Grounded in its own reality: exploring what happens when we step into the fictional worlds of novels

February 26, 2024 by Megan Easton

The original story is posted on the UTM news website as well as pasted below. 

Daniel Wright was a voracious reader growing up, eventually developing what he calls “a deep obsession” with Agatha Christie. That fascination drove his desire to understand why novels hook so many of us, a question he’s pursued as a researcher, teacher and author – most recently of a new book about fictional worlds.   

“Much of my work is about exploring what’s happening in novels to make me and so many others love reading them,” says Wright, an associate professor of English at the University of Toronto based on the U of T Mississauga campus. He published The Grounds of the Novel through Stanford University Press earlier this year

“In this book, I look at the nature of fictional being – essentially how we think of fictional characters and worlds as sort of real – and sort of not real – at the same time.” 

When Wright was an undergraduate student pursuing a joint degree in English and philosophy, he encountered the work of philosophers who reduced the matter of realness to a binary debate about whether these fictions exist in the actual world. This way of thinking felt limiting to him. 

In The Grounds of the Novel, Wright instead argues that novels have their own kind of existence, or “grounds,” of being. “I wanted to take fictional being seriously,” he says, “and find a way to describe what novels are doing when I as a reader feel as if I’m entering a world that’s like my own, but also somehow distinct and detached from it.”  

To accomplish this, Wright analyzes novels from the Victorian period, early 20th century and contemporary era to demonstrate how they use metaphor to express, in his words, “the feel, or the vibe, or the peculiarity” of fictional existence. “For example, in Olive Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm, she compares existence to a tree with roots in a dark, underground space,” he says.  

Reviewers have praised the book for its boldness and originality in extending readers’ understanding of fictional worlds. Apart from the freshness of his argument, Wright says he was intentional about taking a different approach with two things in the book.   

(cover image courtesy Stanford University Press)
(cover image courtesy Stanford University Press)

First, he breaks down the traditional historical barriers that usually characterize the study of literature.  

Second, he brings his own voice as a reader, critic and queer person into the book. For the latter, Wright considers how the real-yet-not-real domain of fiction is similar to socially constructed identities. “The norms and conventions of race, gender and sexuality are like fictions invented by our social world,” he says.  

The theme of gender and sexuality runs throughout Wright’s research and teaching on the novel. His first book investigated desire in the Victorian novel, and his areas of specialization include queer and trans literature.  

He says the Victorian era first captured his interest because it was a time when novels became the central literary form. “This period was rich for thinking about the history and theory of the novel.”   

The novel is a central focus of study in most of the courses Wright teaches at UTM and the St. George campus, and he says it’s still a relevant and engaging subject for today’s students. 

“They’re reading novels, but they’re also watching TV shows and short content on TikTok,” he says. “Novels are part of an intricate media system rather than the ascendant literary form they were in the 19th century. I think it’s helpful for students to have a historical sense of where novels came from, and what they do that other media don’t do.” 

One topic that really gets students talking is the existence of fictional characters. 

“Why do we care so deeply about a fictional character’s future or want to correct them from making a bad decision?” he says. “This is the type of question that sparks lively discussion about our readerly experience with novels.” 

Whether he’s teaching or writing about the novel, Wright encourages readers to expand their viewpoint. “I hope they come away with new questions and new things to look for as they read, and maybe pay attention to some foundational philosophical questions,” he says. “All of this can be alongside the pleasurable, wonderful experience of getting immersed in other worlds.”