blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit

blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit
By Alison Hobbs, blending a mixture of thoughts and experiences for friends, relations and kindred spirits.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The importance of fiction

War and Peace, front page of the 1st edition
Chris told me the other day that a colleague of his had announced, during the course of a lunchtime conversation, that he had given up reading fiction.

"What, altogether?" I asked.

"I think so."

Food for thought here. I didn't hear why the man had given up fiction, as if it were a shockingly shameful habit. I suppose he had some sense of guilt for having indulged in it. Maybe he felt it had been a waste of his time when he could have been improving himself with factual reads.

The trouble is, as any student of history must realise, facts are slippery things. They're a little too close to statements of opinion for comfort. When you put them together, facts are open to interpretation. I am suspicious of facts, statistics and the results of research. Some of them are lies.

Fiction, on the other hand, doesn't pretend to be true; by definition, it's invented.

Here's where I leap to the defence of fiction. Paradoxically, I believe that an invented story––of course I'm talking about story telling of high calibre––can convey more truth than a whole cartload of facts. I have said this elsewhere in my blog: if ever I want to learn something about a country or community I don't know very well, but would like to understand a little better, I'll pick up a novel about it before reading a documentary book, because what a novelist describes is far richer and more memorable. Every time! A successfully written novel about a particular place, having immersed you in background colour and dialogues, tones of voice, sensual impressions, having compelled you to identify with the sorrows or triumphs of its inhabitants, will make you feel as if you have actually been there, even though it may be far away, or distant from the present day, or both. You don't get that from perusing a guide book, however hard you try to study it.
There was no paving; during the rains the village (it was really no more) slipped into the mud. Now the ground was hard under the feet like stone. The two men walked in silence past barbers' shops and dentists'; the vultures on the roofs looked contented, like domestic fowls: they searched under wide dusty wings for parasites. 
(That's 1930s Mexico evoked by Graham Greene in the first chapter of The Power and the Glory.)

Take people too. If you want to understand something about how people interrelate, either you can plough your way through psychology textbooks and all their jargon, or you can enjoy a work of fiction. I guarantee that the fiction (not just novels, but also drama and short stories) will give you the deeper insight, and by means of an easier read.

Reading non-fiction can make you more knowledgeable, wiser even, can affect you in detrimental ways as well, but I doubt if it can change you from the inside out, as exposure to a great novel can. I have never been quite the same since finishing Patrick White's Riders in the Chariot, thirty or more years ago. I can still recall chunks of it verbatim, such as this bit about the strongest, least arrogant character in the book, whose name is Mrs Godbold:
Finally the woman sitting alone in front of the deserted shed would sense how she had shot her six arrows* at the face of darkness, and halted it. And out of those arrows, others still would split off, from the straight white shafts.
* i.e. her children

Biographies are akin to fiction with their inclusion of dialogue, their selective plot line, limited point of view and mood-setting descriptions; they always claim to tell an absolutely true story, but you must admit it's often a very biassed one, especially when it's auto-biography, so why should it this literary genre be considered superior to a work of fiction? It doesn't have the same "resonance," as E.M. Forster put it (in Aspects of the Novel).

A quotation from the most consummate and resonant of novels, Tolstoy's War and Peace:
Natasha, leaning on her elbow, the expression of her face constantly changing with the narrative, watched Pierre with an attention that never wandered––evidently herself experiencing all that he described [...] He told of his adventures as he had never yet recalled them. He now, as it were, saw a new meaning in all he had gone through. Now that he was telling it all to Natasha, he experienced that pleasure which a man has when women listen to him––not clever women who [...] wish to adapt it to some thought of their own and promptly contribute their own clever comments prepared in their own little mental workshop––but the pleasure real women give who are gifted with a capacity to select and absorb the very best a man shows of himself. Natasha, without knowing it, was all attention: she did not lose a word, no single quiver in Pierre's voice, no look, no twitch of a muscle in his face, or a single gesture. She caught the unfinished word in its flight and took it straight into her open heart ...
I'd defy anyone to show me what is "untrue" about that passage.

My suspicion is that people (men, particularly!) reject fiction because it's too true; it gets under their skin and alarms or embarrasses them; it can sometimes be too close to the bone to bear. But if we look our fears in the face they do become more bearable. Ever since Aristotle's day, since the ancient Grecian tragedies played in the amphitheatres, fiction has been helping us to do that. The process is called catharsis.