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.