Although we eventually learn to distinguish between the world of make-believe and the real world, I suspect that many of us continue to experience fictional characters and events as being, in some way, real. This is because the imaginative act of following a story involves a suspension of disbelief, as we enter into the world it creates. When Anthony Minghella showed me a moving scene that he had just filmed for the pilot of "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency," I found myself weeping copiously, right there on the set. I felt rather embarrassed -- it was only a story, after all -- but he put a hand on my shoulder and said that was exactly what he had done over that particular scene.The wide-ranging piece cites U.K. crime-fiction maven P.D. James, thriller-scribe Patricia Highsmith, Edgar Allen Poe and Der Struwwelpeter, a macabre collection of children's stories. Though McCall Smith nuances most of his argument, he gives an awful lot of cultural credit to J.K. Rowling's revelation that a character in Harry Potter was homosexual, a revelation that -- in one person's humble opinion -- seemed more extra-textual publicity stunt than integrated theme. Read the whole thing.
For the author, this sense that the reader has of the reality of the story has serious implications for how characters are treated in novels. It is one of the jobs of fiction to report on the sorrows and tragedies of this world. This must be done, though, from a morally acceptable standpoint. A writer who told a story of, say, rape or genocide but did so from a neutral or, worse still, complicit position would be given very short shrift indeed. Readers and critics would be on to him in no time at all; indeed a book like that would be unlikely to be published at all. Why? If it is only a story, where is the harm?
Stories have an effect in this world. They are part of our moral conversation as a society. They weigh in; they change the world because they become part of our cultural history.
(Picture: CC 2007 by Mimi_K)