I recently saw this post on Twitter:
The fact that it was an English teacher who said this is especially troubling, but I’m not surprised by the sentiment itself. A lot of people don’t see the value of fiction.
And they’re missing out.
I’ve experienced what it’s like to be an orphan boy in 1830s London (1), an aristocratic woman in 1870s Russia (2), and a poor black woman in early 20th century Georgia (3). I’ve seen a future where books are burned because the ideas they evoke are too dangerous and troubling for society (4), and I’ve seen one in which children are annually thrown into an arena to fight to the death by an oppressive government (5).
Actually, I never experienced any of these things. But I was able to catch a glimpse of what those lives might be like through books. Through novels, to be exact.
As a child I familiarized myself with the awkwardness of puberty before I had to live through it myself (6). I followed the lives of independent young adults while I was still too young to vote. I was able to see how certain choices resulted in predictable outcomes, and I could follow a character’s timeline through years of consequences. Through fictional characters’ mistakes, I received insight into what I wanted my life to look like, and what choices I needed to make in order to accomplish that vision.
Many books–too many to list–helped me to imagine my future.
This power is not to be taken lightly. It can change the world.
In a interview with Writers’ Digest magazine (May/June 2019) author N. K. Jemisin stated, “I don’t think that I’ll write a book and it’ll change the world. But I do tend to think that the things we are capable of imagining and believing are our future are influenced by all of the media that we consume.” Think about that. The media–whether it’s television shows, blogs, movies, or novels–helps to shape our entire worldview. That is world-changing, though perhaps not in the way people think. In that interview Jemisin goes on to say that as a child she had a hard time imagining a future for herself or other black people, because they simply did not exist in futuristic stories. At the same time the fact that there have been black US presidents on television and in movies for decades may have helped Americans be more comfortable electing Barak Obama.
Novels help us imagine what could be possible, even if it’s not our reality now. And novels help us see how bad things can get if we don’t correct our current path.
In addition to writing fiction, I’m also a theologian. And as a theologian, I see the value of fiction being that it can help us connect with others whose experiences are different from our own. Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel Homegoing (7) follows the lineage of two half sisters in 18th century Ghana. One is sold into slavery; the other remains in Ghana in relative comfort. Their individual circumstances reverberate through eight generations. None of the stories depicted in this book share any overlap with my own heritage or experience, yet by reading these stories I was able to see the systemic racism and generational disadvantages that simply aren’t a factor in my own life.
Many things that are unimaginable to me are routine experiences for others. Novels are one way of seeing life from someone else’s perspective. As a theologian I see the value of recognizing all the various members of the body of Christ. As a privileged white American, I see the value of experiencing life as someone without my privilege, and having my eyes opened to the way the system elevates some by crushing others. As a concerned citizen of the world, I see the value of imagining different futures for ourselves individually and collectively. And as a reader, I love to be transported to another world.
This is the value of fiction.
Novels are not a waste of time, and many of them are excellent entry points for thinking about deep issues. That English teacher was wrong.
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