So, why fiction? Why read it, why look at it, why anything? My apologies if I’ve covered this before. If I have, consider this an evolution of the idea or a reiteration of things I think are important.
In thinking about the question this week, I’ve identified four key reasons that I think fiction — both reading it, writing it, and studying it — is important.
First, fiction provides us with a safe place to conduct thought experiments. We can safely play with different sorts of societies, governments, economic theories, and such in the confines of a book or story. One of the best examples of this use is the late Robert A. Heinlein. People have called him, often simultaneously, a communist, a militarist, a libertarian, a libertine, a misogynist, a racist, and a whole host of other things. The one common thread: what readers call Heinlein depends largely on which of his books they’ve read. Looking at his whole corpus, Heinlein was very likely none of these things. But he did like to play with different socio-political and economic theories in his books just to see what made them tick. And that’s one thing I love about fiction, whether the experiment is with different possible magic systems or different social systems, it’s possible to play around and explore.
On a related point, fiction allows us to discuss various issues, often ones that are difficult to frame or cause knee jerk reactions instead of serious thought when presented other ways. Cases in point: Harper Lee and Lois Lowry. The former presents one of the best discussions of institutionalized racism in modern literature (To Kill a Mockingbird). It is straightforward, engaging, and easy to follow. Yet, it is not simplistic or caricatured. Likewise, Lowry discusses serious issues like euthanasia and eugenics in a young adult novel. And she does so beautifully. The story is engaging to the point that it is easy to forget the subtexts.
Perhaps the earliest use of fiction is, I think, also one of the most interesting. It has been used for millennia to relate history. Evolving from fireside folklore and legends, some of today’s greats, in my opinion, are Toni Morrison and Harry Turtledove. Morrison uses a lot of her fiction to try to relate (and relate to) some of the darker points of American history, specifically those tied to slavery and the immediate post-slavery generations. Turtledove mixes his history and thought experiments, but the latter are firmly grounded in his grasp of the former, whether in his Videssos books or his American Civil War alternate histories.
Finally, one of my favorite ways to look at fiction is as a socio-psychological release valve. I discuss this tangentially in my werewolf book (see link at the top of the page). To summarize, fiction lets us vicariously live out things that are socially, personally, or otherwise objectionable. There are things that many or most of us find distasteful in reality that we don’t mind in fiction. For myself, violence is a good one. Personally, I see violence in reality as a no-win situation. Even the “winner” ultimately loses. However, I have absolutely no problem with most forms of violence in fiction, whether of the Bond-Bourne sort of spy-shooter, the Hulk Smash sort, or the flying fists and swords type.
Ultimately, I think we do ourselves and our society a disservice when fiction is denigrated, demeaned, or otherwise cast as “something for kids” or somehow “not serious”.