or hobbits or Harriet the Spy is even less interesting. Believing in fictional characters doesn’t make them true. There is no squirt of dopamine in the nether regions of my brain.

Now, let’s consider the word “imagine” as an alternate course in the same thought process. I don’t know about you, but do take pleasure in imagining the workings of evolution, gravity, and my ride home. Even more important (and here’s where the dopamine fountain comes in), I find a great deal of aesthetic bliss in imagining fictional characters. The act of imagining is, after all, the key act in all fiction. Belief simply doesn’t matter. Whether you’re talking about swords-and-dragons fantasy or urban, “realistic” fiction or murder mysteries, the contract readers have with authors of fiction concerns the imaginable not the believable.

I don’t need an author to tell me there are people living on the streets of Brooklyn engaged in activities I have a hard time imagining. I do, however, need an author to help me imagine people living on the streets of Brooklyn doing things I have a hard time believing. And in the end,when the book is over, if I imagined those characters and those things and those streets, then it is irrelevant whether I believe them. In fact, it’s probably better if I imagined it thoroughly but still have a hard time believing. Belief wrings no joy from the page. Imagination will leave you needing new trousers.


Now, sometimes a reader simply swaps the two words. (I hope this is the mistake I make in fifteen minutes.) One reader might say she could “imagine” the character no more than she could “believe” in the character, because the author fails to uphold his end of the bargain. This swap is an error of semantics. Other times, though, I believe a reader misses the point of fiction entirely–especially realistic fiction–when he mixes up the two. The character was real while the reader was imagining her, but then he stopped imagining her and started looking to the real world for evidence, where he found none. This is an error of judgment and of effort–the equivalent of blowing out the fire to find out what was casting the shadows on the cave wall. For me, the main difference between these two cases is who has broken the contract.

All this I believe.