The Truth About Fiction

23 05 2012

A young friend of mine raised the hypothetical question of whether fiction really has any relevance in the modern world beyond mere entertainment. Information is truth, and fiction is, by definition, untruth. Fabrication. Deception.

With all the propaganda being generated for political purposes, with all the distortions and outright lies being used to manipulate people’s actions, opinions and votes, isn’t there some kind of social imperative to cultivate critical thinking and strive for truth, rather than to muddy things further with obscure messages buried in fictional worlds? Moreover, of what use is literature in a world where the visual image and Twitter rule?

Oy. Where to begin.

Human beings have always told stories. It is our way of making sense of the world. Even scientists tell stories. They take a body of experimental evidence and create a narrative to weave it all together into a coherent explanation of events. When a new piece of evidence emerges, the story is modified to accommodate it.

“Fiction” is our way of distinguishing between stuff that is mostly true and stuff that is mostly made-up. But the line is very fuzzy. Historical and biographical novels– based on facts as we know them but with imagination filling in the gaps — and Fox Network News are good examples.

But even fiction which pretends to be nothing more than imagination is far from being just fantasy. Good fiction, although it may be a story about something that never happened to people who never existed, is filled with truth. That is why the story resonates with us. Why we relate to the characters, why it makes us think. Fiction is filled with truths about ourselves, our relationships, our hopes, fears and beliefs. A good work of fiction can help us understand the world, how others live and feel, what could be and what mustn’t be, in a way that strict documentary can’t. (Although the best documentaries present their facts in the form of an engaging story.)

As a form of information transfer, fiction communicates the author’s values, perceptions, vision of what the world is or should be, or might be, and in sharing these works, readers communicate to one another that they agree or disagree. Yes, we could also do this reasonably effectively with essays and studies, but that’s not the best way. Because, as I said, humans make sense of the world in terms of stories. Religions teach by means of stories. Wisdom is shared through myths, tales, metaphor, fables, parables. They are not lies. They are the optimal media for communicating a particular kind of truth among human beings.

Does this have any relevance in the modern world? Yes, because human beings are still human, and we still understand our world in terms of stories. And there are complex truths best told through the medium of the fictional narrative. We use it as a kind of shorthand when we talk about reality: when someone makes reference to a “Brave New World” scenario, we know what they mean, even if we have only read about the book, not read the book itself. These fictional narratives are intensely powerful, and will continue to be, even when they leave the printed page and move to a different medium.

Should we cultivate critical thinking skills and strive to understand some kind of objective reality as best we can? Absolutely. Because that is how we are able to extract the truth from the story and the metaphor. That is how we understand what is fact and what is propaganda. But as long as we are human, we will always use stories as a part of the process of acquiring and passing on wisdom.




4 responses

23 05 2012

Sci-Fi has always been good at looking at moral and social issues – but as they are one step removed from us, they become easier to talk about. Also, I’ve been doing a lot of work on talks for educators lately, on how to use science fiction in the classroom – specifically Steampunk. Verne’s dreams of various technologies inspired many a young scientist to make a new reality. and we are all better for it.

23 05 2012

Absolutely. Just because it is fiction, i.e., not specifically or technically truth, does *not* automatically make it a lie. As Pilate says in Jesus Christ Superstar, “What is truth? Is truth unchanging law? People have truths — are yours the same as mine?” Which is brilliant, especially for a musical, but is also, honestly, truth.

Fiction is a very effective way of teaching without lecturing. Since the invention of the printing press (which made it easier and more cost effective to mass produce written material, as I am sure we all remember from social studies class), people have disguised truth in fiction. It’s a demonstrated fact that humans retain better when presented with information in an entertaining, engaging manner. And just from personal experience, I learned more about morality, Doing the Right Thing, the idea that other people have their own thoughts, motivations, problems and dreams, and many other such concepts from reading fiction than from any “lesson”.

I also became interested in many things after having read fiction in which characters used knowledge, inventions, philosophies and whatever else that I had not previously heard of, or had only heard snippets about. I learned French in school because I wanted to read the Maigret mysteries in the original, as most of the jokes are lost in translation, and Maigret is inherently funny in a way that is incredibly French. My Taoism came about from all kinds of fictional experience, all the way back to Star Wars.

I suppose I could go on, but this is *your* show, Justine, so I’ll just stop here, saying I agree with you. Fiction is absolutely necessary in today’s world. Where would be be if someone had decided we didn’t “need” Shakespeare, or Tolkien, or Marvel, or Madeline L’Engle, Lloyd Alexander, Peter S. Beagle…. the list goes on.

23 05 2012

No need to hold back, Vikki. I don’t consider this to be “my” show. When I throw these essays out there, I want it to become a group thing. Aside from deriving our wisdom from stories, we arrive at it through discussion and debate. I am pleased that you agree with me, adding your own personal examples to bolster my points. But I would be equally delighted if someone came on here and began disputing the point, as long as they were doing so in a proper spirit of argumentation. We don’t advance our knowledge in an echo chamber.

31 05 2012
Terri Bruce

Absolutely stories have a place in our world! It’s hard to empathize with facts – stories are mirrors of the human experience and through them we can live other lives, experience other places, other times. Like Harry Potter’s pensieve, we can be entertained, sure, but we can also gain firsthand knowledge of the human condition from the safety of our couch/theater/bus/train, etc.

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