Why Fiction Matters, Maybe

We’re talking literary fiction!

After my first book of short stories was published things got kind of weird. I live in a pretty well-educated neighborhood. My childhood friends, all of my family members, most of the folks I know in my daily life, are highly verbal, articulate people. Yup, I live in one of those pockets of America where every other person thinks they’re the smartest person in the room.

Things got weird, though, because when I let people know I had just published a book of literary stories — “kind of like New Yorker stories” — a good half of the people I told shook their heads sadly and said, “Oh. I don’t read fiction any more.”

After I’d heard this rather sad statement from several friends, I started to ask people who made similar admissions why fiction was not part of their life, especially literary fiction. The answers were interesting. Some said that they got enough drama and comedy watching TV. If they were going to spend time reading, they felt it should be non-fiction which would teach them something.

Others told me that the occasional mystery or romance was okay in the summer at the beach, but that literary fiction just required too much focus. One friend, who actually reads all sorts of pulp fiction (sci-fi, mystery, romance, and young adult) said, “I really want to read your book, but I just don’t have the time for literary fiction. You have to sit down, pay attention and think about things.”

Finally, one of my dearest friends just came right out and said, “Life is short. I don’t watch TV. I don’t read the comic section in the paper. And I certainly don’t make an effort to read complicated stories or follow weird conversations between characters. There’s a reason they call it fiction you know?”

I wasn’t insulted by any of this logic. I was chastened, of course. If you write for a living, you need folks to buy your books and read them. That’s how you make a living. But what all of this resistance made me think hard about was why fiction exists at all and why it is — or at least was—so important to Western culture for so many centuries.

Probably most importantly, though, the question we really may need to ask ourselves is whether serious, artistic, literary fiction is now just kind of a niche entertainment for a very small number of people (other writers/college English majors/over-intellectual smart asses/and disenfranchised teenagers who think maybe someday they want to become writers). Or whether there’s just something going on in our culture that has stopped people from sitting down with the latest Thomas Pynchon or Claire Messud novel.

The simple answer to all of this would be that a lot of people don’t have the time to read. That’s a really pathetic answer though. The average adult watches TV for about five hours a day. I’m more inclined to think that people have just forgotten what you get out of a good novel or story collection by a talented and thoughtful writer.

Authors like Toni Morrison, Don DeLillo, Alice Munro, Mary Gaitskill, and James Salter haven’t had award-winning careers spanning decades because they provide us with little entertainments that make us feel like everything is fine and dandy. These writers, and so many others, take years to produce their work because they’re trying to deal with some really heavy stuff. Most importantly, literary fiction is doing things that no other form of art does. Three of these things are described below. At their core, each is about the human mind. Read on:

  1. The Inner Life — No matter how fun it is to watch TV shows and movies, they are first and foremost about action and appearance. Fiction is concerned with thoughts and emotions. Yes, action and appearance come into play, but the whole idea of a novel or a story is for the author to get inside your head and give you the keys to the inner lives of characters. Fiction is a very real form of telepathy between the writer and the reader.
  2. The Meaning of Things — It’s possible to say that all stories, no matter what, end up being about love and death — whether on TV, the big screen, or in books. Personally, I think TV handles love and death better than any other medium, but it misses out on what these two most important human experiences mean to us — how love and death affect us at our cores. Novels in particular are these monstrous canvasses of the human soul, depicting the landscape of love and death…and everything else in between. You may not agree with an author’s point of view, but the idea with literature is not that the author is offering you his or her definition of things, it’s that they are providing you with that intricate canvas of human stuff so that you as the reader can figure out your own sense of meaning.
  3. What Cannot Be Said — The most amazing paradox in literature is that the best work is about all the things that cannot be said. We call these things mysteries. Why do people feel it is okay to have prejudices against others? How could anyone think it was all right to have slaves or support Nazis? Why do people hate? What is sentience? How do damaged people fix themselves? Why do we fall in love with that one person? How is sexuality such a pleasant and beguiling form of insanity that most everyone must cope with? Why do we have liberals and conservatives? Is there a difference between gay love and straight love? What is death? The list can go on and on. There are so many mysteries about this life that great authors offer up for us to consider. Literary fiction provides the reader with perspectives that touch them deeply at times — deeper than words.

So, does serious fiction matter? I think so. I think, in fact, that we’re at a point in technology development where just as Rap rose out of R&B and disco and punk and mixed in performance art and poetry, something new is going to happen to fiction, may even be happening right now, or at least very soon.

And this is going to happen because the inner life of the mind still matters…emotions matter, the unconscious matters, and those mysteries are real. We’re in the process of re-discovering these things once again in this weird new world we live in.

Taking the time to explore all of these things by reading a novel is a powerful cognitive exercise certainly on par with any kind of meditation or prayer you can name. But most importantly, literature provides us with a geography of all the mysteries and unanswered questions humanity has been asking for centuries. The idea of a novel is not just to find out what happens, but to roam around a bit in places you don’t normally go.

The problem may in fact be one of labeling. Literary fiction is anything but fiction if by “fiction” we mean a fabrication or made up tale. Some writers laugh at themselves and speak ironically of the fact that they are lying for a living. But good writers aren’t lying. They’re telling stories about who it seems like we are inside, how we feel right here and now (or how we felt in our past). Good writers know that what they’re trying to do is push all of us forward somehow. They’re offering up ideas for new perceptions and innovative vistas.

Someone once said “Without our stories, we are lost.” That may be true. But I will add something far more frightening. Without our stories, without our fictions, we will forget who we are, and who we want to become.