A friend recently challenged me on my suggestion that people who read only non-fiction are missing truths and realities. After all, my friend said, non-fiction is exactly about truth and reality not imagined situations and manipulated affairs.
I think my friend has only a portional grasp of what makes reality. And I told him so. Let me explain. As a journalist I was able to write about things and people working their way through sometimes difficult situations. I remember interviewing and reporting on men who spent years in solitary confinement in the hell that was the Hanoi Hilton prisoner of war camp in Vietnam. I Interviews a man who was on death row in the Kentucky State Prison. I reported on families devastated by tragedy. I covered a major air crash. In all of those stories I reported faithfully and, I believe accurately, all that I was told. I reflected the realities I was told and observed. But I did not—could not—tell the whole story. I left the complete story untold simply because it had not happened yet. How did those Vietnam POW’s handle their return to society, the changed families and social conditions? Did that condemned man die in the prison or was his sentence commuted. How did the families stalked by tragedy continue with the rest of their lives?
Fiction allows the completion of stories. It allows us to see the ultimate impact upon an individual or situation in a way that the snapshot of journalism cannot. Fiction gives us insights into the human mind and psyche that non-fiction cannot even begin to comprehend. Through fictional stories we get glimpses into the thoughts, emotions and desires that motivate actions in a way that is unavailable to straight reporting. It wraps up a human condition, a human story so that there is a definitive conclusion—the very thing that is lacking in journalistic efforts.
But there is more. In the midst of horrific events, fiction can provide a ‘feel good’ perspective of some aspect of the event—a person’s reactions, someone’s emotional response. As we “see” the event through the eyes of one individual, we can understand actions and reactions, appreciate others responses and comprehend that one event in the myriad of other events which make up life on this planet. We understand the role that that one specific situation has in the ongoing story of mankind.
There’s something else reading fiction can provide. Truth!
Fiction allows lessons to be taught and conclusions to be drawn. We can see that certain attitudes or actions always results in certain responses. A criminal act does result in punishment—perhaps legal or perhaps psychological or societal. But it does result in some form of punishment. That is a lesson that can be drawn to its fullest conclusion through fiction. The great Shakespearean tragedies such as Hamlet or Macbeth teach this, as do the stories of fictional detectives like Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot.
On a grand scale, the determination and heroism of small individuals against massive and seemingly overwhelming forces permeate the works of Tolkien in Lord of the Ringsand The Hobbit or C.S. Lewis’ Narnia tales. And show us that fortitude and perseverance are qualities that can defeat mighty foes
All of this teaching of truth can be summed up by the use made of fiction by the greatest teacher of all time, Jesus Christ.
His parables about treating others with love and respect regardless of society’s attitudes (The Good Samaritan; the woman at the well) illustrate truth in a way no nonfictional report can. How about the insights into family relationships—good and bad—in the story of the prodigal son? There are so many parables that teach us how to interact with others, the necessity of honesty and truthfulness, the responsibilities we have to one another. All true and all taught through fiction
Jesus, the great teacher, knew one simple fact about people that my friend and those who scorn fiction seem to forget: People LIKE stories! Stories uplift. They bring happiness, laughter, insights, joy, tears, warmth, wisdom and clarity into our lives. A life without fiction is a life half-lived.
Those who boast of reading only non-fiction I believe have huge holes in their intellectual totality. They need to read some great stories—some of the classics perhaps and maybe some lighter stuff just for fun. But I firmly believe that they will be richer for the experience.