The Reality of Fiction

If I had copious free time (and I don’t), I would head off to Oxford and embark on a master’s degree in the history of literature. Or something like that. I love thinking about the evolution of creativity, how we’ve moved from paintings on cave walls to Cameron’s Avatar, Peter Jackson interpretation of the Hobbit (don’t mess it up, PJ), and the unfortunate monochromatic vices of Fifty Shades of Grey.

One of the things that occupies my mind (beside finding the perfect recipe for chicken soup–not for my soul, just for my body) is the question of fiction’s reality. Is fiction just as real as everyday life, or is it just an ephemeral mist that really means nothing at all, other than a passing amusement? If fiction is real, or somewhat real, than an immense responsibility rests on the slender shoulders of writers. If it is ephemeral nothingness, then they’re free and clear to write what they want with no thought of consequence or brother’s keeperdom or no man being an island, etc etc.

There are a great many ways to approach this question, but one novel direction (novel for me) that recently struck me is the fact that a lot of writers are quite adamant these days about fiction having an obligation to reflect everyday life. Make it real, they say. True to life. You must have some ethnic characters in there, some GLBT characters. Make it true to whatever sort of angst it is that teenagers go through nowadays. Cutting? Of course, include it. Show the teen readers that they aren’t alone, that there is shared community in their pain and journey. Sex? Of course. Everyone does it everywhere like the lovely little rabbits they are, so you might as well depict it in your novel. Family violence, ditto.

Etc, etc.

On the flip side, most writers are just as quick to say that fiction (their fiction, of course) has no effect on readers. It’s just entertainment. Doesn’t effect ’em in the slightest. Reader left untouched, unsullied, unalloyed. Pick up the book, read the book, finish the book, and walk away precisely as you were before you read the book.

But, if that’s so…if fiction has no effect on readers, then why the stress on making fiction true to life? Why the need to include ethnic characters, diversity, reflection of current sexual mores, gender issues, etc? Why any need at all? If fiction has no effect on the real world, then surely we are free to simply write whatever whatever whatever…

The other perspective on the reality of fiction (real or not) is the comparison of fiction (Fifty Shades, Twilight, Lord of the Rings, you name it) with celebrities. What the what?, you might say. Bear with me and I’ll explain where I’m going (the Bahamas, hopefully, if my wife and I can find a babysitter). A great deal of the population follow the lives of celebrities with avid curiosity and devotion. Britney Spears shaves her head and it’s the talk around the water cooler during coffee break. Adam Levine drops one supermodel in favor the new and improved model supermodel, fresh off the assembly line, and people tweet about it, breathlessly (thumblessly?) inputting their allotted characters. Miley Cyrus dances with dwarves (it’s the sequel to Dances With Wolves) and the internet lights up like Chevy Chase’s Christmas tree.

And yet, the vast majority of us have never met these individuals and will never meet these individuals. For all we know, they could be animatronic puppets (only not as cute as Miss Piggy). But we treat their odd inclusion in our lives–the brain seconds we devote to thinking about them, the time we spend talking about them, wondering, etc–as reality. It is reality. It is the modern reality. We are more upset about Gwyneth Paltrow’s wardrobe faux pas than we are the homeless guy we pass on our way through the MacDonald’s drive through. We have altered reality in an unusual way, rendering individuals we do not know, touch, smell, or feel into creatures larger than life. Edward and Bella are Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes.

I submit, humbly, that the characters found in fiction’s pages have, therefore, just as much right to belong to this new reality as any Adam Levine or Katy Perry. I’m not saying this new reality is healthy or good or something to be pursued. I’m just saying it is. And, if so, then Edward and Bella are just as worthy of existence in it as Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes.

One thought on “The Reality of Fiction”

  1. Fiction is most emphatically NOT some kind of ephemerally meaningless mist (as you well know). And I say that as the kind of story nerd who is, in fact, getting a Master’s degree in lit studies as we speak.

    ‘Smatter of fact, I believe that the answer to your question about the realness of fiction is: it depends on how real you make it. I think you can have stories that are completely free of the kind of “reality” that involves shovelling fresh manure all over your chocolate cake (because, after all, manure is *real*, isn’t it?) but that is far more real than any of that grit and gross coarseness which goes by the name of “realism”, because it is true to what people are like, what people are feeling. Getting that kind of reality requires a very deft touch, a delicate sensitivity to LIFE – not to muck and grit. Jane Austen, for all her “girl marries fairy prince” (or millionaire dude, as it were) was writing incredibly real fiction, and that’s why we still read it two hundred years later. Doesn’t mean that “real” can’t involve muck and grit, too, but it doesn’t always have to.

    One thing on the celebrities, though: I believe our fascination with celebrities stems from our inbuilt drive for community. Those people are, literally, in our living rooms on a daily basis (well, not in mine – I don’t have cable. But you get my drift.). We watch their faces, we see them weep when they’re upset, watch them beaming when they’re successful, hear about their babies and their latest marital spat. It’s no different from gossipping about your neighbours over the garden fence – “Didya hear about Joe and Sue, they had a big fight last night! Heard ’em hollerin’ all over the neighbourhood!” etc. Sharing about people, about community. We don’t have the garden-fence kind of communities any longer, so we take celebrities instead (and which is chicken and which is egg, that’s a question for another day). And do Edward and Bella qualify? You betcha. Why do you think people devoured the sequels as soon as they came out? From what I hear, it wasn’t the stellar quality of the writing.

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