What is fiction for?

When a certain public figure made it known through his mouthpieces that when he says something that contradicts the perception of others, it’s to be called an “alternative fact,” this gave rise to much mirth in literary circles. Libraries and bookstores posted “Alternative Facts” signs with arrows pointing to the fiction section, suggesting that creating fiction, telling stories, is another way to describe an activity that otherwise might more baldly be called “lying” or “having a delusional view of reality” — unless, of course, one inhabits the alternative world in question.

I’m not sure I agree with what this says about fiction. Fiction, rightly understood, is neither a lie or a delusion. Though stories can be used to deceive and manipulate, I do not believe that is their true purpose. I do believe that a lack of appreciation for what stories are, how they work, and why we need them forms a large part of the reason why we find ourselves in such a state of crisis today.

“Tree” by Arthur Dove

To understand what fiction does, we must first recognize the realm in which each of us does indeed inhabit an individual world of “alternative facts.” This is the realm of our perceptions. When you and I look at a tree, our perception of the tree does not match exactly. Even if we have the same sense organs, variations within our organism can create smaller or larger variations in the way these senses operate, and thus in the inner picture we each receive of the outer object. This becomes clearer if we consider conditions like color-blindness. If I am color-blind and you are not, the perception of “green” might be integral to your perception of the tree, but absent from mine. And if the sense of sight is absent altogether, the situation is even more extreme.

And yet, even if we have different or missing sense perceptions, you and I can still agree that what we are sensing is a tree. Why is that? It’s because in addition to living in a realm made up of separate, isolated, and individual perceptions, we also live in a realm of wholeness in which each individual thing and each separate perceptual experience relates to every other. We can call this the realm of meaning. You and I have a living, flexible experience of the concept “tree” that allows us to include many different sense perceptions within it, and also to relate it to other meaningful concepts such as forest, nature, earth, plant, and so on. This is how we can communicate and understand one another.

In everyday life, meaning often eludes us. We tend to make use of it without noticing it, overlooking its role in creating what we call the “real” world, which we think of as made up from the aggregate of our sense experiences. When we do notice it, it tends to be when meaning is absent or fragmentary; perhaps you and I speak different languages and I cannot understand that what you call “Baum” is the same thing I mean by “tree.” Or you come from a land without trees, and have no way to comprehend what I mean by the word.

“Tree,” anonymous 17th century Italian

Such experiences may lead us to think that an ultimate realm of integrated truth is unattainable, but in fact they just provide more evidence of how our organism supplies us with limited, separate perceptions. This does not affect the fact that when we do achieve understanding, when we connect in the realm of meaning, it is an experience of wholeness. Though we are not able yet to access it fully and completely, this does not mean that it does not exist, or that we should cease to strive for it.

Emotions, wishes, and illusions get in the way of this striving, distorting our view and creating another set of “alternative facts.” Perhaps, due to some trauma or weakness in myself, I desperately want to believe the tree in my yard is bigger than the tree in yours, and so powerful is this wish that to me that it does look bigger, regardless of its actual size. Or perhaps in making such a fuss about my tree I’m amplifying its status in the neighborhood, since now nobody can think about anything else, and thus there is a kind of perverse truth to my claim. You might say that measuring the trees would solve the problem, but it would in fact only displace it. Unless you and I can agree on what our measuring stick means, and on how it connects with our perceptions of the tree, we will get nowhere.

In creating fictional narratives, writers and storytellers are working artistically with the realm of meaning. They use sense perceptions as part of their material, of course, but weave them into a whole in which the shape of the narrative, the rhythm of its composition, the alternating of tension and relaxation, the setting up and subversion of expectations, and other intangible elements form the actual fabric of the reader’s experience. It’s the movement, the creative energy, that matters, more than any fixed and finished “fact” — something we find incredibly hard to grasp in our materialistic world.

A story is a wholeness in which each part relates to every other. This is not necessarily a conscious, deliberate act of construction on the author’s part, but simply the essential definition of what a story is. A random collection of facts is not a story, unless we make it into one by finding meaning in it, giving it a shape that of itself it does not possess. And though each reader’s experience of the same work of fiction will be slightly different, due to different life experiences and different capacities for thought and emotion, each reader experiences it as a unified entity. Where there are places that are cryptic or baffling or unfamiliar, we look for meaning, we try to complete what presents itself as partial and incomplete with the fulfillment of our understanding.

The small stories we read for pleasure or edification are practice stories. They are here to help teach us something that we need to begin to learn at this point in history: how to craft the larger story that is made up of our own individual and interconnected lives, within the even greater framework of the cosmos, into a thing of beauty, purpose, and meaning. Works of fiction are not given to us to enable us to retreat into separate worlds, but to connect us, to integrate us, to bring us closer to wholeness. Even when they shatter us, destroy preconceived notions, make us feel uncomfortable or frightened or disturbed, this too is part of the path toward a greater whole, which sometimes requires disintegration in order to re-form reality on a higher level.

