Life is monstrous, infinite, illogical, abrupt and poignant; a work of art in comparison is neat, finite, self-contained, rational, flowing, and emasculate. Life imposes by brute energy, like inarticulate thunder; art catches the ear, among the far louder noises of experience, like an air artificially made by a discreet musician.
In our view, James was wrong and Stevenson was right. Four years after his essay Stevenson was still meditating on the subject and, in another article (in Scribner's Magazine), "A chapter on dreams," he said he had always been a dreamer and, when he became a writer, his stories were a kind of transcription of his dreams. Stevenson thus found himself in company with William Shakespeare and Samuel Taylor Coleridge who had, each in his own way, proposed that fiction is a kind of dream: one that is started up by the writer, and carried on by the theatre-goer or reader.
Dream is, indeed, rather a good metaphor for fiction. With a concern to bring the idea up to date a bit, and offer it to cognitive psychologists, I have called fiction a kind of simulation: not a simulation that runs on computers, but one that runs on minds. As a metaphor, simulation is less universal than dream, because fewer people have experience of programming or using simulations. But in some ways this metaphor takes us further. It takes us, for instance, to the point of thinking that just as if one wants to be an aeroplane pilot one can improve one's skills in a flight simulator, if one wants to improve one's skills in the social world one can do so by reading fiction.
In our archive of academic papers we have placed an article called "Why fiction may be twice as true as fact," which explains and explores the idea of simulation. You can access it by clicking here.