works of fiction are widely held by critics to have little value, yet these
works are not only popular but also widely admired in ways that are not always
appreciated. In this paper I make use of
Kendall Walton’s account of fictional worlds to argue that fictional worlds can
and often do have value, including aesthetic value, that is independent of the
works that create them. In the process,
I critique Walton’s notion of fictional worlds and offer a defense of the study
and appreciation of fictional worlds, as distinguished from the works of
fiction with which they are associated.
value, criticism, fan, fiction, fictional world, genre, Walton
It is hard for serious readers and
critics to understand why certain works of fiction are as popular and
successful as they are. For example,
from the time of its publication through today, the critical response to J.R.R.
Tolkien’s trilogy, The Lord of the Rings,
has been resoundingly negative:
critics derided it for its plodding, pedantic style, its overly complex plot,
its heavy-handed self-importance, and its simplistic character psychology. Yet The
Lord of the Rings’ popularity is enduring. It has won several readers’polls
for the best book of the twentieth century and even of the second millennium. So The
Lord of the Rings is not merely
popular; those who like it think that its popularity is deserved. What accounts for the divide in opinion
between ordinary readers and critics?
might argue that, considered as a literary work, The Lord of the Rings has been underrated by critics who look down
on genre fiction, perhaps particularly on science fiction and fantasy. There certainly might be something to
this. Works of genre fiction, and
particularly of “pulpy” and juvenile genres, are not given a fair chance by some
critics, and no doubt some gems have been overlooked.  However, this is not the line of argument I will
pursue in this paper. I concede that The Lord of the Rings, considered merely
as a literary work, is not one of the gems.
However, I will argue, it should not be judged merely as a literary work;
it should be judged also in terms of its contribution to the development of a
view is that critics and fans tend approach works like The Lord of the Rings very differently. The critics evaluate works of fiction on
their own merits considered as art objects, while fans evaluate some works of fiction in terms of their
contribution to a larger project: establishing and exploring fictional worlds. Many
fans of Star Wars, for example, were
disappointed by the “prequel” films released in the 1990s, not just because
they were bad films (though they are), but also because they seemed to diminish
or distort the world of Star Wars , which
had been created and explored in earlier films.
It is the purpose of this paper to explain how it can be reasonable for
fans to evaluate certain artworks according to the artworks’ creation of and
contribution to a fictional world. It is
necessary to say something about the kind of value that fictional worlds can have so that we can explain
how some works of art and related artifacts (books, television programs, comic
books, video games, etc.) are appropriately valued in terms of their
relationship to these fictional worlds.
structure of the paper is as follows:
First, I describe the relationship between fictional works and fictional
worlds, with particular focus on a class of central cases of works where the
associated world seems to take on an independent importance. The central cases I have in mind are mostly
works of science fiction and fantasy, such as the novels, television programs,
films, comic books, and so on, that are collectively grouped together, such as Star Trek, Dune, the X-Men, and the like.
However, the central cases are not always works of fantasy or
science-fiction. The world of Sherlock
Holmes, for example, may be included in this class. In the second section, I show that these
works (and sometimes others) are valued for their relationship to fictional
worlds. I do so by exploring three
objects of fan interest: non-artwork objects that allow fans to interact with,
represent, or imagine fictional worlds (in Walton’s sense, “props”); fictional
puzzles and debates; and other creative forms of fictional interaction besides
the work itself, particularly what is called “fan fiction.”
the third section I explore a central challenge to this sort of evaluative
attitude: why should works be valued
in terms of their relationship to worlds, rather than the other way
around? Insofar as some fans do value The Lord of the Rings because of its
relationship to Middle-Earth (the fictional world of that work), why would we
not say that they are confused, that they are looking for value in the wrong
place? I argue that it is eminently
reasonable for fans to value fictional worlds as ends – as abstract objects in
their own right. Thus, it is reasonable to value some works of fiction as mere
means to the end of exploring a fictional world.
2. Central Cases: Fictional Works That Fans Love
we begin, it is necessary to get clear on a few important terms. We need to have at least some rough account
of what a fictional world is in order
to discuss its value. In this paper I
make use of Kendall Walton’s well-known account of fictionality. Walton notes that whether or not a fictional
world is constituted by a set of
propositions, it is at least strongly
associated with a set of propositions, viz.,
the set of propositions made fictional by a particular representational work
(or works). So, the books of The Lord
of the Ring trilogy make it fictional that there are elves, dwarves, and
hobbits, that Gandalf and Saruman are wizards, that Aragorn is a descendant of
ancient kings, and so on. These
propositions, and others like them, are made fictional by these works insofar
as the works function in a game of make-believe. Walton puts it this way:
is the function of a representation to be used as a prop in certain sorts of
games. Function in this case might be
thought of as a matter of there being rules or conventions about how the work
is to be used. Appreciators are supposed
to be playing certain sorts of games with the work.… So we can say that what is
fictional in a work is what appreciators of it (qua appreciators of it) are to imagine.
world of a work has to do with what a
work makes fictional, and a world makes certain things fictional by prescribing
audiences to imagine in accordance with a set of conventions.
