What is fiction for?
Why on earth do we read fiction?
One of my husband’s favorite “writer” stories concerns an author with a very Southern mother whom he called to tell her that his novel was being published. After a pause, the mother asked, a little desperately, “But do they KNOW it’s a LIE?” When he said yes, his mother sighed, “I will NEVER understand that.”
That’s what writers labor under – coming up with stories that you and I and those who pay us money to publish us and to read us KNOW are absolute filthy lies, made up to a word, sometimes literally impossible or unimaginable given the known rules of physics and biology in the world as we know it.
Science Fiction and Fantasy are particularly guilty of this, because we lie egregiously about the possibility of faster-than-light interstellar travel, or the existence of vampires, werewolves, angels or fairies at the bottom of your garden.
And you, the reader, know that we are making it up as we go along. And you are willing to follow us on that journey. Few readers who read a fairy tale about brownies in the home will then go on to start leaving milk and cookies on the hearth from then on or wander off to the bottom of that garden with a flashlight and a magnifying glass to look for those fairies. Instead, you close the book with a happy sigh, and you go on with your own mundane everyday existence, secure in the knowledge, however wistfully, that no brownie will wash the dinner dishes.
And then you come back, and you pick up another book. Of fiction. Of lies.
Yes, we all read non-fiction too – news, a travel guide, a history book, instruction manuals, textbooks for school, and political manifestos. But when it comes to many of these things, we are already armored with a set of opinions and attitudes, and reading items which challenge those opinions and attitudes are generally greeted with skepticism if not outright hostility – because how DARE those other people try to shove their silly, ludicrous, ridiculous, astonishing, and dammit downright dangerous ideas down our throats?!
But here’s the thing. People WILL read about those “other” ideas in fiction – sugarcoated as they are in the “lie”. Kids who are being bullied or otherwise mistreated because they are different in whatever way from their tormentors – because they are gay, or black, or Jewish, or [insert quality of choice here] – might take heart from a novel which tells of a teen who is being bullied because he is a blue-skinned singleton on a planet full of orange-skinned people and looks DIFFERENT – and somehow overcomes this in the story.
Yes, we all know it’s all a lie. But fiction is an incredibly important medium for getting the truth out there – even when you pretend that it only happens to other people, or to people who cannot exist or will never be real. A generation of readers breathlessly followed the growing up and the growing wise of a young wizard named Harry Potter without EVER doing a single magic spell themselves. A girl called Scout learned about discrimination and courage in a NOVEL and a different generation of readers learned about those things with her. The list goes on.
The best books, the ones that we instinctively keep, the ones we go back to again and again – they succeed as entertainment, yes, and they can be riveting – but they leave you knowing more and feeling more deeply than you had been capable of before you read that book. They leave you empowered. They might have lied to you about the context and the circumstances – but the truth that lies within those false parameters is nonetheless the real truth and some part of you knows this, recognizes it, values it. People say about certain books, “This book changed my life”. Sometimes, they even mean it.
And that’s the power of fiction.
THAT is what it’s all for.
A few years ago I was interviewed by V.M. Simandan. She had several discerning questions, including this one:
VMS: The Secrets of Jin-shei, your saga set in medieval China, is a powerful story of a group women from different social classes. How much research did you do before you started writing this novel?
AA: Short answer: HEAPS. I have a double shelf of books relating to the history, philosophy, geography, anthropology, culture and literature of China.
But I was consciously NOT writing a book that was directly about Imperial China, but it owed everything to that country and that general era in the way that I build up my own country, my own world.
The idea of research, as I see it, is to inform the imagination, rather than strangle it – which is why I like writing things with an fantastical edge, it gives me a little bit of wiggle room to tell a good story and not be constrained by “THIS happened THEN” with no way to work around it. In Jin-shei, for instance, one of the things that astonished and delighted me was the alchemy aspect of it – because what I knew about alchemy as a subject owed a lot to the Western ideas on the subject, but when I went to do a bit of research on it I discovered that there was an entire body of knowledge alchemical which was very much rooted in the Eastern and Oriental tradition, and this was wonderfully helpful with building my own version of it in my own world. I believe in research, in trying to be true to an idea, a time, a place. But it should not be a fetter. It should be an unfolding of wings, allowing you to fly over everything and see all things anew from a high vantage point up in the sky. You would be surprised how much good research can actually shape and drive a story.
Read the whole interview HERE
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4 thoughts on “Lying for a living”
Thanks for adding more substance to my answers to this question. We have been learning through stories since the beginning of mankind. And the stories we tell come from deep inside of our beliefs about the world and life. So often, it is in the “lies” that people find truth.
It has long been my contention that wrapping a hard truth in the silver tissue of fantasy makes it a lot easier to accept – people learn more from a story, especially a subtle story which isn’t OBVIOUS about having a “message”, whose message is skillfully woven into the tale itself, than they might from even a straight news article – because people have biases of which they may not even be aware and they take all “non fiction” in through those biases. When it comes to being “told the truth” by other people we either accept enthusiastically (if it gibes with our own views) or reject (if it doesn’t; a story doesn’t trigger those reflexes, and lets the truth in through the side door…
Stories–lies, if you will–have been our teachers since the beginning of mankind. This is a question I have been struggling, at time successfully, to answer. Thank you for your blog and for the inclusion of your interview. Our stories come out of the way we view the world and life, even thought they may contain worlds and creations that may not exist. Write on!
Thank you – I will! 🙂
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