Friday, April 22, 2011

Why Fiction?

By Russel D McLean

There’s always the one guy. Usually at a party. The one who overhears that I’m a writer (I try not to bring the subject up myself, if I’m honest) and says, “What do you write?” The one who, when I tell him I write crime fiction says, “I don’t read fiction. Who has time for that?”

I wouldn’t mind if he stopped there. But he usually doesn’t (and believe me when I say its usually a man and he’s usually desperate to tell me all about what he does for a living which actually makes my life sound rather exciting even if all I really do is swear at a computer screen most of the day). Usually he goes on to explain how one learns nothing from fiction (and he’s desperate to tell me its not just genre fiction like I write, its any fiction). How there’s no point to it. Its an indulgence and really what does anyone get out of reading?

Today’s post is for That Guy.

Because I really don’t want to say it to his face.*

Because he won’t listen. And it doesn’t matter what I say, he’s made up his mind.

But, at the risk of lecturing** I think I need to get this off my chest. I think I need to talk about the value I think fiction – any fiction – has in our society.

Because fiction – not writing it, but reading it – is more essential than one might realise. And not just because it’s sometimes a fun way of slipping learning into life. After all, everything I know about jail I learned from reading STONE CITY and everything I know about New York I learned from Lawrence Block and Charlie Stella. And by God I’ve never been to Louisiana, but James Lee Burke makes me believe I have. And let’s not get started on the fact that watching The Sopranos**** taught me to be a better cook.

But all of that’s neither here nor there. That Guy would argue sure, but a guide book or cookery book would probably be a lot more accurate.

So then what’s the point?

The point is that fiction, at its heart, is about emotional narrative. Fiction is about people dealing with situations. Fiction is a way for the reader to see the world through other eyes, to react to someone else’s story. To figure out the world.

Fiction removes us from reality. But not in that negative, lazy way that so many people think it does. No, fiction allows to step back from life and start to examine it in an indirect way. It can clarify our lives in unexpected ways. Fiction allows to ask questions of character and situation in a safe environment and take the answers to those questions and apply them to reality. Fiction – reading fiction – is a kind of therapy, I suppose. It is not an escape from the world so much as a way of dealing with it.

Crime fiction is of course the perfect example. By examining people in extreme situations, we can engage in a dialogue with the text about a number of issues that may affect us in real life. How to deal with loss, betrayal, anger, hatred. Reading is not a one way street. Whether we accept it or not the way we interact with stories has an effect on us when in our daily lives, in our thoughts and attitudes. Sometimes its subtle. Sometimes it’s a clear and definite thing. Look at how many people were affected, for example, by Catcher in the Rye.

Fiction, in whatever form we can get it, is essential to our lives. It allows us to figure the world, to look at it from another angle.

And if nothing else, it’s just plain fun to read.

With thanks to Rachel Marsh for stepping at the last moment when I realised I couldn’t write last week’s post.

*Can I also point out That Guy is many guys and I haven’t run into them recently, thank goodness, but then I haven’t been to many parties recently…

**Sorry, Dave White***

***Also, sorry for the footnotes… I know you hate those.

****Yes, its television but its still a form of fiction. Deal with it. And, yes, Ralphie was spot on about mixing the spaghetti with the gravy for thirty seconds before serving…


Declan Burke said...

Yet another terrific DSD post. Yet another terrific DSD post I couldn't actually finish because of the white-on-black design. Folks? There's a very good reason white-on-black is a style no-no, and it's that the human eye isn't built to absorb it.

Any chance of a different colour set-up?

Cheers, Dec

Naomi Johnson said...

Declan, I haven't been able to persuade anyone to make a blog style change for easier reading. So. Go to, and bookmark the tool. Here's how easy it works. You're on a site not easy to read, you just click that tool and a second later, the page is cleaned up, the color adjusted, and reading is soooo easy. (Hat tip to Michael Alatorre; he saved my vision.)

Now, to Russel: Next time you meet That Guy, ask him if he watches movies and if so, are they all documentaries? Bet not.

Richard Bach once wrote that humans only ever do anything for one of two reasons: To be entertained or to be educated. Sometimes those reasons are combined. Fiction does that for me.

John McFetridge said...

Catcher in the Rye is a good example, but likely too subtle for the no fiction guys.

And also, as Naomi points out, it combines entertainment and education - it's just the lesson it teaches about hypocrisy would undermine no fiction guy's worldview too much.

Which brings us to another reason people read fiction (or watch movies or TV) - to have their worldview confirmed. Which could be the opposite of education if that worldview isn't entirely accurate.

Something no fiction guy is actually scared to find out, so he just avoids the possibility altogether.

Paper Cut said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Paper Cut said...

Great topic. It reminds me of the scene in the movie Sideways when Miles is told by his buddy's fiance's dad that "There's so many interesting real things to learn in the world so why bother with fiction." I'm butchering the quote a bit, but Miles shies off and says that he's sort of writing a little of non-fiction and non-fiction.

Naomi I liked your point about asking The Guy if he watches movies or documentaries.

Thomas Pluck said...

Fiction is for when the truth hurts too much to bear repeating.

Fiction is when the names have been changed to protect the innocent, or the guilty, for that matter.

Fiction is for learning by experience without dying or going to jail.

Fiction is a plane ticket to anywhere for the cost of a paperback.

Great post. I learned to love nearby NYC through Lawrence Block. I visited Louisiana many times thanks to James Lee Burke, and met my Louisiana wife in the city. And I'm writing about both.

Dave White said...

Excellent post, and you didn't lecture too much. I didn't feel like you were wagging your finger at me!**

**trying not to be a hypocrite on the day after my post.

Al Tucher said...

"To figure out the world," which, as you say, must sometimes be done indirectly.

Does no fiction guy think the Iliad and Odyssey are objective reportage? People have been telling stories since we had language to tell them, even when mere survival took a lot more effort than it does now.

Anonymous said...

Great post - For me, reading fiction (and especially writing it) offers an opportunity to enter a situation I'd be unlikely to encounter in real life and to consider the consequences of various reactions.
Unlikely I'll ever have a gun trained on someone, their life in my hands and need to decide when and/or if shooting someone is ever justifiable. But it's interesting to think about...
And, to John's point, interesting to stand in another person's shoes (particularly someone with a different world view).
Tanis Mallow