Nicholas Wolterstorff’s account of fictional worlds is that a work projects a fictional world by indicating
or making understood that certain propositions are to be understood as holding
in that world. Central to his view is also the idea that the
author uses the work to indicate to audiences what they are to imagine about
the world. One difference between
Wolterstorff and Walton is that, according to Wolterstorff, fictional worlds
consist of propositions and hence of states of affairs, whereas Walton avoids
making this metaphysical commitment. By
understanding worlds in terms of what is fictional, and what is fictional in terms
of the prescriptive rules that govern imaginative games, Walton does not offer
an ontology of fictional worlds. Worlds are not constituted by objects or
states of affairs but by a set of (mostly implicit) agreements that govern how
we understand fiction. In what follows,
I use Walton’s terminology, though the differences between Wolterstorff’s and
Walton’s theories do not affect the argument of the paper.
examples I consider here come from what I will call central cases. Every work of fiction (even those that
are not considered works of literature, such as Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis
) projects a fictional world, and any
fictional world might, in principle, have the sort of value I describe
here. The central cases are those in
which a certain kind of evaluation, which emphasizes features of the world
independent of the work, becomes dominant.
The central cases tend to be works of mass popular art rather than works
of “high” art. This is a contingent
fact, however, and there are exceptions – the Dublin of Joyce’s Ulysses has attracted a great deal of
the kind of interest I describe here, despite the fact that Ulysses is considered to be great
literature. What follows are general
principles, not universal laws. It is,
however, helpful to focus on the class of cases that have most often tended to
give rise to fascination with fictional worlds.
The central cases are interesting because the fictional worlds (such as
Middle-Earth) tend to be evaluated much more highly than the corresponding
works (e.g., The Lord of the Rings). This
is not the case, for example, with Joyce’s Dublin and Ulysses. Since Ulysses
is generally considered to be one of the greatest works of literature written
in English, no one wonders why Bloomsday is widely celebrated or why Joyce’s
depiction of Dublin holds such fascination for so many admirers.
cases tend to have three features:
They are works that, taken together, are best understood as telling us about a
single world. Walton assumes for the
sake of simplicity that there is a one-to-one correspondence between works and
worlds, but it is clear that this is often not the case. Even if we count the three volumes of The Lord
of the Rings as one book, Tolkien wrote other books, most famously The Hobbit and The Silmarillion, which take place in the same world. Not only do the individual episodes of the
1960’s television series Star Trek
all take place in the same fictional world, but other television series (Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and so on)
also take place in that same world. So
we can speak of sets of works where every member of that set describes the same
establish that a set of works describes a single world, it is not sufficient to
show that the works were created by a single artist in a characteristic style. Compare Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock
Holmes stories with the novels of Jane Austen.
Austen's books (except perhaps Northanger
Abbey) share a great deal in common with one another: they have similar
settings, character types, themes, and moods.
But no specific characters, places, or fictional events from one book
recur in any of the others. Emma does not make it fictional that
there is a Mr. Darcy or a place called Pemberley. It does not specifically deny these things,
but it is not part of the world of Emma
that such people or places exist.
contrast, in the Sherlock Holmes novels and stories, facts established in one
work are normally taken as facts in later works. Characters recur: not only Holmes and Watson,
but Inspector Lestrade, Mrs. Hudson, and many others. Places, facts, and events discussed in one
story are overtly or obliquely referenced in later stories. For example, in Doyle’s “The Adventure of the
Greek Interpreter,” we are told that Mycroft Holmes has an important job with
the British government. A later story,
“The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans” makes reference to this
previously established “fact.” (This is
not to say that any two works that share a world thereby share a cast of
characters. That Mycroft Holmes is part
of Doyle’s London does not imply that he is part of Hound of the Baskervilles.)
Similarly, Virginia Woolf’s character Mrs. Dalloway appears in both the
eponymous novel and The Voyage Out,
suggesting that at least these two works share a world. Common authorship and stylistic similarity
are not sufficient to establish that different works share a world.
are a common author and style necessary.
Two works of fiction might be quite different stylistically, even
created by different authors, and yet share a common world, as Michael Chabon’s
novel, The Final Solution,
demonstrates. The Final Solution includes Sherlock Holmes as a character (although
he is not named) and clearly is meant to take place after a number of events in
Holmes’ life that we know about from the original stories, but the book
introduces distinctly twentieth-century themes, and its mood is different from
that of Doyle’s own stories.
Nonetheless, the world of The
Final Solution is the same as the world of Hound of the Baskervilles.
