the value of fiction

I want to share with you something that I wrote, oh, in 2007 or thereabouts. (I am resisting the urge to edit myself. It is a strong urge.) And then I think I will respond to myself. And hopefully you will share your thoughts, too.

My best friend is self-educated, and claims that he reads only non-fiction because he sees no value in studying fiction. He thinks that fiction’s purpose is entertainment, and he wants to learn new facts and better understandings of the world, and thus needs to read non-fiction. I like to counter with, for example, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. This book is fiction, but I think it’s pretty clear that its purpose is to teach and educate and hopefully to change minds about one of the most important issues of the last century.

One of my favorite books is Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. This book is fiction, but closely based on the author’s experiences. It served an important purpose: it taught readers that the Spanish Civil War, and by extension war in general, is not one-sided and has no “right” side to it; once violence has begun, innocents on both sides will suffer and everyone finishes with blood on their hands. (I hope Hemingway will forgive me for brutally simplifying this masterly work for my purposes here.)

Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle is another great example of fiction that performed important social functions. Although Sinclair’s concerns began by centering on social issues, food safety turned out to be an enormous beneficiary of his work, as public response was enormous. Historical perspective on this book in its time helps us to understand its significance; however, just reading the novel without context would give a person new respect for the purposes of fiction.

The question of whether Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn should be taught in high schools strikes me as a parallel to my friend’s complaint about fiction. It is clear to me that this work should be taught to high school students because, while it is fiction, it brings to light some extraordinarily important and very real questions. For example, Huck’s relationship with Jim and the development of their friendship addresses the humanity of slaves and the moral rectitude of this American institution. The racial slurs need to be read by high school students – with the right guidance – to teach beyond the idea that they are wrong, to why they are wrong.

Thus, the question of whether to teach Huck Finn is the same as the larger question, why read fiction? (For that matter, if it’s not worth reading, why write it?) I find the study of literature (fiction and otherwise) to be pleasurable as well as important, so I take it upon myself to argue on its behalf. My assertion is that just because a story is not true, does not mean it can’t hold massive significance on wildly important issues. For that matter, if fiction were truly and solely for entertainment as my brother asserts, one could argue that there is value in this purpose as well. Humans need entertainment to draw their minds off of the problems of our world; to blow off steam; to relax and/or exercise our minds. If fiction served no higher purpose than these, it would still be worthwhile to write, and read, and study, fiction. However, I find that fiction can serve the purposes of, for example, bringing a nation’s and a planet’s attention to dire social issues: the enslavement of blacks by whites; the wage slavery of many white and nonwhite immigrants to the United States; the corruption and lack of hygiene in a meatpacking industry; and the damage inflicted by massive violence on a people. I continue to bring my friend works of fiction to read.

Urges to edit this piece of writing aside, I stand by my original position. On the other hand, I’ve also written before about the perils of reading historical fiction for educational purposes. While my friend has not specifically used this argument (that I recall), I think it’s an important concern. If we read really convincing, accurate, moving, memorable historical fiction, I think we run the risk of taking it as fact. Even the most discerning and aware reader (even me!) could end up with blurred lines in her subconscious about what she learned in a nonfiction vs. a fiction book. Once I learn a “fact,” it can be hard to call up its source, especially years later. This is especially concerning for someone like my friend in question, who is a highly intelligent man and who likes to have serious debates. I think he feels the importance of being able to cite one’s sources.

So I acknowledge the dangers of confusing high-quality historical fiction with fact. And even more confusing are the books that are billed as nonfiction and get questioned years after the fact (ahem, James Frey and Greg Mortenson). How’s a person to keep it all straight? Don’t even get me started on the library patron who was SURE, and could not be convinced otherwise, that John Grisham only writes nonfiction books. Everything in The Firm happened, she says. I couldn’t talk her out of it. (This is why the front of the book says, “This is a work of fiction…”)

So I do respect some of the challenges. My position hasn’t changed; if anything, I feel more strongly than ever that fiction is important. Some of the fiction I see doing good work in my day-to-day job is not even what we might call Important Fiction – it’s a lot of Louis Lamour, Danielle Steel, Debbie Macomber, and James Patterson, in fact. I work in a cancer hospital where my little library provides leisure reading for people experiencing incredible difficulties, great pain, or great fear. If reading Nora Roberts/J.D. Robb improves their day, I rate the value of even this pop/genre/fluffy/call-it-what-you-will fiction very, very high. My favorite examples are still Huck Finn, The Jungle, and the like. (Also Slaughterhouse-Five…) But it goes beyond such Important Books. Fiction can be beneficial, enlightening, world-changing, and uplifting in so many ways. Also, it can be fun. What’s so bad about that?

I’m not the first to ask this question or to try to answer it; and I’m certainly not the most eloquent, articulate, thorough, or exhaustive. Have you seen any great examples of answers to the question, “what is the value of fiction?” Do you have a great answer? I would love to hear (read) it. Do you disagree? I would be interested to read your argument on either side.

On a related note, I’m still hoping to find time to tackle Mightier than the Sword: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Battle for America by David S. Reynolds. Maybe I’ll have something new to contribute soon!

8 Responses

  1. I’m currently (very casually) reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I wanted to combine it with a visit to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s house. 🙂

    If reading Nora Roberts/J.D. Robb improves their day, I rate the value of even this pop/genre/fluffy/call-it-what-you-will fiction very, very high.

    Totally agree. I think the effect of books is different for each reader. I know I’m incredibly moved by non-fiction — reading about real lives. Fiction, in my mind, is a conversation spoken in allegory. Just as effective, if done well — and certainly not about entertainment only.

  2. I’ve gotten much more into nonfiction in the last year or so; I’m finding so much good nonfiction out there, or my interests are leaning heavily towards it, or something. But I will always love fiction. Thanks for your comments!

    I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin when I was very small; then again maybe in my early 20s? And am now kind of interested in a 3rd reading. My first two yielded very different feelings, and – I want to read Mightier Than the Sword!

  3. Non fiction can give us the facts about a place, time, or event, but fiction can give us a look at the people. If we understand more about the people and their feelings and motivations at the time perhaps we avoid or at least slightly change the historical events.
    It saddens, and depending on the circumstances and situation can upset me when present day people carry on with over zealous passion about the wrongs committed by some character of the past. Often those ‘wrongs’ were considered very ‘right’ at the time.
    Spend more time understanding the people and their ideas and feelings and it will help to lower your blood pressure.
    As a bonus, the reader might learn something useful about the event not covered in the non-fiction presentation of the so called facts.

  4. I know what you mean, Dave. Historical fiction can be good for mood, or context. Although to be fair, there’s some good nonfiction out there that can paint a lovely picture, too.

  5. […] talked a few times recently here at pagesofjulia about fiction and nonfiction. (See for example my discussion of the value of fiction.) Most recently, in my review of In Cold Blood, I ponder the fine line between the two. Sometimes […]

  6. […] blogged about this concept before, and I still don’t have an answer. And yet I still love to read historical fiction, and I […]

  7. […] Fiction has a great deal to offer: entertainment, yes, but also the opportunity to get inside someone else’s head, to understand their processes and motivations; or to travel to another time or experience another culture, and likewise to better understand the workings of that time or place or culture. And these are valuable lessons to learn for the important everyday work of being human: the ability to empathize, or to understand or even imagine the motivations of others, makes us better people. (There have been some studies on this. See for example the Guardian here and here.) Fiction is good: I’ve said this before. […]

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