In freshman English, we were told to write something like, “In Lord of the Flies, William Golding proves that human nature is flawed.” The claim always troubled me, and, it turns out, Golding’s story is wrong. Rutger Bregman writes in the Guardian of “The Real Lord of the Flies,” what really happened when a group of young schoolboys was shipwrecked on an island. The story is fascinating. Essentially, things went pretty well. The boys survived off “fish, coconuts, and tame birds.” They even eventually found bananas and taro planted by a group that used to live on the island. They adhered to a regimented schedule of work. Fights were resolved. When one boy broke his leg, the others cared for him. They even built a badminton court and gym. Where Golding expected man’s darkness to be unleashed, a group of boys cooperated and had a half-decent time.
We didn’t really need a counterexample to prove Golding wrong. Fictional stories don’t “prove” things, obviously. Claims about “human nature” are almost always ill defined. When more well-defined, related claims are asked, they are answered through investigation, presumably the sort of investigation done by psychologists. Steven Pinker’s Blank Slate is clearly a more serious attempt to probe human nature than a story of boys on an island.
I’m not sure why we were taught to read fiction looking for the author’s grand and sweeping claims.
 Certain writers make truly interesting and grand claims. But those are the ones you only really hear about once you’re past the drudgery of high school coursework, after you’ve been thoroughly gaslit into thinking Fitzgerald is one of history’s greatest authors. More often, the grand claims are useless. Worse, they’re uninteresting. They make the ignorant student rightly ask, “Who cares what they think?” It makes fiction seem like a ridiculous enterprise.
“Who cares?” is a sophomoric question, but it deserves a serious answer. What is fiction actually for if not bold claims about the human condition? Looking for essential qualities is often a fool’s errand, and grand theories of art invariably fail. Yet fiction seems at its best to me not when it asserts a contentious claim, but when it shows the significance and profundity of trite truths, or gives you insight into a particular thing you might have overlooked. We begin to see something not that we find implausible, but something that we may have missed or underrated. Fiction, to fall into cliché, helps you piece together a more complete understanding of the world.
Consider Italo Calvino’s The Cloven Viscount, where a man is split down the middle into his ‘good’ half and ‘bad’ half. The premise is simple and the basic point is clear: An ignorant conception of the good, as well as an ignorant conception of evil, will lead to badness. The genius of the novella, the reason that it is worth reading over my sentence summary, is in how Calvino is able to draw this out for us. His story gives us a clear mental model for what goes wrong, rather than a vague impression. Indeed, where clichés are easy to shrug off, fiction is able to reinforce their truths in a sticky way.
Let’s teach fiction more like this. Students don’t need simplistic prompts; they need to know why novels, art, life—anything—matters. A more nuanced english education will create more analytical readers, and stop the too-smart-for-their-own-good kids from dismissing it. At the very least, we should be yearning to reach out to the green light of better fiction, with bespectacled eyes that can look down and judge moral truth.
1. Strangely enough, collegiate English education seems to make the opposite mistake: Students become too afraid to make any substantive and interesting claim about a book. But, that’s a musing for another time. ^