Such works tend to be episodic. Like
Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories or the individual episodes of the Star Trek television program, the
separate works each tell individual, narratively complete stories that are
chronologically ordered in relation to one another. This order might sometimes be difficult to
make out and need not correspond to the order in which these works were
created. One interesting feature of an
episodic set of works of this kind is that it is made fictional that there are
gaps between the times covered by distinct works during which the characters
continue to act and interact. They
continue about their lives both before and after each work (unless, of course,
it is made fictional that they die).
These works usually, though not always, describe worlds that are relatively
distant from our own in important ways, such as scientifically,
technologically, geographically, culturally, or linguistically. The worlds described in such works are very
unlike ours and, as such, there is a great deal to tell the reader in a work
about this world about what is and is not the case, culturally,
technologically, and so on. Many of the
best known sets of works I discuss here belong to the genres of science fiction
three features are important because they help to nurture a certain type of
interest in audiences. The first feature
is particularly important in getting fans interested in works as a means of
accessing a world. The existence of
multiple narrative works telling different stories set in the same “place”
generates questions about that place.
The second and third features are perhaps less important, but the
episodic gaps and fantastical elements can both focus audience attention on
what is part of the world but not
part of the story. These three features,
however, are not meant to be necessary or sufficient. The idea is that the presence of these three
features imperfectly tracks the sets of fictional works that have attracted fan
interest. (As noted earlier, there are
exceptions; Ulysses has at most one
of those features, and yet has a deep fan base.) Fan interest and engagement are important
because, as we shall see, the collaborative activity of fans is part of what
makes the world worth caring about.
examples include the books, movies, and other fictional works that describe the
fantasy world called Middle-Earth, the first of which were authored by J.R.R.
Tolkien; the many books, films, and television series taking place in the futuristic
world of Star Trek, the first of
which were created by Gene Rodenberry; the Harry
Potter books by J.K. Rowling and films set in Hogwarts and related magical
lands; and the various stories, novels, and films by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
(and others) which are set in a rather dark and eccentric version of Victorian
London; the various books, games, and films describing Frank Herbert’s Dune; and the various works contributing
to Joss Whedon’s “Buffyverse.” There are
often arguments among fans about which works properly belong in the set. The
Star Trek novels are not generally considered to be proper members of the
“canonical” set, while the films are; the reverse is true with The Lord of the Rings.
talk of fans rather than audiences
because it is self-described fans who most often make the sorts of judgments
that seem so at odds with those of the critics.
“Fan” is an abbreviation for “fanatic,” and no doubt some fans improperly and obsessively spend their time imagining and discussing the worlds of
fictional works. It is no part of my aim
here to defend extreme fanatical devotion to fictional works or to discuss
other dangers (moral or psychological) associated with obsessive interests in
works of art.
I do want to defend one approach to evaluating art which is characteristic of
fan interest: fans often desire to experience certain artworks because they
wish to gain imaginative access to the work’s corresponding world. What is fan interest in these works
like? How does it differ from a critic’s
approach to such a work or from a more conventional approach to judging works
Valuing Fictional Works Instrumentally
value some works of fiction instrumentally.
Of course, some philosophers think that all who value artworks do so
instrumentally, because they think that all artworks are valued for the
pleasure that they produce. But even if this were so, fan interest would
be instrumental in a different way.
Where in other cases the object of the audience’s attention is on what
is made fictional by that particular artwork (or performance thereof), the
central object of fan interest is the larger fictional world in which the story
of the artwork is embedded. The fan’s
pleasure arises from attention to the fictional world, not just from attention
to what the particular fictional work
makes fictional in that world. To judge a fictional work as a fan is to attend first and foremost to
what the work makes fictional reveals about the fictional world, where the
fictional world is thought of as having an independent existence. Here are three pieces of evidence which
suggest that fan interest in the central cases often focuses primarily on the
works’ world, not on other, perhaps more literary, elements of the work.
Fans are willing to spend significant amounts of time and money to acquire
objects which are ancillary to the originating artworks, but which can serve as
props for exploring the larger fictional worlds. After the 1977 film Star Wars was released, many fans bought dolls and games
representing not only the main characters (e.g., Han Solo, Princess Leia), but
also, more surprisingly, characters who barely appeared in the film. Some of these characters (e.g., Hammerhead)
were not even given names in the film itself, and appeared for only moments in
the background. Nonetheless, the toys
representing them became popular. Those
who bought these toys to play with them did so not in order to reenact the
storyline told in the movie in which these characters barely featured, but in
order to imagine new stories that
take place in that world.
objects, such as swords, and even whole characters in the on-line fictional
world of Everquest, for example, can
be bought and sold, sometimes for thousands of dollars. The merchandising associated with books like Lord of the Rings or films like Star Wars is immensely profitable, but
money is not the only measure of worth.
