What is Fiction for?

As I continue to worry about the world in which we live, I have been asking the question more and more frequently, what is fiction for? What can fiction do to enhance the chances of improving how we live? In the last couple of months I have written about the need to counter some expressions of xenophobia, narrowness, hatred and racism. Here is something to which fiction can contribute.

Lady with book by Vanessa Bell

I do not want to detract from the purpose of escapism and entertainment for which fiction is well suited and does a grand job. However, when I read fiction I usually want more than this. Escapism, entertainment and a good story are not enough in my reading. I’m with Susan Sontag who said that writers have moral purpose.

So what is fiction for beyond escapism and entertainment?

I go back to some writers to find what they think they are doing, what is their moral purpose. There seem to be at least three related functions:

  1. Experiencing new territories
  2. Building hope
  3. Building empathy

Here is Margaret Drabble in the Paris Review in 1978 in reply to the question, What would you say is the function of the novel?

I don’t think it’s to teach, but I don’t think it’s simply to entertain, either. It’s to explore new territory. To extend one’s knowledge of the world. And to illumine what one sees in it. That’s a fairly moral concept, isn’t it?

And Neil Gaiman, in a lecture for the Reading Agency called Why our Future Depends on Libraries: reading and daydreaming in 2013 also uses a spatial metaphor. Fiction’s first value is to be the gateway to reading for children, he says.

And the second thing fiction does is to build empathy. When you watch TV or see a film, you are looking at things happening to other people. … You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.

Empathy is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more than self-obsessed individuals.

Like Rebecca Solnit in Hope in the Dark, Neil Gaiman believes that fiction has an important role in building hope, by showing readers that the world can be different. He goes on:

You’re also finding out something as you read vitally important for making your way in the world. And it’s this:


Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you’ve never been. Once you’ve visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. And discontent is a good thing: people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different, if they’re discontented.

Salley Vickers is a novelist who has also trained as a psychoanalyst. She wrote Miss Garnett’s Angel in 2000. She enlarges on the function of fiction:

Reading is not merely a diversion or distraction from present pain; it is also an enlarging of our universe, our sympathies, wisdom and experience.

President Obama told the NY Times about his reading practices, including reading novels, in January this year.

And so I think that I found myself better able to imagine what’s going on in the lives of people throughout my presidency because of not just a specific novel but the act of reading fiction. It exercises those muscles, and I think that has been helpful.

Some fiction has political purposes. I think of three books about war that changed my perceptions: All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller and Dispatches by Michael Herr. Empathy can be an important impetus to political action.

In a post about a collection called A Country of Refuge I suggested that writers should be doing the following:

  • Tell the stories
  • Tell the stories of individuals
  • Keeping imagination alive to help people understand the stories
  • Keeping imagination alive to tell stories of different futures

An in a post about How Bookish people can have Hope in Dark Days I wrote this.

In order to keep hope alive we need to tell the stories of action, alternatives, truth when it is obscured. … We also need to tell stories of how it could be. Hope opens us up to the possibilities that we can work towards. Here bookish people, as well as the press, have a very significant role to play. There are both histories and fictions. History reminds us how far we have come and how. Fiction stretches the imagination, the future possibilities for humans.

Fiction, then, is important to keep in mind the possibilities of other ways in which the world can be, to face us with some unpalatable truths and above all to develop empathy, without which we are surely doomed. But we are not doomed! We have fiction and can write more fiction. Read! Write! Eat the fairy fruit!

Any thoughts?

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Filed under Books, Libraries, Reading, Writing

14 Responses to What is Fiction for?

  1. Some good quotations there, and I believe your arguments are sound. Doesn’t make one feel too optimistic about the way the world is going, but that’s another function of literature: to provide the truth, smash the ice as Kafka says. It’s a subversive activity as well. Provocative.

    • Caroline

      Thanks Simon. Yes, fiction can definitely be subversive. It needs to needle people. But I guess it will not provide answers or guidance on action.
      I like the Kafka quote.

  2. Eileen

    This is timely for me to think about as I embark on the fourth chapter of my first novel. So for me as a writer I think fiction is about understanding human relationships, gaining insight into the roles that people play and how people can be stuck in how they think, act and behave. From this we will be more able to understand how people can learn and change and how we as individuals can change and be open to new ways of being. Taken at a broader level this can apply to how groups can learn and change and how societies can learn and change and be more tolerant of other groups and other societies.
    In class last week we looked at the moral responsibility of the writer. That is such a good topic. Thanks for this post and thanks for the pictures too.

    • Caroline

      Hi Eileen,
      thanks for these thoughts. I must admit I was thinking as a reader when I wrote this. But I guess writing fiction has a function too that is worth thinking about.
      I think that writers have a responsibility to be moral.
      Glad you like my pictures.

      C xx

  3. Jennifer Evans

    Not just fiction, but personal accounts can give us insights into other people’s lives. There was a time when I couldn’t read fiction, but instead would read autobiographies – Maya Angelou and Jane Campion for example. However, I do agree that fiction can give us insights and empathy. I often feel that they tell more truth than sociological and psychological theories.

    By the way, I enjoyed Names for the Sea which you led me to by your post about Iceland. I think I got an insight into Iceland which was quite intriguing.

    • Caroline

      Hi Jennifer, I quite agree that we can often be influenced by other people’s lives. I think that’s why I read History at university.
      So glad you enjoyed Names for the Sea. Have you read Tidal Zone? Quite hard going, but Sarah Moss is an excellent writer. Marianne recommended her to me!

      Caroline xx

  4. Great post, Caroline. Fiction has an important role, as you have pointed out. Love the quotes – your own and those by others. Let’s challenge the status quo and make a better future for us all!

  5. Marianne Coleman

    Thank you Caroline that was areally thoughtful post.

    How can we get more people reading more high quality fiction?

    I wonder if the Canadian ex PM Stephen Harper read any of the 100 books that Yann Martel sent to him?

    • Caroline

      Thanks for the reminder about Yan Martel and his mini course in reading to the then Canadian PM. He deliberately chose short works, acknowledging the busy work of the PM.

      I don’t know how to encourage more reading of quality fiction, but I think our teachers are doing a grand job in the face of rather more functional approaches to reading and literacy that are encouraged by official curriculum wonks.

      And I think some films can also share the function of fiction (and other tellings, pace Jennifer). Look at the work of Mike Leigh for example.


  6. Timely post, Caroline, and I really like this line from Neil Gaiman
    You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well.
    I’m writing an article about fiction, empathy and diversity myself – but I do think entertainment has to be the primary purpose, it just so happens that I find it entertaining to be stretched a little!
    There’s some interesting research on the relationship between readers’ personality styles (in terms of appreciation of both intellectual effort and emotional connections) and spoilers
    that highlights that we come to fiction with differing expectations.

    • Caroline

      Thanks Anne. I am very concerned about the world at the moment, like so many people. So I am pleased you thought that this post is timely. I look forward to seeing your thoughts in this area.

      By the way, what is a reader’s personality style? Please explain!


  7. Thanks Anne. I remember reading this post of yours when I was writing about spoilers.
    I think I am just reacting badly to the idea of style, having seen the word used so badly in relation to learning.
    It’s interesting research and I will continue to want to be challenged in my reading. Perhaps that’s my reading style?

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