Fiction – is there a reason for it? A point to it? Most importantly for us novelists, why do we write it?
Speaking for myself, the main purpose of reading fiction has always been entertainment. Losing myself in a good book on a rainy afternoon is an enormous pleasure. I don’t usually expect a novel to be life-changing; that is not my primary reason for reading fiction. If it’s an historical novel it might inform and educate me; a comic novel will entertain or irritate me; science fiction might stretch my understanding with varying levels of success, but a novel tackling some kind of moral dilemma will always get my full attention.
Novelists have always drawn attention to the ills of society, encouraging us towards change by subtle suggestion. This is why some draconian regimes condemn the writing and reading of novels as a subversive activity, one 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 all come under scrutiny. In the past, 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. Writers such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mary Shelley and Harper Lee continued the tradition of exposing racism, prejudice and social exclusion through fiction.
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. Popular novelists like Jodi Picoult, Lionel Shriver and Lisa Genova explore gritty moral and ethical problems such as euthanasia, mental illness and genetic engineering in their fiction. Stories featuring divorce, domestic violence, infidelity and depression plumb the depths of human misery and reveal a way forward, a change for the better.
Self help books might counsel us on how to upgrade our lives and journalists report the world as it is, bringing us the truth without commenting or suggesting improvements. Novelists prefer to dramatise rather than instruct and in so doing, encourage the reader to identify with certain characters and join them on the kind of emotional journey that 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 with the human condition. 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 writing that novel might just change someone’s life.