Fans also create their own
costumes, swords, maps, and other props to expand their interaction with these
fictional worlds, spending a great deal of time and effort in the process.
These fictional worlds often contain puzzles for fans to solve. Of course, many fictional works contain puzzles also: mysteries
and crime fictions call for their audiences to find the killer, for
example. However, fans also puzzle over
different sorts of problems. For
example, fans disagree over how many wives Dr. Watson had over the course of
his life. References” by Dr. Watson `in different
stories sometimes appear inconsistent, since he was apparently made a widower
at least once, but appears to have been married both before meeting this wife,
and afterwards. The work (or set of
works), taken as a whole, is not merely silent on these details, but
confusing. Fans of the series offer
differing theories about how many wives Watson had and when he married
each. There are a number of distinct
solutions that are consistent with the evidence given in each story. The puzzle arises in part because the world
of Holmes seems to transcend the sixty individual stories and novels; fans want
to bring these various glimpses of the world into a consistent whole. Also, because of the episodic nature of the
stories, by imposing a chronology on the world with periodic gaps fills in some
details while omitting others.
existence of such puzzles in the fictional worlds, not just in the works,
creates a cognitive interest in the worlds themselves. Individual works of art are mostly
consistent, so the puzzles would not arise unless fans concerned themselves
with the worlds beyond those works.
While the presence of large numbers of direct contradictions tends to
decrease fan interest in such worlds, the presence of a few generates
opportunities for creative problem-solving, allowing fans to offer up new
fictional possibilities to reconcile apparently conflicting features of that
world. This, in turn, increases the complexity and
even the “realism” of these fictional worlds, since our own real-world
experiences of course contain many apparently contradictory and puzzling
features. Fictional worlds seem to be
valued most when they pose enough such problems to generate interest, while
creating in general a coherent and internally consistent world.
These fictional worlds afford opportunities for imaginative participation well
beyond the imaginative games proper to the works that generate them. It is a familiar idea that works of fiction
are valuable in part because they direct audiences to imagine the events and
characters described in them. But
certain fictional worlds also seem to invite audiences to imagine other stories
that are not described in those works but rather are suggested by features of
the world of the work. In some cases,
other artists may even create new works of art meant to take place in a
fictional world that is already established (as Michael Chabon did). More commonly, however, people use these
worlds as backdrops for more informal game-playing, writing, or creative
expression that might not qualify as art-making. The internet has volumes of “fan fiction”
that take place in the worlds of Star
Trek and Lord of the Rings. Role-playing games (such as Dungeons and Dragons) offer participants
the opportunity to populate fictional worlds with new characters, and to create
new fictional places, events, and objects that become part of that world. Fans paint pictures to accompany works of
literature or tell stories that fill in gaps between events portrayed
television episodes. Rich fictional worlds do more than afford
opportunities for these creative experiences; in some cases, the original
artists take steps to encourage such participation.
Chabon notes that both Sherlock Holmes stories and The Lord of the Rings share this quality:
of Tolkien often recall the strange narrative impulse engendered by those
marginal regions named and labeled on the books’ endpaper maps, yet never
visited or even referred to by the characters in The Lord of the Rings. All
enduring popular literature has this open-ended quality, and extends an
invitation to the reader to continue, on his or her own, with the
adventure. Through a combination of
trompe l’oeil allusions [sic] of
imaginative persistence of vision, it creates a sense of an infinite horizon of
play, an endless game board; it spawns, without trying, a thousand sequels,
diagrams, and web sites.
world rich with detail, scientific, religious, cultural, historical, or technological,
can never be so rich that it prevents audiences from expanding the world further. In creating Middle-Earth, Tolkien created
several new languages, a detailed mythology, history covering thousands of
years, and even a cosmogony. Minor
characters, as well as larger ones, were provided with a rich back-story and
genealogy. This richness of detail,
however, serves to generate more possibilities: each proposition made fictional suggests other
possibilities not yet settled. The
details provided create interest and the details inevitably missing encourage
creative contributions to the world. So
fictional worlds, especially those that are generated by a series of separate
episodic and fantastic fictional works, are well-suited to encourage active
creative expression on the part of the audience. It is for this reason that many of these fictional
worlds can be found described in a variety of different media: film, television, song, comic, novel,
role-playing game, video game, short story, musical, and more. The explosion of works about these worlds is
evidence of the worlds’ tendency to promote creative exploration.
4. It Can Be Reasonable to Value Fictional Works Instrumentally
the practices just described are
sometimes reasonable and not merely a waste of time, it must be because the
fictional worlds to which fictional works are just means are rightly and reasonably valued for their own sakes. What makes it reasonable to value fictional
worlds for their own sakes is that these worlds themselves have aesthetic
value. A fictional world can be rich, elegant,
cohesive, chaotic, mythic, or serene, and they can be rightly valued for these
worlds are strange candidates for bearers of aesthetic value. They are: (1) non-perceptible and (2) in the
typical case, at least, a kind of byproduct
of art making rather than its central aim.
