Fiction – is there a reason for it? A point to it? Why do we read it, or write it?
The main function of fiction has always been to entertain. Losing oneself in a good book on a rainy afternoon is an enormous pleasure but we don’t usually expect a novel to be life changing; that is not the primary reason for reading fiction. But novelists have always written about the human condition. In fact, you could say that it is one of the duties of the novelist to draw attention to the ills of society and encourage us towards change. This is why some draconian regimes condemn the writing of novels as a subversive activity, which has to be banned. These governments fear novel writers because they offer a different version of the world to the one they are keen to perpetuate.
Novelists use words to explore the personal and expose the public. Wide ranging topics like social injustice, political hypocrisy, apartheid, prejudice and discrimination have all come under scrutiny. Social commentators such as Charles Dickens, Charles Kingsley and George Orwell have highlighted the plight of minorities, the sick, and other, mostly ignored sectors of society by using them as the subject matter of their novels.
As well as drawing attention to themes and events in the wider world, fiction can also give a voice to the discussion and resolution of situations closer to home. Gritty moral problems such as euthanasia, mental illness and domestic violence have been addressed very successfully in fiction. Stories featuring divorce, infidelity and depression plumb the depths of human nature and reveal a way forward, a change for the better.
Self help books counsel us on how to upgrade our lives and journalists report the world as it is; they tell us the truth without suggesting improvements. But novelists are advised to show rather then tell, to dramatise rather than instruct and in so doing, we can encourage the reader to identify with a certain character and join them on the kind of emotional journey they, the reader, would like to make themselves. Reading a novel about a woman struggling to deal with a violent husband and a welfare system that offers no assistance, and how she eventually overcomes her difficulties, reassures the reader that they are not alone in their own straitened circumstances. By seeing a character taking control of her life the reader glimpses the possibility of change.
Novelists can alert mankind to injustice and outrage, even impending global disaster, in a way that non-fiction writers cannot. They can connect. The human race has always made sense of the world by telling stories; the novelist can share her childhood traumas or painful teenage memories in the hope or expectation that her readers will feel some empathy, an understanding borne out of a shared experience.
It’s a bold statement, but try it; you might change someone’s life.