One of my friends recently remarked that reading or writing fiction in his opinion was a waste of time. Of course, he made this remark in jest. Yet I started to look at the value of fiction in a broad context in response to his criticism.
Would readers learn more from a book that teaches them how to run the latest computer application, or how to build a backyard deck than from fiction? Some would content that as fiction is merely imaginative, therefore it’s value is less than non-fiction which somehow relates more to “real life.” However we define what constitutes the real.
So my defense of fiction rests on certain benefits that it offers to both the human imagination and the soul. The soul in this case is used to define that part of us that gains awareness and depth from reading fiction and will be used interchangeably with spirit, while the imagination is that part of us that allows us to suspend disbelief and enter into a magical world of story-telling.
The oral tradition of story-telling is an art that has survived from early prehistoric hunting-gathering societies of the past to the written stories of today. Through it we maintain a connection of what essentially makes us human in our thoughts, emotions and even dreams.
A good story provides entertainment and an escape from the problems of everyday life, or it can even rarefy or clarify the experiences of everyday life through the lens of imaginative play. With fiction you can go anywhere in the world and to any particular time. You can go to the deep south with Alice Walker’s The Colour Purple, or the boondocks of Western Australia in Tim Winton’s Dirt Music. Anything and everything is possible in scope of fiction with only the human imagination and spirit as the limit.
How many times have you curled up with a good book and found yourself relaxing right into your chair or sofa? The pace of reading is set to you, not to how fast images can be flashed across a TV screen. We need to allow ourselves the opportunity to relax in such a way in order to give ourselves some well-earned R ‘n R.
If we stop valuing imagination, creativity and dreams in our lives, then we must reexamine our attitudes. Why do we not allow ourselves to read something for the joy that it offers? Why must we always justify our time in terms of being productive?
Richard Green in his book on writing, The Writing Experience, remarks that Western culture is left-brain oriented instead of right-brain, so one consequence of this imbalance is linear thinking that limits our mind from new possibilities, instead of holistic thinking where we more readily see the interconnections. Reading fiction reconnects us to the right hemisphere of our brain, allowing for greater creativity, intuition and the ability to understand the “big picture.”
Reading fiction can make life rich and enjoyable but when we are preoccupied with other matters of existence, we find it hard to justify. Of course, a work of fiction can also be enlightening.
Our novel, Nexus: A Neo-Novel has a compelling narrative with spiritual insights interwoven into the plot. This unique style allows the reader to grow through the experience of the characters in the novel. Debby and I selected the narrative format because you can teach in a fun way without becoming “preachy” and at the same time we communicate an important message from the journey taken by each character in Nexus.
Fiction also gives us the unique capacity to empathize. As readers we can connect to the struggles and emotions of the hero or heroine of a story and that connection is important in allowing the human heart to have compassion.
Some of the excesses of human history were perpetrated by intelligent persons who lost empathy as individuals or as a collective. Some ideologies such as Nazism, Stalinism or Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge placed more value on their ideology than to value human life. This is not to say that reading fiction will necessarily make you a better person but the empathy aroused by it allows you to step outside your normal frame of reference, even if you enter the mind of killer as in Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris.
Mention of that book leads me to my final point: Fiction has an impact on society, just a concrete example would be the many fiction books that have been turned into movies in recent years.
Literature has also been a vehicle to express concern for social problems. Tolkien shows his concern for totalitarianism in Europe during his time with the image of Sauron as an omniscient eye and with the power of the “one ring to rule them all.” George Orwell’s Animal Farm is a clear satire of Stalinism. Time Machine by H.G. Wells shows the problems of technology in a futuristic world and The Ugly American by Lederer and Burdick is a scathing critique of American policy in Asia.
Books in the genres related to our novel such as The Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield, or Dan Millman’s Peaceful Warrior series have a narrative flow but also present insights. So fiction can teach in many ways about the human experience, while eliciting imaginative play. So let your imagination soar with a good book. You know that it’s good for your mind and soul.