Either of these facts may be taken as a reason for thinking that
fictional worlds cannot have aesthetic value.
Some philosophers have claimed that only perceptible objects can have aesthetic
value. Nick Zangwill, for example, claims
that beauty and related predicates can only apply to sensory objects. This leads him to deny that a mathematical
proof or any other abstract object can be beautiful. Indeed, literary content (as opposed to the
sensory character of the language) cannot be beautiful, according to Zangwill,
and so cannot have aesthetic value, though it can have other artistic values. The use of terms like “beauty” to describe
non-perceptual objects is metaphorical.
He argues for this claim by drawing a distinction. Abstract objects are only called “beautiful”
because they also serve some other predetermined purpose, whereas perceptual
objects are called beautiful without reference to any purpose.
could motivate us to go one way or another over the question of whether our
application of aesthetic terms to abstract objects, like proofs, theories, or
chess moves, is metaphorical? One
argument for saying that they are applied metaphorically is that in all these
cases, the abstract entity has a purpose.
The point of a mathematical or logical proof is to demonstrate a truth
on the basis of other truths. The point
of a scientific theory is to explain the data.
And the point of a chess move is to win.
Our admiration of a good proof, theory, or chess move turns solely on
its effectiveness in attaining these ends, or else in having properties which
make attaining these ends likely.
are two replies to Zangwill’s argument.
First, it is far from clear that fictional worlds, considered as
abstract objects, have fixed ends, as scientific theories and logical proofs
do. Perhaps Zangwill would reply that
the end of say, Middle-Earth, is to enrich the experience of readingThe Lord of the Rings. But if so, that is an aesthetic purpose, not
an epistemic or technological one. And
thus it is not so different from the sort of purpose that any aspect of an
artwork may be said to have. Aristotle
tells us that, in tragedy, the purpose of song and spectacle is to serve the
plot, but one would not want to conclude that neither song nor spectacle can be
suppose that the use of aesthetic terms is metaphorical in the case of abstract
objects. So what? The point is simply that it is reasonable for
fans to value fictional worlds aesthetically, and to value fictional works
insofar as they promote access to these fictional worlds. If the application of aesthetic terms and
evaluations to fictional worlds is metaphorical, as Zangwill maintains, that
need not mean that it is inappropriate or unreasonable. Fictional worlds, like
mathematical proofs, are rightly called beautiful when it makes good sense to
value them in something like the way in which one values an artwork or natural
scene: with contemplative enjoyment and delight.
The second worry is that these abstract objects, fictional worlds, are not
proper objects of admiration because they were not intentionally created. Now in some cases this objection does not
apply. In J.R.R. Tolkien’s essay “On
Fairy-stories,” he describes a process of creating fictional worlds that he
(Tolkein is alluding to the act of creation described in Genesis). Sub-creation is
the intentional creation of an
abstract object, a fictional world, through designing various props (maps,
genealogical charts, etc.) that are not themselves artworks. Tolkien quite deliberately set out to design
features of his imaginary world that he never intended to appear in any work of
in many (perhaps most) cases, the idea of creating a fictional world beyond
what is needed for the story may never cross the creator’s mind. This seems to have been the case with Doyle’s
London. In such cases, it may seem very
odd to value a fictional world in the way one values an artwork. That is not to say that an object that has
not been intentionally created cannot be valued aesthetically: natural objects are reasonably called
beautiful if anything is. But a
fictional world is a kind of non-perceptual byproduct of an otherwise
is of course strange to value a byproduct of the art-making process but it is
not thereby unreasonable. A fictional
world is in some sense a facsimile of the actual world. And our world gives rise to all kinds of
intrinsic interests: anthropological,
linguistic, biological, cultural, moral, and scientific. These interests are not always instrumental. Often we just want to understand our world
better and we delight in learning about it.
What is perhaps surprising is that we can also delight in “learning”
about fictional worlds. While there is
no epistemic value in learning about
fictional worlds (unless the exercise of cognitive faculties is itself
indirectly epistemically valuable), there is good reason to think that the
enjoyment we find in exploring worlds should not depend on their epistemic
value. Aristotle wrote:
(ii) everyone delights in representations .… The cause of this is that learning
is most pleasant, not only for philosophers, but for others likewise (but they
share in it to a small extent). For this
reason they delight in seeing images, because it comes about that they learn as
they observe, and infer what each thing is. …
pleasure that Aristotle points to here lies in recognition, and there is no
reason that such recognition cannot happen in fictional worlds. On reading Tolkein’s Silmarillion, one recognizes features of Middle-Earth that are
alluded to only briefly in songs from The
Lord of the Rings.
