“Why would you write fiction? Isn’t it just a bunch of lies?”
It’s been a while since someone asked me that question, but I can re-play the scene clearly. They look smug, like they’d just discovered a great argument against writing and reading fiction. Fiction is not true, and so therefore it is not good. Why make-up stories when there are plenty of good, wholesome things, people, and events that already exist? In fact, why tell stories at all, especially fantasy stories? They just give children unrealistic expectations of the world, and adults an excuse to ignore reality.
Obviously, since I’m still writing and reading fiction, I don’t buy into these arguments. But why?
Probably the simplest reason for writing fiction is to escape. Much of fiction — both good and bad — falls into this category. Sometimes life isn’t any fun, and reading and writing fiction gives us a way to escape for a while without actually leaving our location or situation. This can be as simple as diving into Middle Earth while waiting for the clothes to finish drying at the laundromat. Would you rather stare at your t-shirts spin, or canoe down the Rauros with the Fellowship of the Ring?
In a New York Times article, ‘Why Write Novels at All?’ Garth Risk Halberg talks about the idea that “the deepest purpose of reading and writing fiction is to sustain a sense of connectedness, to resist existential loneliness.” Now we’re getting closer to the reason I write fiction. Escape is all well and good, but what are you escaping to? It’s not enough to just take off for Narnia — we have to find Aslan there or the journey means nothing.
We write to share who we are and what we think, and we read to connect with something outside us. Usually this is a new world or characters, but if we’re very lucky we’ll also sense the author as they bleed through the pages of their work. This connectedness is one of the chief arguments for reading and writing, since it carries over into “real” life: people who read fiction are more emphatic than non-readers.
Let’s say you have something you want to say about a controversial topic. We’ll use abortion as an example, and say you’re on the pro-life side. If you write an article telling people that abortion is bad, only the people who already agree with you are going to like it. If you tell a true story about a baby who survived an abortion or a mother whose life was ruined by an abortion, it will affect more people but you’ll still lose a large number of your readers.
Now suppose you write a story where you climb inside the head of a character and show what they are struggling with as she decides whether or not to have an abortion. You don’t just put your words in the character’s mouth – you imagine yourself in her shoes, and realize that she has real reasons to consider both options. You sympathize with her, and whatever your readers believe they sympathize with her too. Your ideas will filter through in decisions you make about how see feels when she sees the baby on an ultrasound, or whether or not she keeps the child at the end of the story. You can let readers know what you think, but you don’t shove your ideas down their throat. You give them a chance to feel with you, and let them think for themselves.
Obviously, I think of the writer of novels and stories and plays as a moral agent. In my view, a fiction writer whose adherence is to literature is, necessarily, someone who thinks about moral problems: about what is just and unjust, what is better or worse, what is repulsive and admirable, what is lamentable and what inspires joy and approbation. This doesn’t entail moralizing in any direct or crude sense.
Serious fiction writers think about moral problems practically. They tell stories. They narrate. They evoke our common humanity in narratives with which we can identify, even though the lives may be remote from our own. They stimulate our imagination. The stories they tell enlarge and complicate—and, therefore, improve—our sympathies. They educate our capacity for moral judgment. ” – Susan Sontag, from a speech at the Los Angeles Public Library
This sort of literature may or may not be an escape for your readers, but should definitely let them connect with something or someone. It should make them think. It should give them a chance to “meet” types of people thy might never come in contact with in their real lives, to question ideas that they take for granted, to consider what is and is not moral. Fiction lets us talk about things that are uncomfortable to discuss in real life, or give a new perspective on issue too charged in reality to have a dialogue about. It lets us ask “what if?” and run with the potential answers before actually changing the world. Yet.