Is a novel a model?

Here is my paper on novels and models, forthcoming in a University of Michigan Press book.  Here is the abstract:

I defend the relevance of fiction for social science investigation. Novels can be useful for making some economic approaches — such as behavioral economics or signaling theory — more plausible. Novels are more like models than is commonly believed. Some novels present verbal models of reality. I interpret other novels as a kind of simulation, akin to how simulations are used in economics. Economics can, and has, profited from the insights contained in novels. Nonetheless, while novels and models lie along a common spectrum, they differ in many particulars. I attempt a partial account of why we sometimes look to models for understanding, and other times look to novels.

Comments of course are welcome, either by email or on the blog.  The paper was stimulated by a) Liberty Fund conferences, and b) David Levy’s query as to how a painting differed from a model.  None of us had thought to ask about cartoons…


Sooner or later someone's going to mention Atlas Shrugged, so it might as well be me. ;-)

Being a professor of literature as well as a dilletantish economic historian, I thought it would be interesting to read through your article. I am not the least bit _offended_ by your treatment of novels--indeed I decided to read the piece beacuse I found the novel-model analogy intriguing. But I was surprised by the complete absence of any engagement with--or indeed understanding of--the principles of literary criticism (I am not talking of Theory here, but more broadly of the tools, methods, and techniques that literary studies has developed over the past century). You may be right that no one has thought to treat the specific relation between novels and economic models, but many many people have discussed the simulation-status of literature, the relation between fiction and reality, whether novels are an expression of historical conditions or an historical intervention, whether the events in a novel are orchestrated to imitate reality or to compensate for it.

While your inquiry is interesting, at this stage it seems more like a proposal than a publishable article--as if the research were yet to be completed. To put it differently, the effect is very much as if I (as a professor of literature) chose to write a piece on the relation between novels and economic models without even attempting to account for how economists conceive of those models.

Not directly on point, but possibly of interest to you -- a comment by a novelist you like on economists and novelists:

"Economists occassionally tell better stories than novelists. *The Other Path* by Hernando de Soto is a perfect case in point. His story, based entirely on Peruvian reality, reveals an aspect of life in the Third World that is traditionally obscured by ideological prejudice.

Unlike good literature, which teaches us indirectly, *The Other Path* preaches an explicit lesson about contemporary and future Third World reality."

-Mario Vargas Llosa, Foreward to de Soto's *The Other Path.*

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