What Makes Fiction Special
I was in a brisk discussion about whether a woman ‘would’ or ‘would not’ leave her wayward husband when a man interrupted and said, “But he’s not real! It’s fiction!” It was time to end the talk before I began my ten minute soliloquy that would have sent everyone in the kitchen for one too many drinks before going home. I knew the difficult husband in The Trading of Ken was not real because he fell out of my head and ended up on paper over a year’s time as I had fun punching him, his wife and girlfriend about. That’s exactly the point. Fiction has helped me put life in fascinating perspectives that allegedly truthful biographies, gooey memoirs, self-righteous improvement and dry scientific report studies can’t touch. Imagine:
It makes judging human nature and gossip acceptable. Sunday school and ethics lessons can be overlooked when we dissect the behavior of Flaubert’s Madam Bovary. We can be arrogantly appalled, giving approval to our cherished ideas. Without apology or deference to a human being’s frailties we can smack our opinion about like a tennis ball hoping to aim and hurt. Or an author can give us that information on a character that forces our play; makes us look again and reconsider. Madam Bovary ‘loves without guile’ to gain sympathy and twist our presumptions. Then we can smack our ideas against the wall again because they’re not based on ‘real’ people and we can dissect them like an orange.
Fiction can be embellished and dressed up for drama. Sociology, psychology, philosophy can all be dry as melba toast. Even a well written biography can seem sanitized while memoirs can be diatribes against all enemies. Very often they’re engaging stories and an occasional deep tidbit. In her memoir Two or Three Things I Know for Sure, Dorothy Allison states, “Women lose their lives not knowing they can do something different. Men eat themselves up believing they have to be the things they have been made.” All very lovely and clear enough to understand. Fiction overrides polite society to talk from the gut. In Bastard Out of Carolina, Allison hands us a whirlwind, “Seven children! Bad enough Alma’s got so many, but at least she knows how to keep hers fed and clean. That little Maggie can’t even change a diaper without coming on a dizzy spell. Woman has eaten Beau alive. Like some vampire sucking the juice out of him. You cut that girl open and you’d find Beau’s blood pumping her heart.” I love those lines. Maggie’s a woman who takes female caretaking to a new level and helps me see through myself and to my husband.
Fiction makes dry subjects like history, science and anthropology exciting and easier to learn. Readers willingly enter the world of writers eager to learn and enjoy a time in history (or the future) that school routinely fettered with weights. Consider the current popularity of The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini or The Red Tent by Anita Diamant. They are both storylines we’ve heard before and see alluded to in the news everyday, but fiction gives an inside, human aspect to subjects we otherwise treat coldly and brush off.
Fiction invites imagination and insight. We come to fiction ready to believe and enjoy. Routine defenses and the usual ‘deaf ear’ are diminished as we let words and the stories of strangers absorb us. Like children taking in data from everywhere we are more vulnerable to the suggestions of a creative deft author. It’s one thing for the currently popular judgmental Dr. Knoweverything to say once more we are clueless about religion’s part in our life. It is another thing to read Barbara Kingsolver in The Poisonwood Bible, “I could never work out whether we were to view religion as a life-insurance policy or a life sentence.” Regardless of your view this statement is an invitation to define what you think.
Fiction entertains without expectation. Fiction gives grace and space from the workday world. We can and do enjoy a mini-vacation with a pal who doesn’t expect us to do anything but sit back and have fun. Readers define fun in many fiction genres from science and fantasy to sweet romance, but that’s just the point.
With fiction we’re not required to study, learn or even pay close attention. We’re invited to take from it what we will and enjoy the ride.
That’s what’s special about fiction. No final exams from teachers, scientists, historians or social gurus; only invitations.