Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Truth of Fiction

This isn't a FAQ post, but it's about writing.

Now and then I encounter someone who simply doesn't read fiction and I'm always a bit puzzled. (I encounter quite a few who don't read mysteries and that's less puzzling -- a matter of taste. After all, I don't read romance novels or westerns as a rule -- though there are some exceptions.)

One reason I've been given for not reading fiction is "Why waste your time with something that's not true?"

I've struggled to articulate an answer. I know that my life is richer for all the (fictional) experiences I've had. Years ago, someone told my that I was an 'old soul' -- one who had lived many lives previous to this one.

"No," I said, "I just read a lot."
Just now I'm rereading High Tide in Tucson, a book of essays by Barbara Kingsolver, and in the selection titled "Jabberwocky," I found the words I was looking for to explain why fiction can be worth reading.

Kingsolver says: "A novel works its magic by putting the reader inside another person's life. . . . The power of fiction is to create empathy."

The thing is, we are so besieged with bad news and horrible factual events day after day that we grow numb.  Thousands of people affected by earthquakes, suicide bombs, famine, civil war -- yes, we see or hear the stories and send money or offer a prayer or don the appropriate color ribbon, or simply think "How awful . . ." and get on with our own lives.

Thousands of souls suffering is just too much to comprehend. But let us read a well-written novel about one sufferer; let us endure and learn and grow along with that character and we will stay up past our bedtime. We may even shed real tears.

Novels have the force to change minds, to incite people to action. Before the U.S.'s Civil War, the suffering of slaves in the abstract and far away South was known and deplored by  mmany but what really bolstered the Abolition Movement was the suffering of the fictional Topsy and her fictional companions. Abraham Lincoln recognized this when he greeted Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, with the famous line -- "So this is the little lady who started this great war." 

Of course, not every novel is that powerful (thank goodness!!)  There's a lot to be said for reading to experience a different place, time, or life. Even if they are fictional -- they're usually firmly grounded in reality.
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Brian Miller said...

excellent post...i read a lot as well...and it does have that ability to generate empathy and open your eyes to fact as well embedded in a well done story...i think about jodi picoult books, house rules, i used to intro people to aspergers because it is an easy read and the story makes it paletable..

Reader Wil said...

In every fiction there is some truth, some facts that really happened . Some authors use historical facts to underline their stories. I know that Daphne du Maurier studied the history of the places, she wanted to write about. Whenever I am in Cornwall I feel surrounded by the events she described in her books.And I quess that the same applies to your books too. You live in the same surroundings Elizabeth does and she things more or less like you, I presume.

Martin H. said...

I agree, Vicki. The plots may be invented, but the characters must be based in reality. We observe and store the idiosyncrasies of others, daily, usually sub-consciously. Part of the writer's craft is to use this rich vein in shaping the people who populate fictional stories.

Desiree said...

Thank you, Vicki :) I am one of those who gave up reading fiction in preference to histories, autobiographies, biographies, travel, psychology, selfhelp etc. I have gleaned so much pleasure and expanded my knowledge and understanding enormously from reading about 'real' experiences, events, happenings, feelings, tragedies, thrills, love, sorrow, loss, conquests and so forth in each of these mediums. I agree that fiction has a place, but I don't feel that one loses out by not reading it ;)

Friko said...

Good fiction is indispensable. I read a lot of fiction and sometimes the people become more real than those in life around me.

I also like mystery fiction!

Sam @ My Carolina Kitchen said...

What a great explanation for a complicated question Vicki. I read a lot of fiction and enjoy it very much. I like to "get lost" in the other person's life for a brief time. Sometimes fiction helps me see the reality around me in a much clearer light.

R. Burnett Baker said...

An interesting essay, Vicki. I would suggest to Desiree that while one might not lose out by not reading fiction, one could also achieve some form of growth by doing so. Fiction might also enlighten us to the potential lack of reality in our own lives: It could open eyes to different directions for individual endeavors.

For example, science fiction is not one of my favorites, but how many of these stories are derived from reality, and how much science is potentially "created" from science fiction writers' imaginations?

One could argue that reading biographies, or histories is actually "fiction" as it relates personally to the reader: The reader isn't necessarily directly involved in those particular "realities". The accounts presented could be true, or not. LIke wise, an autobiography is potentially fiction since the reader has no way of knowing if the writer is telling the truth.

At any rate, you sum up the case for reading fiction by stating that it's rooted in reality. Conversely, I wonder how some of the world's "realities", i.e. the wars, famines, suicide bombings, jihad killings and such are the result of fictional "realities" of those who create/advocate for such events? That's a sobering thought.

Anyway, sorry for the screed. I kinda got carried away... :)

Hope your day is another green one!


Vicki Lane said...

Good example, Brian. I know that my introduction to many issues has come from fiction -- after which I may well go to non fiction for further elucidation, But it's often the fictional rendering that truly grabs me by the heart.

