Does Fiction Matter?
Simple question, right? Does fiction matter?
As a novelist, I’m supposed to say yes. I have to say yes. But. I hate when someone says I have to do something.
So fiction doesn’t matter. It doesn’t. It shouldn’t.
It’s not real. It’s all made up. It’s just the imagined, make-believe ramblings of people whose only real qualification is access to a pencil. Indeed, by definition, fictional stories are, in the words of my sister, “total BS.” They never really happened – and therefore should have no impact on our everyday existence.
But then I keep thinking: Why do we ban books?
Fiction’s just nonsense, right? It’s inconsequential. Just made up.
So. Why do we ban books?
Let me tell you why.
Because books are powerful. Stories are powerful. They’re recipes made of hopes and dreams and fears. Stories transport us to new places, and show us things we could never see, and reveal the darkest parts of our souls.
Stories educate us, terrify us, and even protect us.
Jay Gatsby was the one who warned us of the dangers of our own excesses during the 1920s. Superman swooped to the rescue and gave America hope during the terrifying early days of World War II. Scout and Atticus showed us our racism, but also showed us the people who we aspire to be – who we want to be – and who we can be. And even today, it’s Harry Potter who reminds generations of young and old that magic still exists.
And that’s why books get banned. That’s why they ban Maya Angelou and Judy Blume and Mark Twain. Because stories change us.
In Huckleberry Finn, people thought they were getting the story about a boy. Instead, Mark Twain gave them a manifesto. A challenge. An uncompromising fistfight about injustice and slavery. People thought they were getting a book. But Mark Twain knew that if you really want to teach people something, you need to tell them a story.
The best part is, it’s nothing new. Fables have taught morality since the very story was told by the very first storyteller.
Fiction is how we share – and not just how we share our dreams – it’s how we share ourselves. And perhaps more important, how we connect.
When Alexander McCall Smith, a fiction writer, was faced with vocal readers who disagreed with what he’d done to the imaginary characters in his book, he became all too aware that “the world of fiction and the world of real flesh-and-blood people are not quite as separate as one might imagine. Writing is a moral act: What you write has a real effect on others, often to a rather surprising extent.”
I love that. I love that the world of make-believe lives so darn close to the real one. And not just to crazy people, like the woman who writes to me in only gold lowercase letters. Indeed, as my fellow mystery writer P.D. James points out, something as simple as the good guy catching the bad guy at the end of the story is exactly why the traditional detective story “confirms our belief, despite some evidence to the contrary, that we live in a rational, comprehensible, and moral universe.”
I know, I know – that sounds overblown. Too philosophical.
So let’s just cut to the facts: According to the Library of Congress, after the Bible, y’know what’s cited as the number one book that’s made a difference in people’s lives? To Kill A Mockingbird.
Read that again. Number 1: the Bible. Number 2: To Kill A Mockingbird.
Mockingbird is fiction.
This is where Atticus says, “I rest my case.” But for the stubborn few who still think fiction doesn’t matter, I want you to imagine a world without it. A world without Romeo and Juliet, Don Quioxte, or Ebenezar Scrooge…Sherlock Holmes, Captain Ahab, or Dr. Frankenstein…a world without Charlie Brown, Batman, or the Cat in the Hat. It’s a world without fiction – a world without dreams and –
That’s a great idea for a book.