Why Fiction Matters

I remember once, a long time ago, someone asked me what the point of fiction was. Why waste your time reading (let alone writing) novels when nonfiction is so much more instructive? It wasn’t a mean or spiteful question. They were just curious. They didn’t get it.

I remember I was taken aback. I didn’t know what to say. It was like trying to explain why I breathe. I think I said something about how you can learn from fiction, too. Maybe something about how reading fiction is fun, enjoyable. But I knew that I was missing the point, that none of it got to the heart of why I read (let alone write).

That was then, this is now. Certain recent events have reminded me that – how can I put this? – life is occasionally shitty.

Of course bad things happen; we know this; some people are reminded of it much more often than others. But if you are cheerful enough or strong enough or British enough, you can deal with it in a positive frame of mind. “Life is occasionally shitty,” you brightly opine, “but I’ll make the best of it.”

The alternative is that the external becomes internal, that Bad Stuff enters your mind and shakes hands with your soul and kicks off its shoes and helps itself to a cup of coffee and gets comfortable in your recliner. This is when you go from having a bad mood to a bad month, from thinking that “life is shitty” to “life is shit.” It is a withdraw, a deadening, an irrational hatred, an anti-enlightenment.

Here’s something you already know, but it bears repeating: this Bad Mental Stuff, this brain poison, is bullshit. Not bullshit in the sense that it doesn’t exist, or doesn’t matter, but bullshit in the sense that, if you let it, it will destroy you.

Fuck it. Seriously. Fuck. That. Shit.

Perhaps at some point you have asked yourself this question: what is the meaning of life? Helpfully, I have the answer: the meaning of life is to create and protect beauty. Heavy stuff on a Thursday morning, I know, but stay with me for just a second longer and then you can look at cat videos again.

Beauty is the opposite of bullshit. Life is the opposite of death. Fundamentally they are both about the same thing: never giving up. It is a battle and it is a war and both sides have their weapons.

Fiction is not about teaching you facts or making you feel better. Of course it does both these things, and they are good and important things to do, but they are accessories, accoutrements, nonessential.

Here’s the essence. Fiction is beautiful; fiction is life; and that is all.

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11 responses to “Why Fiction Matters

  1. For me, Wendig said it perfectly with: “My stories are lies that tells truths.”

    I am seriously considering getting a tattoo that says that.

    I agree with you 100%. Fiction is beautiful. The best fiction, for me, is fiction that takes something that’s real in our lives and then blows it up so you can experience it clearly and purely, or as strongly as you can without whatever it is actually happening to you.

    Sometimes, things happen in real life and yet you don’t really get the meaning behind or understand it or your own feelings till years later. I feel like fiction goes straight to it since that is its very purpose.

    There’s also the idea that without fiction, how will we ever come with new ideas? New ways of doing things? New conclusions? Sure you can write a book about your ideas that are based on facts, but fiction does it much more beautifully, I feel. And also speaks to a much greater audience.

    Anyhow, that what I think :-p

  2. I’m sorry about whatever’s going on that’s trying to make you feel less… British.

    I absolutely agree that fiction is Beauty, Art, Life, and that that is more than enough justification for Why.

    (I don’t, however, think Life is a battle against Death. But that’s a side discussion.)

  3. To me fiction is about expanding experience. The evolutionary value of fiction is the exploration of hypothetical situations.

    Non-fiction can give you knowledge which you can use in the intellectual plane.

    We get pleasure from riding emotional roller-coasters not because we want to ignore real life but because want to be prepared for it.

  4. Much like Kristan, I don’t think death is the opposite of life. But other than that, you’ve nailed it. Nicely said.

    • Thanks, Jo! At the time I wrote this, I was thinking more of a deadened state of mind than literal death: a state in which you stop caring about things and lose your sensitivity to the beauty in the world. I have, on occasion, been more familiar with that particular state than I would like. The post was largely a response to that – sort of a wakeup call for myself.

      • That immediately reminded me of a quote that I read a few months ago, and I had to go look it up:

        “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.”
        — Elie Wiesel (Novelist, Journalist, Nobel Prize Winner)

      • I think that makes a lot of sense. Which reminds me, his Night is still sitting on my bookshelf, waiting to be read…

  5. Pingback: Monday’s Top 5 | The Happy Logophile

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