Jan 27, 2014

Is Fiction Fake?

I began to answer this question over a week ago.

The result is more a debut gallery of sketches than a masterpiece. It is incomplete, in other words. Like life. Yet there is a narrative beyond the visible, only partially revealed because it is impossible to satisfy Enlightenment-oriented American culture or those who cannot or choose not to see the mysterious glimmers of beauty in all the mess.

Therefore, this is for the scoffers. May it reveal the music within the spaces of your skepticism. And this is for the fiction writers. May it empower your resolve to guide others through the wilderness.

* * *

I am always highly irritated by people who imply that writing fiction is an escape from reality. It is a plunge into reality.
Flannery O’Connor
Quoted in Jerram Barrs’ Echoes of Eden

Fiction is undeserving of such a frank dismissal as being called “fake stories.” Granted, there are plenty of soulless, indulgent, useless fiction to be found on store bookshelves—and quite possibly they comprise the majority of print—but that is not to say that there are no Arkenstones buried amidst the crumbling bedrock of such ephemeral entertainment.

A Useful Illusion
The current Merriam Webster’s Online Dictionary supports a dismissive view of fiction. Non-fiction is defined as “writing that is about facts or real events.” Fiction is defined as “written stories about people and events that are not real; literature that tells stories which are imagined by the writer; something that is not true.”

It is curious to note, however, that a 1993 hardcopy of Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary offers a slightly different set of definitions. Non-fiction is merely defined as “literature that is not fictional,” and fiction is “something invented by the imagination or feigned; an invented story; a useful illusion or pretense.”

While I am willing to call fiction “invented stories,” “fake” is just too strong an adjective. “Fake” means “a worthless imitation passed off as genuine” (Merriam Webster’s Dictionary). All art offers something meaningful to human life, and fiction cannot be excluded. While I do heartily believe that non-fiction is equally as valuable as fiction, one should not be sacrificed at the altar of the other.

Still, let us assume for the moment that you do feel that fiction is “worthless imitation;” that you need more convincing. How does fiction offer meaning? Or why are its illusions useful?

New Eyes
Art is a lie which makes us realize the truth . . . People can't take truth if it comes charging at them like a bull. The bull is always killed . . . You have to give people the truth in a riddle, hide it so they go looking for it and find it piece by piece; that way they learn to live with it.
Pablo Picasso
Quoted in Chaim Potok’s The Gift of Asher Lev

Both non-fiction and fiction can teach and awaken us to life. Yet where non-fiction generally offers to tell us the truth, though not without its own bias or personal lens—all writing is essentially autobiographical—fiction generally offers to show us the truth.

“The value of the myth is that it takes all the things we know and restores to them the rich significance which has been hidden by ‘the veil of familiarity’ . . . we rediscover it. As long as the story lingers in our mind, the real things are more themselves.”
C.S. Lewis, “A Review of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings

"Man sees only between the blinks of his eyes. He does not know what the world is like during the blinks. He sees the world in pieces, in fragments. But the Master of the Universe sees the world whole, unbroken. That world is good. Our seeing is broken . . . Can we make it like the seeing of God? Is that possible? . . . an artist, too, must see the world whole, he must somehow learn to see during the blinks, he must see where no one else can see, he must see the connections, the betweennesses in the world. Even if the connections are ugly and evil, the artist must learn to see and record them. . .  . It is the task of the artist to see. . . . Art happens when what is seen becomes mixed with the inside of the person who is seeing it. If an exciting new way of seeing an old object results, well, that’s interesting, isn’t it? That’s the beginning of serious art.”
Chaim Potok, The Gift of Asher Lev

Non-fiction and fiction are perhaps a contrast of directness and indirectness, of fact and mystery—answers and riddles. Both can lead to truth. After all, Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, the most influential teacher who ever lived, often used parables—short, fictitious stories—as the medium by which to present his message. We use metaphor and hyperbole almost every day in our hope to communicate and connect with others. This is a characteristic of fiction.

“We are hurt; we are lonely; and we turn to music or words, and as compensation beyond all price we are given glimpses of the world on the other side of time and space.”
Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water

A Mirror: Seeing Ourselves
We write to expose the unexposed. . . . Becoming a writer is about becoming conscious. When you’re conscious and writing from a place of insight and simplicity and real caring about the truth, you have the ability to throw the lights on for your reader. He or she will recognize his or her life and truth in what you say . . . and this decreases the terrible sense of isolation that we have all had too much of.
Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

Like with non-fiction, it takes work to read good fiction. (A man sitting next to me at a cafĂ© recently said, having noticed what I was reading, “No one reads Victor Hugo for fun.”) Sometimes it even requires faith to go on—and not without a lot of doubt. It is uncomfortable to grow, to look at oneself in the mirror for too long.