Desiree -- Certainly there's a wealth of knowledge and feeling in the non-fictional world. But speaking only for myself, my life has been enriched by fiction. It probably simply comes down to personal experience. I read so fast that I can get every bit as 'lost' in a novel as in a film or a play.

Not every novel, though. Results vary.

Heavy thoughts, Rick! A bit of 'the pen is mightier than the sword...' And too true about the fine line between non-fiction and fiction -- especially when one considers that simply by leaving some inconvenient bits out, the account can be factually 'true' but incomplete.

Star said...

I agree. I love fiction, in fact I prefer it. Perhaps that says of me that I prefer to live in an imaginary world. I might even agree with that! I noticed on the Kindle store recently that most books are non fiction, almost twice as many as fiction in fact! Amazing. I would not ever consider that I knew enough about anything to write a book about it but obviously lots of other people do. I can't help but wonder though if when people buy a book with a title like e.g. 'how to improve your life in three steps' do they really believe this could happen? Surely we have been given enough inward wisdom to solve life's problems on our own or with the help of a few good friends or relatives? Once or twice I've read a book of this nature but at the end of it I've been disappointed because it didn't answer all my questions, merely posed new ones.
I do like biographies though. Also travel books but I always prefer fiction. There is a lot of fact in fiction anyway, don't you agree?

NCmountainwoman said...

Count my husband among those who refuse to read fiction. I have tried to understand his reasoning but still cannot. I simply tell him he's missing out on a lot of good reads.

Jill said...

What a wonderful post. I love having an escape from all of the turmoil in the world. Even the turmoil in my own life. Fiction helps me do that.

Pat transplanted to MN said...

While I prefer non fiction, biographies, etc, I do enjoy good fiction, mysteries, and well written stories, historical novels, espionage with powerful characters, anything with great characters, etc. I too am richer for having read a lot all my life. Where I live now people seldom read non-fiction so they puzzle me.

Deanna said...

Fiction and real life blend. Unless it is scifi or pure fantasy, fiction is based on real life experiences of either the author or someone or thing the author has researched. I often use reading as an escape. An escape from the horrors in the world around me or maybe the troubles in my own backyard. Fiction provides that for me. Thank goodness for good fiction - yours among them!

Mama-Bug said...

Wow, lots of great comments on this post. What can I say; I have a love affair with words whether they be fiction, historical, biographical whatever. I'm always learning from what I read. Even if I'm on vacation I have something to read. Fiction is wonderful; it takes you away from the everyday mundane into places far away, into other times, into other lives so unlike your own. I'm so glad there are wonderful authors like you out there! Keep on writing your fabulous fiction Vicki!!!!

Desiree said...

I come, waving my white flag :) It seems I'm very much in the minority. I will, however, read your latest novel once it hits the shelves...who knows, it may just succeed in making me break free of my self-inflicted mould ;)

Vicki Lane said...

No white flag needed, Desiree! It's just a matter of personal preference. But obviously we fiction-lovers have strong feeling about our reading.

dleisert said...

I read both.... Nonfiction gives me the framework, the facts. Fiction gives me the emotional truth.

For example, I have read many histories of Jackson's campaign in the Shenandoah. Learned much that helped me appreciate Thomas Kenneally's novel Confederates. Kenneally, though, made the reality of the campaign come to life. Because of his novelist's skill, I could taste the dust as the foot cavalry tore through the valley.

Fiction and nonfiction complement each other.


Darla said...

Wonderful flowers...I enjoyed zooming in on them...! Thanks! :-)

Bouncin' Barb said...

I only read fiction and once in a blue moon I will read a good self-help book if I need it. Fiction takes me away to another world in my mind and lets me get away from the real world. I don't get that from non-fiction.

Vicki Lane said...

Well put,Debra!

And of course, fiction can be a perfect escape vehicle, as Barb says.

Victoria said...

Vicki, well said! I don't understand people who don't read fiction either, or why they think it's a waste of time. I can only think they are cursed with absolutely no imagination. It makes me shudder to think how much smaller my life would be without books.

Beautiful photos!

Anonymous said...

I'm a voracious reader of fiction of many types, though my favorite genre is the mystery. It's always good to have a book with you at all times, so that, if you're in a waiting kind of situation, you can just whip out the book, settle back---transported--until the wait is over. Emily Dickenson was right!
Deana the Queena

Susan M. Bell said...

I read a bit of just about everything; from fiction to true crime to poetry to essays....well, you get the picture. Fiction is my favorite, and all types of fiction. (I even read the "fluff" stuff once in a while.)

When I was a kid, reading was my way of escape. It was how I got through the many moves, the being picked on, the feeling of loneliness. It's still a great escape from the stresses of life in general. With my husband's illness and our financial crisis over the past year, we both owe a lot to our books. I will never really understand someone not reading at least a bit of fiction. Worse even when I come across someone who just plain doesn't read at all. **shudder**