Into the void
As a philosopher, I'm always a bit reluctant to tell people what I do. The information can be met with an embarrassed silence, and sometimes even incredulity that philosophy is a real job (incredulity I share). But things can get even worse when I tell people I work on fiction. At a wedding once, I told a fellow guest that I had just submitted a grant application to investigate fictional characters. Her jaw literally dropped and she started to speak veeery slowly. 'Let me get this right.. you want to.. get paid by the government.. to do research on things that don't exist??' It was fairly obvious she didn't think this would be the best use of taxpayers' money. *
But when we look at how deeply the habit of engaging with fiction is entrenched in many people's lives, investigating the fictional doesn't look so pointless. According to one report, compared to other genres, television drama has a 16.6% audience share in the UK, beaten only by 'entertainment'. Films have another 9%. When you couple this information with the fact that Britons spend around 30 hours a week watching television, that's a lot of fiction being consumed. Equally, 51.7 million books in the 'adult fiction' category were sold in 2016, and presumably some of them were even read.
But you don't need figures culled from a hasty google search (ahem) to establish the importance of fiction for many. When you are next on the tube, take a look around you at all those commuters lost in novels, desperate to blot out their dreary surroundings. Or check out the #GameofThrones hashtag on Twitter next time there's a new episode, and marvel at the intensity of feeling expressed about it, not to mention the sense of community amongst its viewers. (Or if that's not your thing, check out #TheArchers for a similar effect). Look at the anger which erupted when HBO cancelled Sense8; or the sadness and shock when J.K. Rowling killed off Dumbledore. Marvel at the fact that soap stars playing 'baddies' regularly get shouted at in the street for their on-screen character's misdemeanours. And so on.
Still, to take the worries of my sceptical friend from the wedding a bit more seriously, on the face of it there's something puzzling about spending so much of one's mental life and energy contemplating non-existent scenarios, where (with the possible exception of the soap fans just mentioned) one is perfectly well aware that those scenarios are non-existent. However, this puzzlement can be somewhat dissipated when we think a bit more about the mental states and attitudes involved in engagement with fiction.
One of the most central of these is, as you might expect, imagining. Imagining is hard to characterise exactly, but for present purposes we can make do with something like: thinking of a particular state of affairs (what one is imagining) in a way which temporarily obscures the non-existence of what one is thinking about. When you are imagining that Snape has just killed Dumbledore, for instance, you don't believe that this has happened; but at least, you aren't focusing on the fact that it hasn't occurred, and that there is in fact no such person as Snape or Dumbledore. It seems as if Snape has just killed Dumbledore, for as long as you are imagining this. But, to repeat, even so, at no point during the imagining (or after) do you believe that Snape has just killed Dumbledore; this is partly because your imaginative activity is within your own control, and you know this; whereas what you believe is not within your control (it relies on you being presented with the right sort of evidence).
If this is roughly right, then when we are thinking about 'things that don't exist' in the course of imagining things about them, we are not fully aware, or thinking of, their non-existence as we do so. During imaginative episodes about fictional characters, they seem real to you, not non-existent (albeit in a sense that stops short of your believing they are real). And once we acknowledge this fact, it doesn't seem so crazy to have other thoughts and feelings too, predicated on this temporary impression of reality: anger, fear, and even love.
*I'm sure the fact that she worked for The Spectator was merely incidental.
Image credit: Pit from a Balanites tree with a hole caused by a rodent. The Metropolitan Museum.