“You must fight hard to shine the light of words upon [fear]. Because if you don’t, if your fear becomes a wordless darkness that you avoid, perhaps even managed to forget, you open yourself to further attacks of fear because you never truly fought the opponent who defeated you.”
Yann Martel, Life of Pi

“Story helped me learn to live. Story was in no way an evasion of life, but a way of living life creatively instead of fearfully.”
Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water

Each person harbors a lovely mystery, a true self that contains profound potential. Fiction can help us discover that anew, to recognize and affirm that same beauty in other people.

A Window: Seeing Others
We seek an enlargement of our being. We want to be more than ourselves. . . . We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own.
C.S. Lewis
Quoted in Jerram Barrs’ Echoes of Eden

Stories unite us. Fiction can revitalize the vision that walls need not surround and divide us any longer; that there are windows. Seeing outside compels the bravest of us to leave our shelter and venture into the uncertain grandeur of adventure. There we meet others, part of what it means to really live.

“Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul. When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored. We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life.”
Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

“The need to make art may [stem] . . . from a need to complete a relationship with something outside yourself. As a maker of art you are custodian of issues larger than self. . . . Art is contact, and your work necessarily reveals the nature of that contact. In making art you declare what is important.”
David Bayles & Ted Orland, Art & Fear

A Path
It’s a dangerous business . . . going out of your door . . . there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

Fiction helps bring us together in strength, vision, and understanding as we navigate life. It helps us to believe in that which is even beyond our mortality.

"And indeed it could be said that once the faintest stirring of hope became possible, the dominion of the plague was ended."
Albert Camus, The Plague

Wielding the beautiful language of words, fiction not only expands our perspective, but it can instill a vigorous hope that drives us to action. In this there is a passageway to freedom. In this there is purpose, a transcendent array of possibility—a world that many have forgotten.

That Infinite Ocean of Beauty
In art we are once again able to do all the things we have forgotten; we are able to walk on water; we speak to the angels who call us; we move, unfettered, among the stars.
Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water

We need fiction. It can inspire us. In its freedom, we can discover purpose: life is enriched and given meaning. Few have said it better than Pope John Paul II:

In order to communicate the message entrusted to her by Christ, the church needs art. Art must make perceptible, and as far as possible attractive, the world of the spirit, of the invisible, of God. It must therefore translate into meaningful terms that which is in itself ineffable. Art has a unique capacity to take one or other facet of the message and translate it into colours, shapes and sounds which nourish the intuition of those who look or listen. It does so without emptying the message itself of its transcendent value and its aura of mystery. . . . In Christ, God has reconciled the world to himself. All believers are called to bear witness to this; but it is up to you, men and women who have given your lives to art, to declare with all the wealth of your ingenuity that in Christ the world is redeemed: the human person is redeemed, the human body is redeemed, and the whole creation which, according to Saint Paul, ‘awaits impatiently the revelation of the children of God’ is redeemed. . . . This is your task. Humanity in every age, and even today, looks to works of art to shed light upon its path and destiny. . . . Beauty is a key to the mystery and a call to transcendence. It is an invitation to savour life and to dream of the future. . . . Artists of the world, may your many different paths all lead to that infinite Ocean of beauty where wonder becomes awe, exhilaration, unspeakable joy.
“The Letter of His Holiness . . . to Artists”, quoted in Ian Morgan Cron’s Chasing Francis

If it is true that "Art is the grandchild of God" (Dante, Inferno, Canto XI), then we must care for it. We must find and herald the examples that demonstrate that it is still alive and well.

“If we, citizens, do not support our artists, then we sacrifice our imagination on the altar of crude reality and we end up believing in nothing and having worthless dreams.”
Yann Martel, Life of Pi

We who call ourselves writers must pour into our craft—direct our stress, insecurities, uncertainty, passion, and vigor toward the campaign of redemption: showing that life does not have to be this way, in chaos and heartache—that there is another way to live. The best fiction forces us to stop and think, to pause in our hungry, fast-paced consumption of information. Fiction forces us to gain new eyes, to look and see, to listen and hear, to pray and know that there is something meaningful within us, and that there is something meaningful beyond. Mirror, window, path, and adventure . . .

* * *
Some may think that good fiction is dying. Others, that it is dead. I certainly have considered it. But then I discover the contemporary works of Chaim Potok (all of them), or Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. I return to stories that have thus far transcended the whims and alterations of time: the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Leo Tolstoy. I read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Richard Adams’ Watership Down, or get lost in some of the most poignant language imaginable in Albert Camus’ The Plague. The brilliant wit of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Ernest” and “An Ideal Husband,” or any of William Shakespeare’s plays; the moving poetry of John Donne, Robert Frost, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, or Theodor Seuss Geisel, i.e. Dr. Seuss—experiencing the utter joy of reading Fox in Sox, for example—all of these works of fiction, and many more, enrich human consciousness. Therefore, they must not be dismissed as mere fancy—or worse, as “useless.” They should be celebrated. They should inspire future writers as they share their own ruminations and riddles through story. They should live on.

That is the ideal. That is what my eyes see, the path that I strive to follow—the dangerous ocean I explore. Soli deo gloria. You need not understand or agree, but please, oh please, do not refer to my work as “fake.”