is, however, a further objection to attributing aesthetic value to fictional
worlds, at least value not possessed by the fictional works corresponding to
those worlds. One may claim that the
notion of a fictional world that is needed is simply not available. To see this, we need to return to Kendall
Walton’s account of fictional worlds. If
we understand “work” and “world” in the way Walton does, as sets of
prescriptions to imagine, then whence do these prescriptions arise? Walton considers two possibilities. He distinguishes between what he calls “game
worlds” and “work worlds.” Game worlds
are “worlds of games that appreciators play with representational works.” There are infinitely many game worlds for
each work, as each appreciator can generate her own imaginative rules, and each
can incorporate first person imaginings as well (e.g., “I am looking at the
Gates of Mordor”). These worlds will
vary greatly from one appreciator to the next, and the prescriptions are an
aggregate of those generated by the work, as well as the prescriptions that the
appreciator herself deliberately or implicitly adopts. A work world, by contrast, is the world
generated by any person who follows
all and only the prescriptions made by the work. Walton notes that the work worlds will be the
same for everyone who treats the work as a prop and imagines accordingly; game
worlds will vary from person to person.
These, Walton claims, are the only two choices. He argues,
work worlds are not distinct from game worlds in which the works are props, how
are we to decide which of the worlds of the various games that different
appreciators … play with La Grande Jatte
is to be identified with the world of La
Grande Jatte? If this cannot be decided nonarbitrarily,
we are forced to regard the world of the painting as a world over and above
those of appreciator’s games.
world “over and above” those of the games people play would be a new entity for
which we’d need an ontological account.
Walton’s theory aims to make such ontologies unnecessary. In short, Walton argues that there are only two reasonable ways to delineate the
presumptions that constitute fictional worlds. Walton’s solution is to say that the work
world is related to the game world by being associated with all and only what is made fictional in
all of the game worlds of that work. The
dilemma for fans who would value these works as means to an independently
valued fictional world is whether that fictional world is a game world, which would
be different for each person, or a work world, in which case it is not
independent of the works that generate it?
Neither of these options yields a single world that could reasonably be
seen as distinct from the originating work.
worlds we have been talking about here are all worlds that are products of more
than one work of art. But we cannot
simply modify Walton’s account by saying that the work world comprises all the
worlds of all of the relevant
works. Such a modification would present
two problems. First, it is difficult to
see how one could say which works are the relevant works without making reference
to the worlds that those works describe, and thus without being circular. Second, as we have already seen, the works
that generate these worlds often contain conflicting prescriptions. The
Lord of the Rings makes it fictional that Glorfindel is an elf of Elrond’s
house; The Simarillion seems to describe Glorfindel as a quite different
person. One cannot talk of the fictional
world of these books by simply aggregating the particular works’ prescriptions
about this world.
way out of Walton’s dilemma is to specify which rules govern what is to be
imagined, where the rules are not merely an aggregate of those that govern each
work world, and are at the same time more than the idiosyncratic game worlds of
an individual fan. And there is such a
way. Persistent communities of fans,
sometimes in collaboration with artists, can create a relatively stable
consensus about the prescriptions to follow in imagining a fictional world. Communities of fans who share an interest in
a set of fictional works come to agree among themselves on a set of standards
about what is to be imagined with regard to the fictional world. As when children collaborate to create a new
make-believe game, the agreement on what is to be imagined evolves over time,
and is both explicit and implicit. Call
the worlds generated by such methods “fan worlds;” like game worlds, they
extend beyond the prescriptions made in the work itself but they belong and
apply to communities of appreciators rather than to lone individuals.
tend to defer to the original authors of the fictional works with regard to the
prescriptions that define the fan worlds, but the views of the authors are not
absolute, and fans may agree to set aside an author’s prescriptions in favor of
a set of prescriptions that they think is more consistent or more exciting,
given everything else that is to be imagined about the fan world. Typically, a kind of reflective equilibrium
takes hold between the world of the individual works and the fan world of the
fictional work. While some works,
typically those written by the author or group of authors who originated the
set of works, are regarded as “canon” and are not revisable, other,
non-canonical works are revisable in light of other things we take to be true
about the world. Even elements of
canonical works might be seen as
revisable if they are contradicted by other prescriptions in other canonical
works. This distinction between “canon”
and “non-canon,” while difficult to defend in principle, is common in practice.
of course, fans can and do split into smaller communities over such questions,
with each community of fans adopting a slightly different set of
prescriptions. The fact that it will
often be difficult to specify exactly what constitutes a fan community, or
precisely which imaginative prescriptions hold in a particular fan world,
however, does not undermine the view.
