Why Fiction Matters

November 22, 2016 | By | 9 Replies More

dscf2959Imagine a world without stories. What a terrible place that would be! Stories hold up a mirror to the world; at its best, fiction has the power to be the “hammer with which to shape the universe.”

If all the world is a stage, then fiction writers have many parts to play on it. They draw us into the heart of complex matters and inspire us to see the world with new eyes. They take us on life-changing journeys, giving us the opportunity to embrace differences and slip into another’s skin.

Writing (and reading) fiction – alters our perceptual fields significantly. A good story can change a person’s world view. A good story leaves a deep, lasting impact on both the writer and reader. Scientific research has proven that reading literary fiction makes us more empathetic. It helps us to sense and understand other people’s emotions better. This in turn equips us to navigate complex social relationships in everyday life with more skill.

Next time you hear someone say that a book changed their life, take the time to ask them in what precise way it did so. You’ll be surprised at the range of responses you get. Once you process their answers, you’ll stop taking that statement at face value.

Words are uncannily powerful tools. They make us laugh and cry. They help to clarify our thought process. When I first read Michael Ondaatje’s novel, The English Patient, it felt like the story had opened my eyes to a new reality. Turning the pages of the book was electrifying. Losing myself in the story was a truly life- changing experience (and I don’t mean that in a flippant, new-agey way).

If I hadn’t read Ann Patchett’s operatic novel, Bel Canto, I would be a different – and poorer – person for it. These novels, like many other memorable works of fiction, trace the trajectories of individual lives to lay bare the complexities of human existence. Trust and betrayal, love, loss, and longing, sorrow and joy, hatred and lust – all embellish the rich narrative tapestry.

Authors share universal truths with us through the medium of the particular in their stories. Language illuminates the dark corners of our world and surprises us with sudden flashes of meaning. A well-told story sweeps us away like a swirling current. We are happy to go along for the ride as we turn the pages.

The relationship between fiction and truth (the fictitious world conjured up by the author and the world we inhabit) is an interesting one. Everything that exists in the “real world” is grist for the fiction writer’s mill. Every taboo is crying out to be questioned. Every unasked question to be asked, unapologetically and without fear.

Most fiction writers feel compelled to question dogma and reject the comfort of the status quo. The history of literature is paved with books that challenge accepted truths.

Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughter-House Five, Roxana Robinson’s Sparta, Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried all question the legitimacy of warfare. These stories give a voice to those affected by war and count the human cost of state-sanctioned violence. Searing, unforgettable, and devastatingly powerful, these works of fiction are classics in their own right.

Many writers have paid a heavy price for questioning accepted truths and for daring to present an alternate vision of the world. Censorship and bans have plagued their creations.

Nobel prize winning Turkish author Orhan Pamuk was charged with treason in his home country for daring to question the authorities in his work. Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses was banned in several countries across the world when it was published. (India was the first to ban it in 1988). The infamous fatwa was issued against Rushdie by the Ayotallah Khomeini of Iran in 1989 and as has been well documented, it made the writer’s life a living hell.

In early 2016, Perumal Murugan, a Tamil writer from southern India was hounded by a far-right Hindu group. Murugan was forced to tender an apology and withdraw his book, One Part Woman, from stores because the fringe group found it obscene. Tired of being harassed, Murugan publicly declared that he was giving up his writing career. It took a High Court verdict refusing to ban the book to bring the poor writer back to life.

Why do fiction writers weather the storms and keep writing? Why devote an inordinate amount of time and energy to crafting stories and creating flesh and blood characters that haunt readers? Because stories have the remarkable ability to touch lives.

Stories speak to people across cultures. They cross impenetrable borders and break down the tallest walls. They blaze like beacons in the night when darkness creeps up on us. They inspire and educate us, they keep us entertained.

We walk the paths fictional characters walk, we join them in their search for beauty and truth and meaning. In them, we see our own flawed humanity. Fiction helps us connect to our real selves in a way that no other art form possibly can.  CS Lewis famously said, “we read to feel that we are not alone.” We write fiction for the same reason as well.

1656308_10151893472751196_559059923_nVineetha Mokkil is the author of the collection, A Happy Place and Other Stories (HarperCollins, 2014).
She is currently at work on a novel set in 1950s Tibet and contemporary India. Her fiction has appeared in publications including The Santa Fe Writers Project Journal, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, and Asian Cha. She writes a monthly column for Litro magazine, USA.




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Category: On Writing

Comments (9)

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  1. MM Finck says:

    Very well said! Thank you so much for writing it for us.
    WWWB Interviews & Agents’ Corner.

  2. Pia Kealey says:

    Bravo, a thorough and well considered answer to the question of why fiction matters! It seems a very important topic for those of us who devote much of our time to reading and writing – I have touched on it in a couple of blog posts, too. At the most personal level, I consider writing my therapy and therapist. In the grand scheme, I believe fiction is the most powerful way to let people get inside something unfamiliar, internalize new and different ideas – which is why it can completely change people’s minds, I think. Thanks for the great post and reinforcement of the enormous value of fiction, which is something others do not always see.

    • Vineetha says:

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the piece, Pia. Often people tend to overlook the transformative power of fiction – its not “just stories” that get written. They have the power to influence both the writer and reader in a deep and meaningful way.

  3. Great article. Telling stories, as every small child, psychotherapist (and client) knows helps us make sense of our lives. You’ve flagged up some here that I’m off to explore as I didn’t know of them: One Part Woman and Bel Canto in particular. Thank you.

  4. Carol Hedges says:

    Reading books ~ from age 4, took me to places I never imagined. Books have been my solace and my friends. When life was unendurable, they were my hiding place and my refuge. Now, writing books is my passion and my purpose. The one always comes out of the other. I have never met a writer who was not a reader…. can’t be done. Thanks for this lovely analysis.

  5. Girish says:

    Very nice. Loved the perspective and greedily expect more. 😊😊🙏🏻🙏🏻🙏🏻

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