What is the Value of Fiction?
Someone in one of my Linked In writers groups, taking his cue from an excellent article in the Asia Times, reiterated the original author's question: What's the value of fiction ? What follows below is my answer:
It's one thing to challenge your mind by reading alternative theories not held by you. Someone, I forget who, once said the distinguishing characteristic of a superior intellect is to simultaneously hold two opposing sides of an argument.
But aesthetic and philosophical differences aside, there's no reason to read the work of someone who's plainly a bigot and predicates their bigotry, racism and partisanship on hatred and ignorance. This is why I will never read a novel by Brad Thor, a man who, in my mind, isn't qualified to write the daily specials on a whiteboard at Kroger's. I have no patience for religious and right wing partisanship and paranoid bigotry, especially if your political partisanship is based on a pack of lies and/or an insistence on subtracting from the store of human knowledge.
As for fiction being necessary or not: Of course it is, otherwise it wouldn't still endure to this day. Ever since A TALE OF GENJI, humans have sought to clarify the human experience and all the attendant emotions and struggles through fiction. It's been said that novelists lie in order to reach universal truths and I firmly believe that. Through the clarifying process of storytelling, we can chip away at the detritus of modern life like Praxiteles chipping away at granite until he finally "found" the statue of his ideal woman.
And sometimes life doesn't make much sense to many if not all of us until it's told through a fictional prism because the totality of human existence is a struggle against chaos and our vain attempts to exert some control and order in that chaos. Chaos is the natural order of things but Mankind's single defining, overarching characteristic is a stubborn refusal to accept that chaos and to establish some order within it even through the falsehoods and illusions of pareidolia. Fiction helps gives us perspective, makes us more susceptible to universal truths and insights that would otherwise elude us in the chaotic matrix of happenstance.
And, at the bottom of all fiction, is one question, one plot: "Who am I?" It is really the only plot or, at most, two: A stranger arriving or someone going on a journey. Fiction at its best gives us a glimpse into what's possible and attainable in real life even though for most of us, that possibility is on a voyeuristic level. Still, voyeurism and imagination is the first step toward self-discovery and self-invention.
And, at a time in human history when most human beings feel disposable and like so much flotsam and jetsam, fiction helps give us that anchor to the theoretically possible.
Is fiction necessary? God, yes! Seeing the struggles and joys and despair of fictional characters and seeing their resolution is an atavistic need shared and cultivated by humans since cavemen grunted stories at the campfire. Thank god we have novelists and short story writers who persist and insist on feeding that primal need so we'll always have at least a pinprick of insight into the absolute.