Work-worlds face similar difficulties, and philosophers and critics
continue to argue about how works are to be interpreted and what exactly is to
be imagined. The central point is just
that communities of fans can collaboratively imagine fictional fan worlds that
are neither game-worlds nor work-worlds but something in between, sustained by
mutual discussion and imaginative collaboration.
central cases are central for just this reason:
they are the sorts of works that are most apt to attract fan interest of
this kind. And it is communities of
fans, working and playing together, who create and sustain the fan worlds,
giving them a status and interest greater than, or at least distinct from, the
originating works. In principle, the
world of any work can be valued in
this way; in practice, few are.
worlds sometimes have a prevailing tone
which dictates the way in which causal or historical events must occur in that
world. In the world of Star Trek, every event that seems
magical or divine must be given a technological explanation (even if that
explanation is itself mystifying). A
novel taking place in the world of Star
Trek in which a character used magic to rescue her ship from danger would
violate the implicit rules and tone of that world, even if it did not expressly
contradict any of the specific prescriptions made by any of the original
fictional works. These fictional worlds,
and others like them, have ways in which things are done. Works or games that contradict these “ways”
are appropriately criticized. This
suggests that fictional worlds sometimes have the kinds of attributes necessary
for aesthetic evaluation: Gibson’s cyberpunk world may be valued for its
bleakness, Herbert’s Dune for its
mythic character, the world of Star Trek
for its optimism. Other worlds, such as
the world of Superman, are
appropriately criticized for their glaring inconsistencies and their lack of
any consistent mood or tone. In Superman’s world, things can happen in
just about any way you like.
one may object that while fictional worlds can and should be valued
aesthetically, the aesthetic value of these worlds is merely a reflection of
the value of the work(s) with which they are associated. Superman’s
world is inconsistent because the comic books from which it originated are
inconsistent; if the world of Dune is
mythic, that is because the Dune
novels are so. If the aesthetic
character of fictional worlds merely reflects the aesthetic character of the
originating works, then how could Tolkien’s set of rather mediocre novels give
rise to one of the most admired fictional worlds?
aesthetic qualities of worlds are indeed dependent on the aesthetic qualities
of the originating works, but this dependence is not perfect: sometimes the
aesthetic qualities of worlds will differ from those of the originating
works. This is possible for a number of
reasons. First, even if the work and
world have the same qualities, those qualities can be aesthetically approbatory
in the world and disapprobatory in the work, or vice versa. For example, The Lord of the Rings includes excerpts
from, and references to, epic songs and legends detailing ancient history that
is not directly pertinent to the story.
The work has a superfluity of historical and cultural detail. From the point of view of the story, this may
rightly be considered a demerit. The
story becomes stilted and confusing, because these details add nothing to one’s
understanding of the characters or themes in the story. However, this same superfluity of historical
detail is one of the best qualities of the fictional world. The richness and complexity burden a story
but liberate a world, creating more possibilities for imaginative exploration.
many of the qualities of works are not thereby qualities of worlds. A story told in verse will have many poetic
qualities, but none of these will be qualities of the counterpart world. Third, when we are dealing, as in the central
cases, with a number of different works, often in different media, all of which
describe the same worlds, it is plausible that these works will have a great
variety of aesthetic qualities. In some
cases, there is a canonical work or works whose qualities are most
important. But in many cases this is not
clear. The aesthetic qualities of the
world will therefore be shared with some but not all of the associated works.
as we have already seen, fan worlds are created not just by works but by
communities of fans, and their implicit agreements about what is to be
imagined. Fans may go beyond the
original works to posit fictional truths, which in turn give rise to aesthetic
qualities not prescribed by the original works.
The works, however, still play a role here. Some works of fiction, particularly those in
the central cases, have what Chabon called an “open-ended quality,” so that the
features of the world are importantly underdetermined by the work. It is true that this “open-endedness” can be
done well or badly, and that whether it is done well or badly is relevant to
the literary value of the work. But even
poorly handled open-endedness can have a positive effect on the value of the
world. As discussed earlier, many of the
most interesting puzzles and features of Doyle’s London seem to be the result
of errors on Doyle’s part, which may rightly be seen as flaws in the original
these reasons, the value of fictional worlds cannot always be simply reduced to
the value of the originating works. Some
works, like The Lord of the Rings,
fail as literature but succeed as worlds because the literary flaws either do
not affect the world’s value, or even affect it positively because the work’s
open-endedness vastly increases the possibilities for value in the imagined
some fictional worlds are appropriately distinguished from the work-worlds of
the individual works that give rise to them, it is not surprising that we
should find that these fan worlds attract more attention and interest than
others do. In these cases, the fictional
works sometimes play a merely instrumental role. They are valued because they provide access
to an imagined world which has rich cognitive, creative, and aesthetic value,
and not because the fictional work has great value in its own right. This is not to say that every world that fans
like is thereby valuable: a world is valuable if fans rightly or reasonably
value it. Some worlds might be very
popular but not worthy of that popularity.
