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.
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.
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.
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?