Friday, January 14, 2011

Fiction: An Apologetic

Last weekend, my wife and I invited a friend over to share a meal, an intelligent woman who works in the financial services area and is something of a bibliophile. We got to talking about our favorite reads and recommending various titles. At one point she said, "I'm glad you both have told me about so many good novels. I'm really busy, and I default to history and biographies, because, well, you know, I waste less time that way."

Admittedly, plenty of bad novels exist, books upon which I wouldn't spend more than the minute necessary to peruse their dust jackets. But over the years I've discovered that many folks feel fiction resides on a lower plane than other types of literature, with only a few noteworthy examples worth the attention of anyone sensible. At least our friend was willing to give our suggestions a go. Others, I discovered, smile and mentally debit me a position or two in their internal standing when they learn of my novel-loving ways.

Are they right? Do we squander our hours and days when we read fiction in general and genre fiction in particular? I think not, and following are some reasons that I brainstormed:
• Life is narrative-shaped; why not explore that structure in every written form?

• Both factual and imaginary stories have been used as teaching tools throughout history.

• Imagination isn't unconnected to intelligent inquiry; in fact, the latter is often inextricably linked to the former.

• Fictional narratives almost always contain ruminations on and conclusions about universal human experience, albeit often subtly and implicitly.

• Beauty can serve as a gentle snare, the delights of a story cinching its themes around readers so softly that they often fail to realize it.

• Stories have swayed the course of empires and nations, from Virgil's Aeneid to Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. (Consider how Lincoln famously said to Stowe, "So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war!")

• None of us live entirely pragmatic lives, seeking food only for its nutrition, homes solely for their weather-worthiness, spouses merely for provision and reproduction. As Pascal wrote, "All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end." Fiction is as valid an outlet for enjoyment as any other.
There, dear readers, are some of the bare bones of my apologetic. What are yours? Why do you read about people who never were and places that never existed?

(Picture: CC 2010 by


B. Nagel said...

Your words. All they do is win.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

Also, we recognize in reality what we have first seen in our imaginations. Stowe let people see (rather than hear about and fail to recognize on a human level) the evils of slavery. Tolkien let us see the beauties of nature, especially twilight forests.

Relatedly, fiction can allow us to think philosophically about what could--or should--be. Tolkien insisted on the fictionality of The Lord of the Rings when he said that in an allegory of World War II, Hobbits would not survive even as slaves. His point isn't that his narrative is escapist, but that it's political arguments go beyond the battle-lines of his age's politics and cast a vision for a future that (in theory) one can aspire towards. Without such imagination, how could one object to one's age's mentality? We might all be tempted to think that we live in the Best of All Possible Worlds unless, like Candide (the beautiful creation of the horrible Voltaire), we set out to apply the rules of romance to real life.

Finally, Oscar Wilde says something that I disagree with somewhat but must repeat. Reality, he says, is a meaningless confluence of events. Lies, he says, provide a beautiful sense of order and delight. So what rational man would ever prefer the former over the latter?

Loren Eaton said...


As usual, thou art too kind, sir.

Loren Eaton said...


Ah, the show and don't tell rationale! That's a good one. Actually, one persuation theory shows that people who are only given part of an answer (or are shown part of it) and then figure out the rest for themselves are more likely to not change their minds later on. I'm adding that one to my roster of reasons.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

I love cognitive scientists, and I love fiction's ability to reinforce memory, but I think there's something more than "show but don't tell." The phrase implies that something can be told, albeit less vividly and effective.

Poets claim, often, that they see things that can't be told, at all, more clearly than in the words they use. They might say (for instance) that there is a difference between saying that a woman's a whore, and describing what it means to make one's money through one's body as a last desperate means of survival after years of poor decisions and unthinking romance. The latter doesn't just remind you of the bare facts more memorably (though it does that)--it creates a new experience that allows you to, when you encounter certain actual people in news reports and legislation, see aspects of the world you never would have seen before.

Such defenses of literature say that we're always making up these stories, all the time, in order to shine light into dark places (or cover them over), but that those who write fiction can do it more self-consciously and vividly, and without betraying confidence, because they talk about fictional characters. It is the fiction-makers, then, that give us the words to talk (and think) about situations, which we later recognize more "rationally."