What is fiction for?

Why on earth do we read fiction?

One of my husband’s favorite “writer” stories concerns a writer with a very Southern mother whom he called up to tell her that his novel was being published. After a pause, the mother asked, a little desperately, “But do they KNOW it’s a LIE?” When he said yes, his mother sighed, “I will NEVER understand that.”

That’s what writers labor under – coming up with stories that you and I and those who pay us money to publish us and to read us KNOW are absolute filthy lies, made up to a word, sometimes literally impossible or unimaginable given the known rules of physics and biology in the world as we know it – genre is particularly guilty of this, because we lie egregiously about the possibility of interstellar travel in times that make it possible to set a story in such a Universe (as opposed to a thousand years to get from one star to the next) or the existence of vampires, werewolves, angels or fairies at the bottom of your garden.

And you, the reader, know that we are making it up as we go along. And you are willing to follow us on that journey. Few readers who read a fairy tale about brownies in the home will then go on to start leaving milk and cookies on the hearth from then on or wander off to the bottom of that garden with a flashlight and a magnifying glass to look for those fairies. Instead, you close the book with a happy sigh, and you go on with your own mundane everyday existence, secure in the knowledge that no brownie will wash the dinner dishes.

And then you come back, and you pick up another book. Of fiction. Of lies.

Yes, we all read non-fiction too – news, a travel guide, a history book, instruction manuals, textbooks for school, and political manifestos. But when it comes to many of these things we are already armored with a set of opinions and attitudes, and reading items which challenge those opinions and attitudes are generally greeted with skepticism if not outright hostility – because how DARE those other people try to shove their silly, ludicrous, ridiculous, astonishing, and dammit downright dangerous ideas down our throats?!

But here’s the thing. People WILL read about those “other” ideas in fiction – sugarcoated as they are in the “lie”. Kids who are being bullied or otherwise mistreated because they are different in whatever way from their tormentors – because they are gay, or black, or Jewish, or [insert quality of choice here] – might take heart from a novel which tells of a teen who is being bullied because he is a blue-skinned singleton on a planet full of orange-skinned people and looks DIFFERENT – and somehow overcomes this in the story.

Yes, we all know it’s all a lie – but I believe it was Tolkien who once described fiction as a lie breathed through silver. But fiction is an incredibly important medium for getting the truth out there – even when you pretend that it only happens to other people, or to people who cannot exist or will never be real. A generation of readers breathlessly followed the growing up and the growing wise of a young wizard named Harry Potter without EVER doing a single magic spell themselves. A girl called Scout learned about discrimination and courage in a NOVEL and a different generation of readers learned about those things with her. The list goes on.

The best books, the ones that we instinctively keep, the ones we go back to again and again – they succeed as entertainment, yes, and they can be as riveting as anything – but they leave you knowing more and feeling more deeply than you had been capable of before you read that book. They leave you empowered. They might have lied to you about the context and the circumstances – but the truth that lies within those false parameters is nonetheless the real truth and some part of you knows this, recognizes it, values it. People say about certain books, “This book changed my life”. Sometimes, they even mean it.

And that’s the power of fiction.

THAT is what it’s all for.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

*