Thursday, January 10, 2008

Why we need fiction

Yesterday, I was having an email conversation with a friend who teaches English at a community college down south. She welcomed a bunch of kids to Intro to Literature, and decided to open her class by saying "So what is fiction?" and someone in the class answered "B.S.!" In her first email, though, all she said to me was that she had been "off befuddling students about 'Why we need fiction'"; the details about the B.S. came later. Wise woman that she is, she is hoping to convey that "'fact and fiction are different truths.' (As seen in Patricia MacLachlan's MG The Facts and Fictions of Minna Pratt.)"

Smart-ass that I am, I decided to write her an essay. Which I at first intended to be flip, but in reality, I believe what I said pretty much 100%. And so I'm sharing it with you all today. Feel free to imagine me reading this aloud to a class full of kids who are taking Intro to Lit., who probably don't really care about being there.

"Why we need fiction", by Kelly Fineman

We need fiction because in fiction, things have to make sense, which is a nice change of pace from life, where things don't have to make sense all the time. Or sometimes ever.

We need fiction because it allows us to create an artificial barrier, behind which we can examine Big Important Issues in a hypothetical setting, instead of beating people's brains out, possibly literally, by addressing those issues in the real world.

We need fiction because there are places the mind can go that the body can't actually follow, like the past, or the future, or to a different world where different natural laws apply, and fiction is a way of taking us there, if only for a little while, and allowing us to imagine how things were, or could be.

We need fiction because sometimes, facts suck.

We need fiction because it is a form of exercise. It may not help us lose weight or get in shape (unless it is a Very Heavy Book, in which case it may build a bit of muscle tone), but it helps us exercise our minds. And not just our imaginations, which are not just allowed, but encouraged, to picture what the author has described for us: fiction allows us to exercise our understanding of other people and cultures; it can educate us in a meaningful way about places and people we may never see or meet in real life.

An example: if you read or watch the news, you may have some idea what illegal immigrants from Mexico go through to get here. You may have some idea about torture and wartime atrocities in other countries. What you've read may have influenced your opinions on issue like immigration policy and use of torture and involvement in "civil" disputes in other countries. However, if you're like me, you don't really know what those experiences feel like, and while you may bemoan the awfulness of a particular circumstance, you've given little thought to the long-term effects of them.

If, like me, you went out after the CYBILS finalists were announced to track down some of the titles I hadn't heard of before, you might have read the heartwrending/heartmending Red Glass by Laura Resau. If so, then you have "seen", first-hand, what people's lives in those circumstances are like, their hopes and dreams and fears and how they've overcome tremendous odds. You understand their motivations, and see the beauty of the human spirit. You have thought about the "real" issues, but in a far more experiential way than simply reading "the facts" in a news article or seeing footage on TV and then quickly moving on to the next topic. And with the power of its prose, this book, like many other great works of fiction, will stick with you for a while and knock around in your head, where the news is frequently here and then on to the next thing.

My conclusion? For learning about the emotional truths and truly grasping the factual truths and learning compassion and finding out what other cultures are truly like, you can't beat fiction.

And that's a fact.

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