Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Why we need fiction

Some people claim they don't have time for fiction, for something that's not "true."  Others may prefer news and science and biography to a good novel.  That's fine.  But I need fiction in my life.

I don't know anyone who's said it better than Vida Winter, a character in The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield.  Vida, a reclusive writer, never answers questions about her own life with anything but a beautifully constructed story.  Here's what she says about truth and fiction:

"I've nothing against people who love truth.  Apart from the fact that they make dull companions.  Just so long as they don't start on about storytelling and honesty, the way some of them do.  Naturally that annoys me.  But provided they leave me alone, I won't hurt them.

"My gripe is not with lovers of the truth but with truth herself.  What succor, what consolation is there in truth, compared to a story?  What good is truth, at midnight, in the dark, when the wind is roaring like a bear in the chimney?  When the lightning strikes shadows on the bedroom wall and the rain taps at the window with its long fingernails?  No.  When fear and cold make a statue of you in your bed, don't expect hard-boned and fleshless truth to come running to your aid.  What you need are the plump comforts of a story.  The soothing, rocking safety of a lie."
                                      -From The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

I don't agree completely with Vida Winter.  Truth is important, and has its place.  But just as vital to mental health are the "plump comforts of a story."

Within fiction we can love and grieve and feel, all the while knowing it's not really true.  We explore dark crevices of the soul and enjoy triumphs we might never experience in reality.  We can escape from our own boredom or fear or heartbreak, long enough to regain our strength for the real fight.  And hidden in the "soothing, rocking safety of a lie," there awaits a great deal of truth, told in a way that is easier to accept than hard, cold reality.

The best stories are simply truth cloaked in pleasure, be it sword and sorcery or harlequin romance, murder mystery or tough-guy western, literary fiction or space travel.  In their safe, comforting way they reveal our own truths.     

Once I heard a beautiful quote.  I have no idea who said it, though similarly profound words appear in V for Vendetta.  Here's the version I live by:

"Politicians use the truth to tell lies.  Writers use lies to tell the truth." 

Long live the Story!

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