Thursday, September 27, 2007

Why I read fiction . . .

I've had a hard time understanding how some people can claim that there is little value in focusing on the reading of literature that is not steeped in reality. These are the people that think that if you're not reading a biography, historical account, informational books, or anything else regarded as non-fiction, then you're essentially wasting your time because you could be doing something better. I can't see how they can maintain this viewpoint when there is so much to be had from the reading of a well-constructed, well-written fictional story. I suppose this is because I've never had a chance to get much out of non-fiction, as I'm usually too bored by page two to understand much of what is being talked about.

Here are a few things that I find most interesting about fiction. This isn't to say that these can not be found as well in non-fiction, but simply, that they do exist in fiction, and, in my opinion, to a greater and more accessible extent.

1.) Symbolism and Deep Meaning. Aside from the Bible and Book of Mormon, which could be classed by some as fiction, there exist no non-fiction books that I know of where deeper, unspoken meaning is attained through multiple readings. Reading an account of world war II, such as the Diary of Anne Frank (one of the few non-fiction works I've actually managed to read through without falling asleep at some point), is very informational, and can teach you a lot about an event you knew little about beforehand. However, by keeping completely faithful to the facts, there usually is little in the way of symbolic meaning to enhance the story.

With fiction, the story can be constructed in the way the author intends in order to increase the beauty of the general themes and ideas portrayed therein. Take for example Anna Karenina: on first reading, it seems to be a fairly straight-forward story about family relations and consequences of adultery. However, when read through more closely, you begin to see how the nuances of the characters relate to an overall world theme. A small scene like the steeplechase, wherein a basic (albeit exciting) account of a horse race is described, becomes an allegory for the rest of the novel. It is able to solidify the ideas and moral lessons of the story. These then relate to the rest of life in a way that is not soon forgotten.

Stephen King speaks of this in his book On Writing. He states that the story writes itself, as he sees it in his mind. But then, when rewriting, he has the opportunity to develop some of the themes that are naturally there. A good writer is able to add to the existing theme by including symbols and unwritten feeling to the work. This can not be done by a writer of non-fiction, because by adding details that did not occur in real life, the writer is by definition, then, writing fiction.

2.) Memorable Moments. True, there are many memorable moments in non-fiction accounts. One can not read about the Battle of Hastings without remembering the courage of the soldiers. One can not read an account of the Civil War without keeping in memory the horrible tragic consequences of our nation's past mistakes. However, these don't last very long. They rush past the brain like another story seen on the news. You recall periodically the story and the effects of it; you remember it when you go to a museum or other national historic site; but, all to soon, you forget about it and go about your day.

Not with good works of fiction. A good book remains in my head forever. I may not remember all of the details, and those symbols I mentioned earlier don't ever come to mind again, but the effect of the writing is etched in my mind for the rest of my life. This is because the reader becomes involved in the story, knowing that the story exists solely for him. Whether or not anyone reads about World War II, it happened. However, if no one reads about Don Quixote's adventures, then they are simply not there. No one would know, and no one would care, and that person is relinquished into the arms of nonexistence.

By being invested in the work, the reader is able to get to know the characters better than the characters know themselves. The author has created this person, and therefore knows everything about them--things that the person has no idea about himself. A good author lets the reader in on these secrets, while at times keeping the characters unaware. This allows the reader to follow the story closely, and have a say in the interpretation of the events as they happen. In doing so, the reader becomes the judge of events, not a viewer of historical facts.

3.) References to life. While the reality of the novel is not historical fact, it can at times be more real than life itself. Oftentimes, what appears to be the case is not always what it seems. More often than not, a matter of common simplicity is a rack of torment in the mind of a person. A good novel or short story can better describe these sorts of details, and tell that behind-the-scenes story in a way that historical biographies can not. A biography about Hitler will tell you facts about his life, how he came to power, who his closest advisors were, and how it is presumed he died. A fictional account of a merciless dictator who attempts to purge his country of all unworthy races, however, would be able to give a full view of the dictator's thoughts, feelings, and emotions, without being worried about stumbling over incorrect historical facts. In doing so, it can cause the reader to feel very differently about Hitler and the atrocities of his reign, than would a biography detailing, however correctly and in-depth, the account of his dealings.

By being more true, in this way, the characters and events in a fictional story come to life. They are able to be used daily in references, at times when you don't have the words to describe feelings or events. Rather than trying to describe the appearance of a large, scary looking figure, you can just say that he looked like Frankenstein. Rather than try and explain how your roommate seems to have two completely different personalities, you can just reference Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It makes life much more interesting, especially when two people understand the reference and are able to bring their own thoughts and feelings to the discussion.

There are many more things I love about fiction. Let the three numbered above suffice, however, as I am too interested in getting back to reading Demons by Dostoevsky to continue writing a blog that no one will read, and that is, unfortunately, classified under the broad term 'non-fiction'. I hope to be able to, someday, write a great work of fiction, because it will have so much more value to a reader than a worthless blog such as this. I urge anyone reading this who has ever thought that fiction is of little value to reexamine some of the great classic works by true literary geniuses. Your life will be greatly enhanced as a result.