Inerrant Rampancy

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In Defense of Fiction

This isn’t nearly as good as I once thought it was. Oh well.

Fiction writing is what I do. It’s my major, my future study at graduate school, and generally what I want to do with my life. I want to tell stories and have people read them and love them and all of that. Hopefully money will be involved.

But why should this work? Why do people read things that aren’t true? Certainly there are plenty of true stories to read, many of which are far more interesting than anything I could come up with. What is the draw of fiction writing that compels individuals to plop down money for something that doesn’t tell them anything about the world?

Wait. Is that last question even right? Does fiction not tell us anything about the world? I’ve been listening to The Decemberists lately, a weird band that frequently uses their songs to tell stories about fake people living in the 1800’s. They are not historians, and though their stories do have a certain period accuracy to them they are not historical accounts of real people or real events. Some of the songs aren’t even all that good.

But I am almost obsessed. I sing along as loud as I can and love it. I’m fascinated by the lead singer’s ability to croon to me about poor people selling tiny trinkets by the sea. Mariners go on adventures that rhyme. It’s phenomenal, but I could definitely spend my time reading Atlantic Monthly or The Economist and learn something better, right? Hell, I could even pick up a book about the 1800’s and learn something better, right?

Maybe not.

There is something about these fictions that is compelling. It’s not that I can relate to them; certainly I have very little in common with poor kids from the 1800’s, so it’s not some strange sympathy. It’s not even really empathy in that I can’t understand what their lives must have been like either. I’m emotionally distant just as I am chronologically and economically distant from the characters, and yet I am still compelled and enamored by them.

I have a theory about this. I believe that when we read fiction we usually attach ourselves to some aspect of the characters’ lives that match our own. We latch onto the similarities and, hopefully, we use the stories to learn something about ourselves that we did not know or did not recognize before. Perhaps we are better afterward, perhaps worse, but we are certainly changed in some way. But what about those characters, like the ones in The Decemberist’s songs, who are not like us? Who in no way share a similarity with us or our lives? What then?

Then, I believe, we borrow their lives. We take them and hang them up on our walls like paintings we don’t quite understand but still enjoy. We don’t pass them off as our own, or as something we understand particularly well or relate too; we merely place them on our mantles and say “Hey, this is great. I like it and I want others to know that.” Hell, we may not even show it to other people, coveting it as our own little slice of an existence we never had or shared. It’s ours and we love it and we don’t necessarily know why, but that’s ok.

It has to be ok, in a sense, because otherwise fiction cannot survive as a universally useful tool. If fiction can only be utilized by those who can sympathize or empathize with it, then it is doomed to be a novelty to small circles of people, never popularized or funded and never allowed to grow. We have to be ok with borrowing our experiences to a certain extent, or fiction fails, both as entertainment and as a way to understand ourselves and our world.

See, we CAN gain a little bit of knowledge of ourselves from fiction that doesn’t have anything to do with us, if only by recognizing that fact. We KNOW we aren’t like this, and don’t do these things, and don’t feel this way, but we’re OK with it because we like it anyway. This particular art is pleasing to us, and while we can’t get terribly explicit about why, we know we like it and that’s enough. It has to be, or, again, fiction fails.

This, in a way, pretty much boils down to fiction being completely subjective and, through that logic, art being completely subjective – two conclusions I’m not terribly comfortable with – but it also means that almost any bit of art can be accessible without having to be close to the reader. I can like a story about poor kids from the 1800’s, not because I’m a poor kid now, or because now is like the 1800’s, but because it’s a good story and the characters are interesting to me. I can borrow those experiences and enjoy them, not as thought they were my own, but because they are something special in their own right.

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December 4, 2008 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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