“Heart of the Andes” by Frederic Edwin Church

At least, that’s what I believe fiction is for, and what it can become when it’s practiced with honesty and integrity by both writer and reader. It’s a long road, but to me it’s the only one worth taking.

Why do you read fiction? What are you looking for, and what do you experience in that world?

18 thoughts on “What is fiction for?

  1. I do so agree with everything you’ve said here. In particular this struck a chord for me: “Works of fiction are not given to us to enable us to retreat into separate worlds, but to connect us, to integrate us, to bring us closer to wholeness.”

    What do I look for in fiction? It’s exactly that: a form of connection. Shared human values. A recognition of common wants and needs. However much I might blog about the ideas behind books what I’m looking for is the mind that has conceived them; I’m yearning for a conversation about those commonalities, even if they’re mostly one-sided.

    And reading fiction is often about respect: about giving an author space to expound, without interruption, without contradiction, until they’ve completed what theyhave to say. Sometimes this is even more satisfactory than a face-to-face conversation where dialogues can get sidetracked!

    Thank you for this, Lory. You’ve made an important distinction between two kinds of fiction, only one of which can be a power for good.


    1. And thank you for your thoughts, much appreciated as always. I especially like the point that we need to give works of fiction time and space to speak, a gesture of respect – and another life lesson we can learn from reading.


  2. I read fiction for the same reasons I travel–to enlarge my world and to put something interesting in my brain, so I have it whenever there’s time to think about it.
    In the 16th century of course, when Spenser published The Fairie Queene (an allegory), there were people who called it “lies.” Fiction had a very bad reputation through the end of the 18th century. Saying that a woman read novels was usually a kind of insult before 1800.


    1. Interesting historical perspective, you’re quite right. It takes a certain amount of inner strength to tell the difference between fiction and lies (or to find the truth in fiction). Maybe for a while people were working on different things, but right now I think this is a very important capacity for us to develop.


  3. This was such an excellent post, and I particularly like your tree metaphor/example. I do think that stories — fiction, non-fiction, and otherwise — have always played a valuable role. From teaching morals to just providing an outlet for cognitive reasoning, there are countless benefits to sharing stories in ALL formats (oral, written, etc). Books make me think and engage my brain, but they also expand my world view. Even stories set in a completely imaginary world broach issues like acceptance, and often provide a different way of looking at things through the eyes of the characters, and that’s an invaluable skill in the real world.


  4. I agree that fiction has to ground us in reality and bring us together, even when it’s fantasy. I wouldn’t call fiction a lie, any more than acting is lying (since I was a theater major, I think that way). It needs to be an honest portrayal of life in some way or the audience (reading or watching) can’t connect.


  5. So much of your post made me think of one of my favorite quotes: “It’s the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.” To me that quote is all about perception, how we all see and experience things differently based on our past experiences and beliefs and all that. But as for why I read fiction, I read it partly because it’s fun and I like the escape, but a big part of why I read and one of my favorite things about reading is getting to experience new perspectives and lives and thoughts and feelings in order to understand other people better. So I guess that fits the “greater whole” concept you were talking about, unless I misunderstood that. Reading gives empathy which does connect us.


    1. Yes, empathy with others can help us to reach out beyond our narrow limits and feel part of a greater whole. I do think fiction helps us exercise that ability.


  6. When I saw the title of this post, I wondered what the context would be. You took a different direction than I anticipated but I love your discussion. My immediate answer to the question was something like, “for enjoyment and exploration”. You’ve articulated something that I’ve never been good at explaining. I read fiction because it opens my mind and heart to ideas, people, situations, etc. that I would never encounter normally. I wish everyone who says they don’t read fiction because it’s not real could read this post!


    1. I think we don’t realize how much of our everyday experience is not “real.” If we did, we would turn much more to fiction and stories as a way to help us find a way through that puzzle.


  7. “I do believe that a lack of appreciation for what stories are, how they work, and why we need them forms a large part of the reason why we find ourselves in such a state of crisis today.”

    This is spot-on. I wasn’t aware of the fact that libraries and bookstores were poking fun at Trump’s “alternative facts” in this way. I’m a little disappointed. The best kind of fiction is a conduit for deeper truths, a means by which we can more clearly see ourselves and our world. This can be pleasurable or uncomfortable, depending on which truths are being explored and how they are being explored. It also depends on the person reading the book–as you said, each reader’s experience/perception of the book will be slightly different. But I don’t like this idea of books being likened to “alternative facts” or “lies”.


    1. Nope. Not the same thing at all. For me, the touchstone of fiction is whether it is a “conduit for deeper truths.” If it isn’t, if I find nothing but falsehood and superficiality there, then I have no reason to read it.


  8. Your essay on fiction is wonderful, and echoes so many of my own thoughts — and I agree with the thoughtful comments as well. One of my favorite quotes on fiction comes from Barbara Kingsolver: “Good fiction creates empathy. A novel takes you somewhere and asks you to look through the eyes of another person, to live another life.”


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