Wednesday 20 January 2010

Thoughts on fiction

I have recently come to realise that a disproportionate amount of my time is taken up with fiction in one form or another, and I wonder whether this is healthy, living as I do in the real world. I write fiction, I spend a lot of my spare time reading it, and am in danger of becoming addicted to DVDs of films (more fiction). I haven't worked out the percentage of my time taken up by fiction, nor shall I, as I'm rather afraid of what the answer might be.

Fiction is something which is so built into our culture (and most others), that it's difficult to imagine life without it, but why are we so attracted to something which is, by definition, untrue? And although this may seem an obvious question, what is the real attraction? For me, I don't think it's escapism (unless life is being particularly difficult), and there are other things I could and ought to do with my time. I read non-fiction as well, but the pull of a good novel is hard to resist.


  1. I know exactly what you mean, and it's worse for me: I live in a constant nightmare! I read horror, I watch horror, and I write horror!
    Ahhhhh........ :o

  2. A tricky question, Frances. For me, escapism plays a part (although as a writer, the worlds I create are grubby, compromised and morally ambiguous, so no change there -- although everyone is impeccably spoken).

    I think one of the main appeals of fiction is that it gives a pattern to events which in life would be essentially meaningless or chaotic. In fiction there is--or should be--some kind of organisation. That doesn't necessarily mean a pat resolution (the choice *not* to resolve events can be perversely satisfying) but there is always a sense of a coherence which is missing from everyday life.

  3. Thanks for your comments, Tim and Akasha. Tim - I see what you mean. Stories have a structure, and an ending, whereas our lives are to some extent unplanned, and (if we're in a state to read novels!) haven't ended yet, with a great deal of uncertainty still to go. But I think the thing that intrigues me the most is the way we identify so closely with something we know to be unreal. Books make us laugh - that's understandable - but they make us cry too. We become so involved that there must be a part of us that actually believes, if only briefly, that the story we're reading is true. In some way we cross a boundary between truth and fiction, and for a short time it is as though fiction becomes the truth. I think this is especially true with children, where the line between truth and fiction is much more blurred; hence imaginary games ("you be Batman and I'll be Robin"), imaginary friends etc. And maybe that's part of it. Perhaps we never really outgrow the imaginary - but very real-seeming- worlds of childhood.

  4. For starters, I think reality is a bit overrated.

    But reality is also unattainable in any case. Humans tell themselves stories about thier own lives on a continual basis.

    I have a friend who studies people's responses to life-threatening illnesses. The biggest shock for most of them isn't the fact that they are suddenly facing mortality, but that the whole story of their life is suddenly interrupted. Losing the thread of your story is one of the most disorienting, shocking things that can happen to you. We need stories.

  5. What a fascinating question, Frances. I think, for me, it's about emotional engagement. I'd wear out my friends and family with my need for deep emotional contact if I didn't have books - I'd constantly be poking and prying and trying to get them to tell me how they feel. So it's novels or becoming an agony aunt!

  6. Hi David. Interesting point, but surely the reason reality is unattainable is that it hasn't yet been attained? Unless we're talking about reality now, which has gone as soon as we've identified it. As far as people and death are concerned, in my experience (as a nurse) it's often denial: a 'this can't be happening to me' reaction. Going off at a complete tangent (I think we already were!)- it's always interested me that people with a relgious faith can accept tragedy when it happens to other people (as seen in the media, for example) but lose or challenge their faith when it happens to them.

    Hi Alis. Yes - I think I'd go along with the emotional engagement thing, although I still find the whole subject of fiction very complex and (to some extent) mysterious.

  7. Sure, denial is a typical response. But the reason they think "this can't be happening to me" is that it doesn't fit with the story they are telling themselves about their life. Having mortality suddenly loom up out of nowhere is like having a flying saucer suddenly appear in a novel about a farm family dealing with a bad winter: This can't be happening.

  8. David - I think death is written into the 'story', but not yet! However, I'm not sure about the story of your life theory. How can we have a story, when we have no idea what's going to happen next? And if we do have one (a story, that is) surely experience must teach us early on that it never works out that way? As for death, I think Rose McCauley put it well when she said that it was 'too outrageous to be true.'

    Pop over for our gathering on 15th. and we can discuss in more detail!