Sometimes, however, fans are drawn to certain works because of the real
value of the world that these works describe.
While critics may focus on the flaws of the works qua artworks, many fans look instead to the enormous richness of
the world that lies beyond the particular work.
Harold is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Weissman Center
for Leadership and the Liberal Arts at Mount Holyoke College.
Published March 10, 2010
 See Edmund Wilson, "Oo, Those
Awful Orcs," The Nation (April
14, 1956); or, more recently, Richard Jenkyns, “Bored of the Rings,” The New Republic (January 17, 2002).
 See O’Hehir, Andrew, “The Book of the
Century,” Salon.com (June 4, 2001).
 For arguments in this vein, see the
first two chapters of Noël
Carroll’s A Philosophy of Mass Art
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).
 As will become clear shortly, I borrow
this notion from Kendall Walton. See his
Mimesis as Make-Believe: On the Foundations
of the Representational Arts (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1990).
 Wolterstorff, Nicholas, Works and Worlds of Art (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1980), esp. pp. 126-131.
The view is more complex than indicated, since Wolterstorff
distinguishes between two strands of what is projected. One of these strands includes those
propositions that would have been believed to follow from those indicated by
the author and the other includes those that do in fact follow from what the
author directly indicates.
 I am grateful to an anonymous referee
for suggesting this point.
 I am grateful to Peter Lamarque for
raising this question.
 I am grateful to an anonymous referee
for making this point.
 Stecker, Robert, “Artistic Value,” Chapter
12 of his Artworks: Definition, Meaning,
Value (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997),
 That is, the fan pays attention not
just to what is made fictional by the particular work in front of her. She may, for example, also attend to facts
made fictional by other works in the same set of fictional works.
 It is perhaps important that many of
the most interesting of such puzzles seem not to have been intended by the
authors of the relevant works. It is the
nature of episodic creation that it is easy for the author to lose track of
details of the fictional world she has created.
It is in fact difficult to think of a fictional world that does not
contain some such puzzles, and in many cases these works contain
straightforward contradictions. (Watson
was apparently shot by a single bullet in both the leg and the shoulder.)
 For an exploration of the psychology of engagement with fictional
worlds, see Skolnick, Deena, and Paul Bloom, “The Intuitive Cosmology of
Fictional Worlds,” in The Architecture of
the Imagination: New Essays on Pretence, Possibility, and Fiction (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 2006), pp. 73-86.
 For example, see Michael Chabon’s
discussion in “Fan Fictions: On Sherlock Holmes,” in his Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing along the Borderlands (New
York: Harper Perennial, 2008), pp. 23-46.
 Peter Ludlow offered a series of
fascinating examples with careful analysis in his “Truth in Fanfic,” presented
at the National Meeting of the American Society for Aesthetics in Los Angeles,
CA, November 7, 2007.
 Chabon (2008), p. 44.
 This sort of talk might seem to bring
with it a commitment to realism about value.
To say that something “has aesthetic value,” however, is not the same as
to say that the object has the mind-independent property of being aesthetically
valuable. Expressivist or projectivist
accounts are consistent with such talk, so I make no presumption of value
 Nick Zangwill, The Metaphysics of Beauty (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press,
2001). For a critique of Zangwill, see
Berys Gaut, Art, Emotion, and Ethics
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), pp. 124-27.
 Zangwill (2001), p. 141.
 J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-stories,” in
Tolkien on Fairy-stories (London:
Harper-Collins Publishers, 2008), ed. Verlyn Flieger and Douglas A. Anderson,
pp. 27-84. See esp. pp. 59-60.
 Aristotle, Poetics: with the Tractatus Coislinainus, a Hypothetical Reconstruction
of Poetics II, The Fragments of the On Poets, trans. Richard Janko
(Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1987), p.4.
Walton (1990), p. 58.
 Walton has a second argument that I
will not discuss here. He also argues
that a game world must admit first-person statements about the audience’s observation
of the world, and such statements cannot be admitted into a description of what
the work itself makes fictional. I agree
with his point, but I believe that the account I defend here can accommodate
this point as well as his does.
 This line of argument was suggested by
an anonymous referee.
 Similarly, qualities that may make a
fictional work better as literature may make it worse as philosophy or vice versa. Eryximachus’ speech in Plato’s Symposium adds nothing to the
philosophical value of the dialogue, but it is very funny and adds dramatic
structure when the dialogue is read as literature.
 Two anonymous readers for this journal
provided very helpful and detailed comments, which improved the paper in many
ways. An earlier version of this paper
was presented at the annual meeting of the American Society for Aesthetics in
2007, and I am grateful to my commentator, Peter Lamarque, for his thoughtful
comments, and to all the participants in that session. I particularly want to thank Rachel Zuckert
for her suggestions and encouragement.