At the risk of turning this into a literary corner, my column last week was only intended as a prelude to a somewhat bigger discussion. Nostalgia about a certain genre of books is all well and good on its own, but the question is: just what exactly is the point of fiction? Why has making stuff up been such a crucial part of civilization since the dawn of time? And why does it still matter now?
Of course I am already a convert to the cause- I shudder to think how much duller my life would have been without fiction. However I am playing the devil’s advocate and asked myself that question. What is the necessity of fiction?
Why are so many driven to write it and even more driven to read it? After all, it invites us to enter a world we know is not true and to become so wrapped up in that scenario that for a moment, the story is treated as if it was actually real.
This temporary self-delusion is necessary for any work of fiction to capture your attention, but an alien species might find this behavior very puzzling indeed.
The more obvious explanation to me is that we are driven to be imaginative, both for evolutionary and for practical purposes. Fiction is simply a manifestation of the same imagination we use to solve countless other problems.
Every jump to the next stage of civilization has taken a lot of imagination- from using tools to inventing the internet. And of course you don’t have to be the writer of the book to have your imagination thus stimulated. Reading fiction is an immersive and participatory experience.
And I think fiction also helps us to confront our worst fears and exorcise them in some way. Reading fiction with its conflicts and tragedies help us to articulate our darker side and confront it.
People might disagree on the importance of this point, but it strikes me as important. We confront our fears in many ways, and it seems to me that fiction is one of them.
The other side of the coin is fiction as wish-fulfillment- exposing yourself to things that you want or positive messages you wish to reinforce in yourself.
Furthermore, fiction frequently provides intellectual nourishment on a few levels. For one, the mere act of reading is a form of mental gymnastics. And secondly, it often proves to be a way to learn new things about the world.
Whether you are reading ‘mainstream’ writers like Michael Crichton and John Grisham or more ‘serious’ writers like Phillip Roth and Ian Mcewan, you take in plenty of factual data and intriguing ideas.
On a more mundane level- and one I briefly discussed last week- fiction is just an escape from reality. I would only be half-joking if I suggested that too much exposure to reality can be a bad thing.
People need to get away and temporarily at least exist in a place far removed from the daily grind. Reading in this sense becomes akin to therapy.
Obviously there are other reasons for the appeal of fiction beyond the scope of this article, but these ones strike me as the most salient. And, despite my misgivings about the kindle and other electronic means of reading fiction, I feel that the motivations and magic behind reading fiction will not change.
Minega Isibo is a lawyer