Craft: Why is Fiction Important?

When I was younger, I thought the only books worth reading at all were fiction books. After all, who wants to waste their time not being swept up in another world? What’s the point of reading if you can’t suspend disbelief and experience a different reality? I assumed all nonfiction books were either dusty trade manuals about cars or something, or textbooks.

Of course, that’s not how things are. I’ve since found immense joy in reading nonfiction, everything from spirituality, to practical self-help books, to historical accounts, to creative nonfiction and memoir. I’ve also experienced, in talking to other readers, the flip side of my own ill-informed young opinion: the idea that fiction isn’t as useful, important, or good as nonfiction, especially if this fiction belongs to a certain genre.

Let’s look at some reasons this idea is also not how things are.

Reason #1: Fiction is Rarely Fake.

One of the main arguments dislikers of fiction have is that fiction is inherently, well, fictional. And fictional = fake, right? Maybe, but not necessarily. One of the benefits of fiction is that it actually can serve to amplify the most uncomfortable, most unspeakable truths. Writers are always repurposing things from their own lives, cutting them up and sewing them together into a vast fictional quilt. Scraps of conversation, remembered or re-imagined situations, people too interesting for the world to forget.

I often realize that my fictional stories are more real than any memoir I could write: in fiction, I clean out my mental stores of random wonderings, family history, raw emotion, experiences I or people I know have had. I draw connections, find patterns, and plot out these patterns in a pretend story with pretend people, and the core truth of what they are shines even more brightly. Writers often craft fiction by isolating a feeling, usually one they’ve experienced, and then creating a scenario around that feeling. The scenario might be fake, but the experience is the same.

Reason #2: Fiction is About Humanity

All fiction, no matter the genre, explores what it means to be human. Assuming we’re all humans here, this should be of interest to us. Granted, some genres, books, and authors are able to explore humanity more carefully, intelligently, or helpfully than others (the jury’s still out on Fifty Shades of Grey), but all fiction has a common thread: us, and what it’s like to be us.

Fictional characters—who again, are rarely fake people, but sketches or amalgamations of real ones—have the freedom to explore and say things that real people are always wondering, but never saying. Fiction allows us to explore, vicariously, the deepest pain, the greatest joy, and the biggest questions. By entertaining the conscious mind, the subconscious can do its work. As the fiction (and nonfiction) writer Madeleine L’Engle put it, “Truth is demanding. It won’t let us sit comfortably. It knocks us out our cozy smugness and casual condemnation. It makes us move.”* Stories do that to us: present us with a version of reality we didn’t have before, with an underlying truth that demands to be reckoned with.

Genre books, like fantasy, sci-fi, dystopia, and others, are especially adept at this. No dystopia, for example, is about the future. Dystopia is always about the present: who are people now? What are they like now? What could happen if these problems aren’t dealt with now? Genre allows us to explore these questions by removing us to a new world, where we are just unfamiliar and vulnerable enough to be open to it.

Reason #3: Fiction is Nothing New

For as long as there have been people, people have been making fiction. From ancient songs to allegorical myth to the legends that run through our veins, we have always created stories to make sense of reality. Fiction, like folk art and paintings and music and song, is in our DNA. We tell stories about our people, about our countries, our religions, our families. We tell stories about ourselves. Sometimes these stories are true; sometimes they’re not. Sometimes it takes a lot of work to unpack the untrue fictions we’ve told ourselves, and it’s easier to do that if we are aware that we tell fictions all the time.

Fiction invites us to play: to take a moment from our everyday brains and imagine something new. It tells us about the world, whether directly in realistic fiction, or indirectly in speculative fiction. All of these viewpoints are important, because life is important. Humanity is important. Truth is important.

What are your thoughts on fiction? Is it your favorite, or not so much? Why or why not?

*L’Engle, Madeleine. The Rock That Is Higher: Story as Truth. New York: Penguin Random House, 2018. 81.

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