Why Fiction Matters

BLOG The Purpose of Fiction


One of the events at last weekend’s extraordinary Toronto arts festival, Luminato, was a panel discussion put on by Atlantic magazine on the subject of Why Fiction Matters. My friend Miranda and I checked it out, but came away disappointed: The moderator talked too much, some of the panelists were unprepared (a surprise, given that the title was a dead give-away for what the questions would be), and most of the responses, at least in my opinion, showed why the panelists made their living writing and not speaking (though I was sufficiently inspired to pick up a copy of panelist Anne Michaels’ best-seller Fugitive Pieces).

So, over afternoon drinks at one of Yorkville’s trendiest bars, we decided to come up with our own answers to the three key questions that the panel had attempted to address:

Why does fiction matter?

Miranda said she thought that stories are a form of communication between the writer and reader, an implicit conversation. It’s important, she said, because these stories tell us about the reality in which we are living. We can learn more about the real world from fiction than we can from non-fiction, perhaps more than from direct observation.

My answer? Fiction enables us to imagine possibilities. The power of such imagination and realization is transformative. As I’ve said before, if we can’t imagine (what is really going on, that we can’t see directly), we can do anything (including tolerate factory farms, the abuse of spouses and children, atrocities in prisons and foreign wars, etc.) Once we can imagine, through powerful writing, what is really happening, we cannot sit by and let it happen. We are propelled to change our thinking and then our behaviour. And we can also become aware of things we might love, things we might be good at, things that are needed that we care about, and hence discover what we are meant to do in our lives, that, without such stories, we might never have realized.

What makes a good story?

For Miranda, a good story is one that captures a fundamental truth about human experience. In the process, she said, a good story must engage us, with an appropriate rhythm and pace that draws us in, and it must be compelling and transporting — it must begin with something familiar enough that we can relate to it, but then it must take us off in an unfamiliar direction. In the process, she concluded, it can prepare us if and when we face a similar situation ourselves.

To me, a good story is one that draws our attention to something important we hadn’t noticed. Much as the job of the media, according to Bill Maher, is to make what’s important interesting, the job of the story-teller is to draw our attention to things we wouldn’t normally consider or look at — sometimes even things we shudder to think about.

What is the wellspring of your creative writing?

Miranda declined to answer this because, she said, she is not a writer of fiction. My answer, which is close to the one Tim O’Brien proffered, and which resonated with Miranda, is imagined myths about things we care about. That’s a complex answer, so let me break it down. We all write about myths, because the story, even the one in our heads that is not yet transcribed to language, is a fiction, it is not real. It is our limited view of what happened, why it happened, what it meant, filtered by our own subjective worldview. It is a myth if it is believable (whether or not it is true). A myth is the currency of story, it is what we can accept and understand at a deep level, even though our experience as the reader is different from that of the writer. Without that currency, that tapped capacity for common understanding, there can be no communication.

So every story begins with a myth — a powerful, shared, uncritically received and accepted belief. In fiction these myths are imagined. That means they might be based on some ‘true’ story or event, but they are fictional — they are invented, ‘brought into being’ through the writer’s mind. And as the word ‘imagine’ comes from the word ‘image’, this also means that they are pictured, portrayed, made vivid.

And the third element is that it must be about something we (writer and reader) care about. One of Frederick Barthelme’s brilliant 39 steps to great fiction is “We can’t care about sand mutants. If you do, or think you do, kill yourself.” Stories are about emotion, about pain and love and passion and the whole damn thing.

So the wellspring, the source, I think, of creative writing is the convergence of these three things: a believable, compelling myth; a vivid, ‘image-ined’ portrayal that ‘re-presents’ that myth; and the evident, driving passion in every word that tells the readers that the author cares, and therefore so should they.

Example: from Barthelme’s Elroy Nights:

As I drove across the bridge, I thought how we’d started as young people insisting on living the way we wanted, and how we’d gradually retreated from that, from doing what we wanted. Things change. What you want becomes something you can’t imagine having wanted, and instead you have this, suddenly and startlingly not at all what you sought. One day you find yourself walking around in Ralph Lauren shorts and Cole Haan loafers and no socks. You think, How did this happen? It isn’t a terrible spot, and you don’t feel bad about being there, being the person you are in the place you are, with the wife or husband you have, the step-daughter, the friends and acquaintances, the house and tools and toys, the job, but there is no turning back. You have a Daytimer full of things to do. You have a Palm PDA and names and addresses and contacts, and there is no way back. Even if there were a way back, you couldn’t get there from here, and you probably wouldn’t go if you could. The effort required isn’t the kind of effort you can make anymore.

This is a powerful re-presentation of the myth of those of us who grew up in the 1960s, idealistic, passionate, intense, and somehow became what we are now. I have gone for walks and drives at 3am and the picture he paints of his protagonist is my story. You can almost taste the bewilderment, the loss, the resignation, the sense of self-irony in every word. He speaks directly to my soul. The wellspring of his art is mine, too.

This is why fiction matters.

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6 Responses to Why Fiction Matters

  1. Ivor Tymchak says:

    Fiction, to a large extent, functions in a similar way to history. It is a simplified interpretation of complex events. They both attempt to give us a greater understanding of the world and ourselves. A plausible interpretation confirms a particular world view which we adopt and use as a reliable reference point when dealing with an uncertain world. We are the stories we believe.

