Part of a conversation with a casual acquaintance about books and reading: "Oh, I never read that fiction junk," she said. "I only read non-fiction because I don't have time for made-up stuff that isn't real."
My husband's response every time I get weepy over a TV show or a movie: "You know it's not real, right? It's just a made-up story."
My response to my hair dresser's outrage over how The Hunger Games trilogy ended: "For me, the ending was perfect because it was real. Their society was horrible and ugly; did you really expect a happy ending where everyone who loved Katniss was safe?"
Her response to my tirade: "It's a novel. A piece of fiction. The author could end it any way she wanted, so why not end it happy?"
I've been thinking about these little tidbits lately, especially as I am working on broadening my reading scope, if only so I can recommend more than only novels and poetry to library patrons. What is truth, and where do we find it? What is "real"? What emotional responses are manipulated and which area authentic?
Why do I read fiction?
What purpose does it serve in my life, and why am I drawn to it; how does it influence me?
I think the distinction between fiction and nonfiction is thinner than most people imagine. A novel about, say, Lincoln and a biography about him each require research and extensive knowledge. The difference, someone might say, is that the biography would then be based on what "really" happened, on people who really lived, on what Lincoln said, thought, and did, whereas the novel would be based on...oh, yes: things that happened to Lincoln, people he knew, and what he did.
Or, maybe it's that biography doesn't have made-up people in it. All of the people are real, whereas in the novel, there could be made up characters. But of course, whether the character actually lived (Lincoln) or was someone invented by an author, the writer can't know either one. The writer has to bring to life a person, historical or imaginary, on the page, with historical details, knowledge of language patterns and social mores and ways of being.
For Abraham Lincoln to feel alive in a book—nonfiction or fiction—the writer uses specific techniques that help the reader feel like the representation is a true one. The Abraham Lincoln in a biography is just as crafted as the one in a novel.
But that's history, you might be thinking. What about fantasy? Fantasy is built on nothing "real." It's all made up. Which is true: there is no Charn (that we can get to), there is no Barony of Cressia or Havnor or Mordor. No humans were ruled by Jadis, no one fought John Farson; none of us have crawled with hairy feet up Mount Doom carrying a ring that could destroy the world.
But within fantasy novels I have found knowledge—truth even—that enlightened my world. "In the end, it's only a passing thing, this shadow...folks in those stories had lots of chances to turn back, only they didn't. They kept going because they had something to hold on to." That's just one example out of many.
Fantasy works—fantasy reads "true"—only when the characters are built on some sort of humanity. They might not be human, but they have something similar with people, and it is within those similarities that the connection is made. Independent of setting and plot, fantasy is real when it is based on the human condition.
In fact, I think that the quality of "realness" is one of my deciding factors for what makes a novel "good." To me, a good novel is one that captures something real about being alive and being human. It's why I generally despise happy endings, unless the book has earned them in some way: because life, in general, isn't full of happy endings. It's what we do with the time we're given (to crib from Tolkein again): that's where the truth of the story exists.
Don't get me wrong; there is plenty of fiction that isn't real. Most romance novels aren't. Most cozy mysteries, most gentle reads. In fact, there's plenty of fiction that is, to use my casual acquaintance's words, "fiction junk."
But that doesn't mean that fiction itself is junk.
"Fiction can bye truer than fact," Richard Peck once wrote. "It isn't a frivolous pastime unless your reading taste is for the frivolous.
The best fiction is concerned with the truths of humanity. It might not have solutions, but it seeks to understand the culture that creates it. It knows that the human experience is almost never black and white, but shades of grey, and that within the shading is the goodness and realness and true-ness of the story. It isn't only about story, about escaping real life for a fluffy, predictable narrative, but about people grappling with real troubles that people really grapple with.
All my life I have found truth in fiction. Truth that has shaped my decisions, my understanding of the world, my relationships and my hopes and my ambitions. In fact, that desire for truth is what keeps me coming back to fiction.
Here's an example. Last week, I was doing some research at the library, and came across a book review for Jenny Downham's new novel, Unbecoming. Books about redheads are nearly universally appealling to me, as are those that switch time frames and narrative voices, so yes: this is an Amy-style of novel, especially when you consider that it's set in England, and one of the main characters has Alzheimer's, and it's about secrets between generations. But when I read about it, I didn't just think "hmmm, that sounds like something I would like." Instead, I felt driven to read this. Luckily for me, my library had just gotten a couple of copies in, and one hadn't been checked out yet.
It tells the story of Mary, whose mother died during World War II, one of those personalities that lives large, even from her birth; the story of her daughter Caroline, who was raised by Mary's sister Pat, and Caroline's daughter Katie, arguably the main character, who is trying to survive her parent's separation, moving to a new town, and the troubles of teenage friendship. Finding out she has a long-lost grandmother (who also has dementia) doesn't seem like it will make her already-difficult life any easier, except Mary is able to act as a catalyst to Katie understanding some important things, both within her own life and about her mother.
I loved this book for many reasons. The story, the characters, the setting; the way the characters changed, made mistakes, found their courage. But the thing that made me lay my head on my kitchen table and weep a big wet puddle was a little piece of knowledge. A part of an answer to the series of questions that is central to my life right now: How did I fail at being the mother my children needed? Have I been a good mother despite that? What do I need to change in order to be a better mother?
Here is the little piece of knowledge. It is near the end of the story, when Katie and her mom have had a big blow up and they might have come to a better understanding of each other:
Katie thought of what the perfect mother might be like—one who approved of you and loved you and was interested in all that you did, but who had a fascinating life of her own so you didn't feel guilty about leaving her. A mother who was at home when you needed her, but absent when you wanted space, who would sew on your buttons and help with studying, but was also scintillating company and completely cool in the eyes of your friends. Katie thought this mother was possibly a combination of Pat, Mary, and Mum, and that made her smile, like it was feasible to take the best bits from three women and make a perfect parent.
Mary is made up. Caroline and Pat and Katie are fictional characters, their experiences invented stories. And yet, they brought me an answer. And proved one of my core beliefs: good fiction always has truth in it.
Sure: I could read a non-fiction book about becoming a better mother to teenagers. I have read them. But being told "do this, and then do that" rarely helps me. Instead, it is in the experiencing of a story—mine, or someone else's, real, or imagined—and coming to a piece of knowledge through the process of experience: that is when I am able to understand. That is how I can fit that little missing piece of truth into what is aching with lack.
I read that and it rang true. It made me feel...OK. Relieved of the pressure of having to be the right kind of mother for my kids. That description of Katie's perfect mom is probably fairly representative of what many teenagers wish their mom was like, and yet (and I think Katie knows this, too), no mother can be that mother. No mother can be perfect. Even me, with my kids, the people who formed out of my very own matter, even though it feels like I should be able to be everything they need—I cannot. Which is why we have more people in our lives that only our mothers.
Truth is scattered. Life, or the Universe, or whatever God you believe in: something wants to bring you the pieces of your truth. They are there if you watch for them. You can find them in conversations, in meditation, in moments of triumph and failure. You can find them in books, too. Even in novels.
Especially in novels.
And that is just one of the reasons I read fiction.
Why do you read what you read?