Learning our Culture: The Role of Fiction

No blog can come close to addressing the richness that Fiction alone has contributed to our lives.

Here’s an interesting factoid related to F-I-C-T-I-O-N. All the great literature of western civilization is Fiction. How about that? There are a few exceptions, such as Churchill’s writings, Gibbon’s The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, and some others.

Practical nonfiction is designed to communicate information when the quality of the writing is not as important as the content. Therefore, what has crowded great library shelves, even when literary works were on scrolls, has always been Fiction.

Take a step back in time about 3000 years and consider the epics of Homer, The Odyssey and The Iliad. This famed narrative poet was reporting what had taken place several centuries before his own time, creatively recounting events of history, blended with mythology, in order to tell a more compelling story.

Since the beginning of time, storytellers have embellished  Truth. With powerful language they make stories more effective, enjoyable, exciting, suspenseful, enthralling, and memorable. In Homer’s case, he sought to perpetuate a particular history of Greece, the type of account people choose to believe, much like the legends of King Arthur. The Iliad has been described by scholars as a “timeless event floating in a timeless world,” such is its general appeal. Read on—our literature hasn’t changed that much!

For thousands of years, even in developed countries, literacy has not been the norm. Our earliest Fiction sprang from oral traditions, only written down later and preserved. People listened to fabulous tales because they excited their imagination and connected them to their culture. Most of the Old Testament is basically historical literature. Although it is powerful literature with a central theme, for centuries the separate accounts were valued mainly as well told tales.

Consider for a moment just a few respected authors of Fiction, conveniently delivered alphabetically: Aesop (stories that taught a lesson), Louisa May Alcott, Anouilh, Aristophanes, Jane Austen, Ricardo Bacchelli, Balzac, James Barrie, Samuel Becket, Stephen Vincent Benét, Boccaccio (responsible for the first soap opera ever), the Bronte sisters, Robert Browning, Pearl Buck, Byron, Erskine Caldwell, Lewis Carroll, Willa Cather, Cervantes, Chaucer, Chekhov, Joseph Conrad, James Fennimore Cooper, Stephen Crane, Dante, Daniel Defoe, Dickens, Alexandre Dumas, Daphne DuMaurier, T.S. Eliot, Euripedes, William Faulkner, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. [<Pause, while I gasp for air!>]

Consider Flaubert, C.S. Forester, Galsworthy, Goethe, Graham Greene, Thomas Hardy, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Hemingway, James Hilton, Hugo, Ibsen, James Joyce, Kafka, Kipling, Sinclair Lewis, Jack London, Thomas Mann, Herman Melville, Margaret Mitchell, George Orwell, Edgar Allan Poe, Proust, Conrad Richter, William Saroyan, Sir Walter Scott, Shakespeare, Bernard Shaw, Robert Louis Stevenson, Tolstoy, Mark Twain, Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Eudora Welty, Oscar Wilde, and Emile Zola. [<Whew!>] That’s just a skimming!

Cultural Literacy: What most of us think we know about time periods and people, cultures and geography, society and its institutions, comes from writers of Fiction. Whether from a movie, by common reference, or from reading or studying their writings, they have formed our knowledge of the world.

Masters of Fiction have provided the basis for what’s known as “Cultural Literacy.” What the average person presumes to know–about foreign countries, other ways of life, other cultures, historical periods, wars, courtrooms, police departments, espionage, the inner workings of a hospital– comes mainly from these writers. This includes not only novels, but short stories, movies, legends, plays, and television series.

Readers who deliberately reject Fiction, because of some acquired sense that it is somehow a lower, less true form of writing and that only nonfiction is worthwhile, are automatically rejecting at least 90% of the world’s finest literature! They are deliberately choosing to narrow their view of life. New words as well as new worlds enter our consciousness through reading—almost exclusively the result of the creative experience generated by Fiction.

 Creativity: The Writer of Fiction has the gift of creativity to share. Interesting writing stimulates our minds to new ways of thinking, new ways of living, new ways of coping, and endless possibility. The creativity found in this literary form broadens the Reader’s understanding of the world. For example, it’s possible to learn more about the ages-long conflicts of the Afghan region by reading such novels as The Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns, or The Far Pavilions (which takes some of the same conflicts back over a century) than from any nonfiction text. Stories like these connect us intimately with people, their feelings and their struggles.

Credibility: From the most extreme Sci-Fi to a world of Fantasy, from ancient history to the history of the American West, we who write Fiction have a tremendous obligation: that of credibility. Readers know when they’re being lied to and don’t like it. If the Writer invents a new world, it is his duty to create an alternate reality that is consistently believable.

When writing about known historical periods—Rome in 33 A.D., the Civil War, the Middle Ages, the American Frontier of the mid-1800s, life in middle-America for a teenager in the 1950s, England under Henry VIII, U.S. soldiers fighting on a Pacific island during WW II, Russia under the czars, or the death camps of the Holocaust—the author owes his Reader conscientious research.

The Reader can easily detect the invention of “nonsense-facts”—he’s read other books about that period or in that genre and is already exposed to “Cultural Literacy.” If we respect the Reader, he will respect us. Conscientious research grants Fiction authenticity and allows the author to develop his characters with greater depth.

For the Reader:  Consider what you’ve learned uniquely from a novel—from the concept of Shangri-La or the White Rabbit or Big Brother to survival lost on an uncharted island or planet. Keep thinking, you might be surprised. 

For the Writer: When you write Sci-Fi or Fantasy have you respected your reader and created a believable world? If you write about a known period, remember to use your research in marketing your novel.

Are there any other “C-words,” elements that you find unique to F-I-C-T-I-O-N and would like to share? Join us back at The Writers’ Table for Fiction—Revealing the Truth, your comments, questions, and input are always welcome.