Since spring quarter ended and summer began, things have looked a little different around here. A much slower pace, many more hours of babysitting, and [without the demands of class and assigned reading] the reading of fiction. Sigh. My favorite.
I have always loved fiction. I’m certain that from the time I was two years old, I was spending more time in imaginary worlds (make-believe and fantasy, day-dreaming, then novels, TV shows, movies, and plays) than anywhere else. I realize this may be quite baffling for those with a greater appreciation for practical pastimes- in which you’d avoid sticking your head in the clouds. They may (understandably) ask why. Why spend so many hours on made-up people with fake dilemmas, when there are so many other practical ways to spend your time?
While I understand that position and believe it has its time and place, I confess that I am desperately and irrevocably addicted to story, and I don’t think I am alone.
To begin, I first want to offer an important clarification. I think there may be some who hold that fiction is something untrue, something false. But this really is a wrong assumption- fiction is in fact about very possible selves in possible worlds.
Psychologist Keith Oatley argues that stories are the “flight simulators” of human life. “Fiction projects us into intense simulations of problems that parallel what we face in reality. And like a flight simulator, the main virtue of fiction is that we are able to have a rich experience and don’t die at the end.” We get to experience what it’s like to be a hero, to take massive risk, to pursue an adventure. Even daydreams and night dreams offer another play on story. Dreams focus on a protagonist (the dreamer) who struggles to achieve something. There’s very often the presence of plot, theme, setting, point of view, etc,– and dreams, like fiction, are ripe with all kinds of problems and conflict.
Interestingly enough (though not surprising to me in the least), Oatley’s studies show that the more fiction one consumes, the higher s/he scores on tests of empathy and social ability. It measurably enhances our abilities to empathize with other people and connect with something larger than ourselves.
That is something wonderful, something beautiful to me. Moving away from the psychologists and studies– on a personal level, fiction has inspired me, challenged me, given me hope, pressed me to face life realities of loss, death, disappointment, heartache. It’s taught me much about courage and love and relationships. It’s given me opportunity to escape into worlds of possibility (and my favorite- magic) when I sometimes just need a break from aforementioned life’s realities.
I will add, however, that while working through fictional social dilemmas does equip us to deal with the real thing, it does so most readily when we let it. I think there’s very likely a difference between consumption purely for its own sake, and a useful/aware consumption that allows us to make connections, grow, and experience these transcendent moments.
I know there’s a lot I am leaving out, and so much more that can be said about story and the unique role of storytelling in our lives (be it novels, plays, songs, parables, poems), but I’m going to end it here for now – with the gaps – and leave you one of my favorite quotes on the why of fiction: