Many friends have sneered at my love of fiction.  They have told me that it’s a waste of time, that nothing can be learned from it.  They are so wrong.

Normally, I loathe pity, especially when it’s drenched in the syrupy, patronizing “awwwww” tones.

Christians who want to be charitable to atheists, agnostics, and heathens cultivate the sentiment:  “Because you have refused the wonder of God’s love, I pity you, I really do.”

Soft-hearted bigots say, “No one would ever choose to be born black, or gay, or anything like that — it’s not their fault — I pity them, I really do.”

Mommies who exalt themselves above non-bearing women (parents or not) shed a tear for such a pointless existence:  “You can’t ever be a real woman, because you have never carried a baby to term, and I pity you, I really do.”

Kids who come from “whole” families (whether or not Mummy and Daddy have laughed, talked, or had sex for months,) pity kids from divorced parents:  “OMG, you come from a Broken Home?  You must, like, cry yourself to sleep every night!  I am Really Really Sorry!”

Whether it’s condescending, vain, or disrespectful, it’s also often sincere.  Even then, I hate it.  And I hate it just as much when I do it, because when my friends sneer at fiction, I know they are missing out on wonder, and meaning, and the reduction of the whole world to a juicy red bijou.

Two friends have been converted.  I can’t take credit.  In both cases, it was the books:  Good Omens, by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman; and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams.   There are two classes of humans I despise, pimps and pushers, and I am both when it comes to books.

Plots that keep you on the edge of your seat.  Situations that are maddening, but plausible.  Characters that are intriguing on their own, and fascinating when they react to one another.  All of this is like the sensory pleasure of a delicious meal:  rich colors, enticing aromas, lush textures, and the sizzle that sells the steak.  But there is nutrition, too.

There is the world without the boring parts, limned by a sharp mind:  the condensed truth.  Just as young lions roughhouse as a model for the hunt, fictional characters and their plots provide a model for life.   Everyone is deprived of some part of the spectrum of human experience.  If you grew up traveling the world, you don’t know what it’s like to spend your life on a prairie farm.  If you grew up in 20th century Texas, you don’t know what it was like to live in medieval Iceland.  If you are a boy, you can learn something about the mind of a girl, and vice-versa.  And if you have imagination, you can project the “what if” to future times and distant planets. It’s all just people, doing what people do.

Even noticing the structures of stories can tell you about how many people connect the dots in life, from climax to climax, and the differences between outlooks, between genres, and differences in quality between stories and their messages.  The self can be analyzed, too.  If you dislike Chekhov but love Maupassant, it might be the translation, but it might be your sensibilities.  If you find yourself strongly preferring genre fiction (villain is vanquished, hero beds heroine,) it’s easy to assume you enjoy the formula, but it might be that you prefer a black-and-white world that doesn’t make room for shades of grey — and is that a good thing?  It’s a way to figure out things about yourself, to know yourself.

There is wisdom, too, and I don’t just mean Polonius’s advice to Laertes.  You can see how people faced problems, fought for what was right, coped with unfairness, and moved forward.  You learn that obstacles can be overcome, and you see how they did it, and what it cost them.  We can be inspired by stories of real people, but we can also be moved by Johnny Tremain, David Copperfield, Lyra Silvertongue, and Kim.  We can read history, and we can see a slice of what history means in The Grapes of Wrath.  We can avoid, or do our best to avoid, ugly situations we were never trained to cope with, but the seed for daring to do the brave thing, even when it’s dangerous, can be planted by stories.  Living up to our heroes helps us do right.  Not everyone has a hero, growing up, not for every circumstance.  A parent who works to the bone for decades to take care of the children has accomplished a feat of heroic endurance for a noble cause — but that doesn’t provide an example of how to jump in front of a train to pull a bum off the tracks, or why it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.  Not the how, not the why, not the reason to find the wherewithal. Fiction can do this.

Fiction showed me the world, gave me a place to stand, gave me heroes and villains.  It didn’t tell me how to feel about things, but it showed me a model of where and how to apply my values, do what was right, condemn what was wrong, and how to discern between the two.  Prophets speak in parables, Aesop taught with fables, and they did so for a reason.  Fiction holds a mirror to the world.  And people who will not look in that mirror are missing a delicious meal, and they are missing joy, and they are missing a large helping of beauty and truth.  And I pity them.

All I can say in my own defense:  I never tell them so.  I might coax them with sweet words, or disagree with a smile, but my pity I keep to myself.

 

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