  2. Jon Husband says:

    And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shackAnd you may find yourself in another part of the worldAnd you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobileAnd you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful WifeAnd you may ask yourself-well…how did I get here? Letting the days go by/let the water hold me downLetting the days go by/water flowing undergroundInto the blue again/after the moneys goneOnce in a lifetime/water flowing underground.And you may ask yourselfHow do I work this? And you may ask yourselfWhere is that large automobile? And you may tell yourselfThis is not my beautiful house!And you may tell yourselfThis is not my beautiful wife!Letting the days go by/let the water hold me downLetting the days go by/water flowing undergroundInto the blue again/after the money’s goneOnce in a lifetime/water flowing underground.Same as it ever was…same as it ever was…same as it ever was…Same as it ever was…same as it ever was…same as it ever was…Same as it ever was…same as it ever was…

  3. mattbg says:

    I think that some people like fiction because it better represents the way they’d like the world to be, rather than the way it really is. This is why some people prefer storytelling over dealing in facts: reality is not convenient to their cause.Also, I agree with a lot of what you said about fiction, but I don’t really know what to do with the information. The bias in the world we live in is so heavily slanted toward fiction that I think it needs decisive correction with non-fiction wherever possible. I think that a lot of people form their opinions about the world and society based on what they see on TV, read in fiction, and see in movies. I don’t think it’s easy to separate fact from fiction. The sorry part of this is that some people are perfectly OK with this as long as the outcome is one that they find politically pleasing.But, fiction is all around us. Roads are fiction, buildings are fiction, green lawns are fiction, currency is fiction, taxes are fiction. In the city, you live almost entirely in a world of fiction. And we say we find these things stressful… but you are saying that fiction is an antidote to this.Fiction can also be used to make us feel lucky about our current situation. Obviously, I am not talking about the “caring and sharing” fiction that women and their husbands push to the top of bestseller lists.But, in the end… it’s fiction. You have no idea how much is true and how much is false. If it deals with a substantive matter, it may simply be a way of expressing an unfounded opinion without having the courage to expose yourself to legal remedies. You don’t have a burden of proof when you write fiction. This makes it easy to fill in the gaps and round off the edges on things you can’t explain. But the rough edges and gaps are what make life important… I think.Obviously, there is outstanding fiction that genuinely expresses a way or circumstance of life. But how do we identify the good from the bad? The only thing we know for sure about fiction is that it’s untrue.Of course, you could go completely relativist and say that “as soon as we write it down, it becomes fiction”. There’s truth in that, too… but not enough for it to be useful.

  4. Fiction in the form of video, TV, & movies does not matter as much as fiction in written form.Discuss.

  5. mattbg says:

    David, you think so? What if people don’t read (i.e. lol..b00ks?!)I think Hollywood is a much stronger social force than anything in print.

  6. Miranda Weingartner says:

    Dave wrote about our conversation to which I’d like to add a few thoughts…~~~~”All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players”Fiction matters because it is all we are. We like to indulge in the notion that we have dominion over the absolute truth we call “facts”, but we live in a consensual fiction constructed on current scientific understanding (which is never static) and driven by principles which are largely determined by culture and ideology. Our consensual fiction hangs upon an internal logic which informs and inspires our thoughts which lead to judgements, and feelings which lead to actions. We cast people as characters in the fiction of our lives. We have heroes and villains, and we tell stories about ourselves, our country, our gender.If I sound flip when I refer to our lives as fiction, I assure you I am not. I am dead serious. Perhaps a more palatable word might be “narrative,” as in, the narrative of history (- and we all know who writes his-story).Since the time when we gathered together around the tribal fire, huddling in our bear skins, to hear Grandmother tell stories from the anthology of our myths, we have used narratives to impart wisdom and instruction. They were maps we used to choose direction, and derive our sense of value in the community. We lived our lives by them. Nothing has changed. Except that we take ourselves far too literally these days.”Just the facts, ma’am, just the facts”Myths and parables are honest because they do not portend to give “the facts.” Rather they acknowledge that Truth can only be pointed to, alluded to. The point is not to “get at the facts” but to get at the truth of the human condition; to get at the wisdom in spite of our propensity to take ourselves literally. Words are symbolic langugage, like music or colour. The voices of storytellers are drowned out by a news media industry which spins yarns it calls “reporting the facts” (a fiction within a fiction) and we swallow their stories often without question.If you doubt the power of “narrative” or “fiction” – think of the effect of propaganda. A “good yarn” about the avarice, savagery or expansionist motives of a race can justify genocide, and rationalize the apathy of a silent majority. It is only in retrospect that we (sometimes) recognize with horror the downright fiction upon which we based our actions (or lack thereof). Ignorance makes us accomplices.Fiction mattersFiction matters because it is the tuning fork for our moral compass. In our zeal for the absolute truth, the scientific, measurable and provable, we neglect the deeper “truths” of existance and human experience. And we do so at our peril.We cannot but live by our fictions. Fiction is our brain’s way of making recognizable patterns of the massive universe. The patterns are not, in and of themselves, the universe. But these patterns allow us to try to live in harmony and comfort with our environment, ourselves and each other. Wisdom slips away when we forget ourselves and get caught up in the plot. So enraptured by the action on the screen, we momentarily forget we are sitting in a theatre.It’s time for new stories and new heroes – or perhaps a return to the old stories and old heroes – before we amuse ourselves to death.Fiction matters because our very lives depend on it.My blog: manualforlifeonearth (dot) wordpress (dot) com

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