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The need for fiction: Fact or fiction?

Updated: Apr 23, 2021

by Abhinav Anand

The question, “Why do we need fiction” has less to do with highlighting the importance of fiction in our lives and more to do with making us realize that whether we think of it highly or not, we are surrounded by fiction and we cannot do without it.

But certainly, one is impelled to ask as to why we need to “make things up” when we already have a lot of things to talk about. Why do we need to tell “stories'' when we have events and incidents to narrate. Wolfgang Iser, a 20th-century German scholar, in his book, The Fictive and the Imaginary: Charting Literary Anthropology, writes that fiction helps us to transcend boundaries, be it social, political, historical, or geographical and that is one of our “basic desire”. It is important to note that Iser doesn’t label fiction as an escape from the “real world”, rather he portrays it as a bold extension of it. The characters/readers don’t escape into this fictive realm to avert reality, rather they do so to highlight it.

Iser further argues that “fictions in general, elude clear-cut definitions” and can be grasped “only in terms of use”, which is manifold and so is the definition of fiction. However, ironically enough, the most seething attack on fiction is based on the premise that fiction is not fact and subsequently not useful.

Do we really need fiction?

Plato, a 5th-century B.C. Athenian philosopher, in his seminal text The Republic argues that poets (since fiction as a category didn’t exist then, but stories did!) imitate reality and thus their representation of it is twice removed from the actual thing, which is as good as a lie. Most contemporary attacks on fiction are also along the same line. Fictions are “imaginary”, “made-up”, “fabricated reality”, etc. However, soon after Plato’s attack, Aristotle sheds fresh light on the act of imitation, which according to him is an imaginative act through which the writer doesn’t just ‘imitate’ reality but creates an ideal world. Thus, writers according to Aristotle don’t portray the world as it is, rather they portray it as it should be.

Centuries later, Sir Philip Sidney, supporting Aristotle, argues that the poet, “he (sic.) nothing affirms, and therefore never lieth”. Thus, poetry and subsequently fiction are not about the actual representation of reality, precisely what makes it a work of fiction.

Thus, from Aristotle, Sidney, and also Plato’s argument we derive some of the most important reasons why we need fiction.

Because it tells us how our world should/should not be

We need it because it gives us the portrayal of an ideal world, i.e., the world as it should be:

Now, this might not be true for all kinds of fiction where at least on the face of it we find a dystopian portrayal of reality. For instance, Orwell’s 1984 is a fiction that shows the exact opposite, i.e., the world as it should not be. Thus indirectly aligns with Aristotle’s purpose of fiction (poetry) i.e., by showing how the world should not be, it subsequently highlights how it rather should be. The text becomes uncanny when the reader finds a stark resemblance between this dystopian world and his/her own reality. This “unsettling feeling” that one experiences while reading fiction like 1984 is precisely the other reason as to why we need fiction.

Because fiction unsettles us and makes us rethink our reality:

By definition, fiction is a thing that is imaginary and helps the reader create an objective distance between what they are reading and their own lived reality. This helps the reader be comfortable with the fact that whatever happens in the text is purely fictive. However, since all readers bring with them their own lived experience to the reading of the text, what Iser calls prejudice; (he doesn’t use the word with its common negative connotation) there are some parts of the text that shock, surprise and jolt the reader out of their comfort. The text becomes a way of transcending their own reality and living the realities of the characters and subsequently question our notion of the ‘real’ and the ‘fictive’.

Because fiction helps us live a thousand lives and experience a thousand realities:

A reader of fiction lives many lives before death, a non-reader lives none but one. The allusion to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar brings to fore one of the primary reasons why Shakespeare is considered one of the best playwrights of all time. It is because he created characters who share no semblance with his own personal life i.e., there is nothing of Shakespeare in his plays. Similarly, through his stories, Shakespeare has enabled his readers/audience to transcend their socio-cultural and even temporal realities and experience the lives of these characters: the indecisiveness of Hamlet, the ambitions of Macbeth, the gullibility of Othello, and even the shrewdness of Iago to name a few. This process of reading and understanding these characters helps us to understand ourselves better, and sometimes also provides insights into what should and should not be done in similar situations.

For instance, the recent pandemic saw a surge in the reading of fiction, especially fiction about pandemics and epidemics. Marcel Theroux in his article for the Guardian titled, “The end of coronavirus: What plague literature tells us about our future” points out how the literature about pandemics and plague helped a lot of us to cross the boundary of space and time and realize that this situation is not that unprecedented after all. There have been plagues before and people have reacted in a more or less similar way. What we learn from these stories are the lessons that can be invaluable in times like these. We learn that the plagues do end and that most of us will make it through. We learn that our stories will be a part of this larger corpus of stories. We learn that we are not alone, we never have been and sometimes that realisation is all we need to hold on to and brave through these situations. The realisation that our stories will live on and someone someday might put our words on their lips and remember us. The realisation, as Manto beautifully puts it, that at the very end, ‘all that will remain are these stories and their characters. Thus we do read stories, but we also live one and can live many more by reading these works of fiction.

Because fiction introduces us to subjectivity, empathy, and perspective (things that are way more important than we think they are):

We are living in a world that is increasingly becoming a totalitarian space and fiction helps us, to use Deleuze’s term, “deterritorialize”. It helps us to understand, as Barbara Cassin in her Preface to the Dictionary of the Untranslatable puts it, that “the perspective constitutes the thing”. That each story is a vision of the world and in order to understand that vision one needs subjectivity and perspective(s). And once we become a part of the fiction’s worldview, we can now feel what the characters feel, while also occasionally interacting with our worldview. We overcome our fear and walk with our characters into that deep forest or take the plunge into that deep blue sea. We feel the pain of losing a loved one, share the joy of finding a part of one’s self, take a bite of the dish we have never even heard of, and smell the fresh breeze by the sea as we sit and read that story. In short, we experience empathy, we experience “the other” and in the process experience a part of us that we aren’t even aware of. We experience that we carry many more possibilities than we ever think, live, or feel.

Because fiction is about possibilities (of what things could have been and what things might be):

We began with an interesting question: why do we need to make things up? One possible answer is related to the possibilities “making things up” gives us. We all know this is how things are but fiction impels us and provides us with the possibility of imagining, reading, living the plethora of ways things could have been or might be, who knows. Thus fiction might not provide us with concrete solutions to our problems but it does show us that our problem is just one of the million possibilities, and there are so many other ways to imagine and write this story, our story.

And finally, we need fiction because it is fiction that makes reality “real”. Without fiction, there can be no fact. Because what is fact, but that, which is not fiction.

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