Nowadays people enjoy a variety of literature – autobiographies, biographies (which may or may not be approved), books on nature, theology, science fiction (or indeed science fact), poems and stories to allow the reader to get lost in other world, another life.
Non-fiction is often used as an educational tool – to gain a better understanding; either improvement to our knowledge of a topic or as an insight into someone else’s life and thoughts.
Yet when did fiction as opposed to non-fiction writing really come about? You may think it is easy to define and separate the two, and on the surface of the debate there is a simple difference – one is true, one is not.
This simple divide is harder to spot when you look back in history and attempt to trace the origins of fictional prose.
We know from archaeological finds that ‘writing’ originated many millennia ago – symbols and pictographs dating back to 7th millennium BC. Yet writing and literary prose are very different.
It is widely accepted that writings from the early millennia were basic historical records – a diary of events, what happened and when, and therefore deemed ‘true’. These were symbols with no writing style – just ‘pictures’ representing fact.
Writing as something more than a mere depiction of an event is not recognised until 2000BC with the Epic of Gilgamesh (the earliest known works of literature). Yet this ‘written’ work was a compilation of earlier orally told legends and poems – stories handed down through the generations which, at the time of telling were ‘histories’ and therefore depicting fact.
Today, however, legends are often seen as stories, possibly started as truth but which have been ‘added to’ to ensure excitement, adventure and that they would be passed down in history. Even if we take that view, the Epic of Gilgamesh was not a fictional story fresh from the author’s mind.
The earliest surviving works of literature are written versions of poems, histories and teachings already in existence. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey were written verse in the 8th century BC; China’s mystic philosopher Loa Tze, wrote ideas in verse dating to the Iron Age; sacred ancient Indian hymns (Rigveda) were found in written form dating to the 2nd millennium BC.
Verse (or poetry) in written form emerged early (see A History of Poetry: Part 1). Written prose, however, took longer to emerge.
It is thought that prose as an ‘art form’ started to appear in Ancient Greece.
Aeschylus is applauded as introducing the first ‘drama/tragedy’ with interaction between characters. Prior to this, performances tended to be ‘recitals’ of poetry rather than several people with their own lines to act. Irony and comedy also came to the fore during this time.
Although more and more was being written, the increase in works tended to be non-fiction: science, philosophy, theology. People started to question and to explore personal feelings/emotions.
During medieval times, written prose was few and far in between. Verse was evolving and although some prose came about in the 14th century, for example the author Geoffrey Chaucer, these works tended to be ‘tales’ and folklore – still not the ‘novel’ form of fiction we are used to reading nowadays.
Islamic literature is thought to have played an important part in changing the way Europeans confronted literature. The Book of One Thousand and One Nights was completed in the 14th century, and it introduced a ‘frame’ to collections of literary works: the idea that a main story was being told by many shorter stories.
These works were not merely thrown together as individual works, but each story helped to tell a bigger story. It is the style of writing rather than the content alone which was thus far unseen in text.
Yet this collection of manuscripts was not an ’original’ story but a compilation of earlier mythology and tales.
The novel – the single piece of fictitious prose – is yet to be written.
And it is here that we leave the ‘story’ of prose fiction for now. In the meantime, listen to Denny Bradbury’s interview on Fiction.