June 9, 2010

On the Truth of Fiction

On Monday, I received an e-mail from a woman who is organizing one of the stops on my upcoming book tour.  She seemed worried about the success of the event. Recently some Oregon Book Award authors visited area and drew sparse crowds. Her explanation was that people in her neck of the woods preferred non-fiction to fiction… “something that connects to their lives,” she explained.

While I understood she was trying to prepare me for the worst, the notion that fiction has little relevance to everyday life struck me as wrong.

I wondered what Harriet Beecher Stowe would say to that idea.  Her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, opened hearts and minds and changed the direction of a nation.

Upton Sinclair in The Jungle exposed the plight of the working poor, the corruption in the meat packing industry and paved the way for the rise of labor unions that brought an end to what he called “wage slaves.” I could go on because the examples are legion, but I won’t. This isn’t a lecture.

But I will take exception to the words that were offered as a fair warning. On one level, I knew what the woman meant.  We all want insights that will improve our lives; but had she forgotten that one of the world’s greatest teachers taught with parables? Writers of fiction and non-fiction don’t live on different planets. To the contrary, they dip their pens into the same inkwell of life. 

Sometimes we hear about an event that is true but so amazing it borders on fiction. “You couldn’t make that up,” we’re likely chuckle.

Of course, that’s the implied criticism of fiction isn’t it?  It isn’t real. A writer can imagine whatever he likes.  If a character is required to fly, then he flies. If he falls through a black hole and survives, that’s permitted too. Freed from natural law, how can we take fiction seriously? How can it teach us anything useful?

We forget one law governs most writing: we cannot deviate so far from human experience that our readers no longer recognize themselves. The wonder of fiction is that it can push that experience to extremes and in those extremes we discover our capacity for goodness, evil, compassion and love. A novel is true when it shines its light into these corners of ourselves… when it reveals our moral and spiritual potential. What greater connection to our lives could we wish for?