Monday, November 9, 2009

Has Fiction Lost Its Value?

Bella or Sarah?

Olive or Michael?

Lately, it seems like real characters are more interesting than fictional ones (and real stories more bizarre than fictional ones). So, why shouldn't readers flock to biographies, celebrity or otherwise, to learn about human nature?

There was a time when fiction provided more for readers. Aside from entertainment, fiction had the power to educate people on topics that were too taboo to discuss in the open. Want to learn about the psychology of adultery? Read Anna Karenina. Want to know what it's like kill someone? Try Crime and Punishment. When these books came out, they were revolutionary, not simply because they were well-written, but because they were valuable. They provided readers with information that helped them navigate through their own lives. They served as predictions, as warnings, as assurances. But, nowadays, when I want to learn about extraordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, I'm often better off in the realm of reality.

Times have changed. Subject matters that used to be private no longer are. And, because of that, I think readers don't see the value of fiction, if indeed that value still exists. It has become merely a form of entertainment--and an energy consuming one at that! If books aren't doing anything more than providing a few hours of distraction, why not see a movie instead?

So, I wonder: Is there still value to fiction? And, if so, what is it? Are we, as writers, neglecting to provide our readers with something more than just a story?


  1. This is deep stuff for my early morning coffee wake-up reading. But you always give me things to ponder that are good for my writing and my life.
    I still read a ton and know others who do, too. I may not be a prophet but I don't see that totally disappearing. It's an internal and private type of entertainment.
    I insert values in my tales even if they are fantasy. But being carried away by story is the most important part. I firmly believe that fiction should be entertaining and moving in some way. I'm not looking for a ficiton author to be a teacher or a preacher, although I may learn something while reading. That said, I am bored by stories that have no depth. I am rambling--like I said it's too early and I have mucho nano ahead. Bye and thanks for waking up my sleepy brain cells. :)

  2. I love movies, and even though I like to see how a filmmaker tries to adapt a book to the screen (cringe-inducing or admirable attempts are both welcome), a movie will never take place of reading.

    I don't know that real characters are more or less interesting than fictional characters, but at the moment they are better publicized. Are we seeing the literary equivalent of reality TV? Is it a passing fad (on TV and in print) or is it the new sliced bread?

    Fiction is still valuable to me. It may be less allegorical and more entertaining today than it was in the past, but consider this: reality will only tell us what was, not what could or should have been. For those hypotheticals, we need fiction.

    I try to infuse my stories with greater themes, and to test conventional thought. Hopefully I do this in a way that is entertaining first and foremost, so readers who don't care to wax philosophical about what I meant will still enjoy the story. Those that want to explore the deeper motives of my characters, or find hidden parallels planted in a novel will have their work cut out for them.

    FATE'S GUARDIAN is a work of paranormal suspense, but its core themes explore role-reversal between good and evil through reincarnated lives.

    EARTH'S END is a socio-religious satire in which God decides to destroy the Earth and hires a consultant to help him plan it. But beyond the comedy at the surface there are deeper inside jokes and biblical references that will go over many people's heads.

    RUDY TOOT-TOOT is a cute story about a little boy who was born on a bean farm, and had the gift of producing very potent winds, but through the story I teach kids about botany, agriculture, math, manners, literature, and self-confidence.

    For all of the above it's about the story first, though.

  3. ALthough I enjoy watching (some) reality shows, where all human nature is on display, I still prefer my written reality dressed up as fiction, as entertainment - wrapped up in a happy, or at least hopeful, ending!

  4. It's an interesting post and I think you make some good points. I left the newspaper business a few years ago, an industry that faced the same issues. The Internet and other forms of media made newspapers less and less relevant. Now, we're losing major papers left and right.

    Other media have also eroded the power of fiction. But, I would argue, to a much lesser degree. Novels can entertain and bring insight to the human condition like no other medium. You mentioned movies. The most anticipated movies all have their roots from novels - Twilight, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, etc...

    The role of fiction is evolving, no doubt. But I think it will always be relevant.

  5. I agree with Tricia, this stuff is too deep for one coffee.

    However, that being said, and I agree with both Tricia and Rick, it's all in the story. Real life doesn't give us the inner most thoughts of characters that fiction does. We know of the devastation at Fort Hood, but what do we really know about the man who did this heinous crime. WHY did he do it? Maybe we'll never know. But if this were a "STORY" we would definitely understand perahps not all, but some of his motivation.

    Fiction is the link to understanding -- it allows you to see a person, inside and out, to explore the universal themes, without having to actually know the people going through them.

    In a few weeks, the above mentioned man's story will come out to the world. Will this man's motivations for the killings be anyting like we've imagined? Will his story allow us, as readers, to have any kind of sympathy for him?

  6. Richard Peck said something like:

    Stories are not what happened, they are what might have happened.

    I think there's a lot to learn from what people might have done (fiction) and from what people have done (non-fiction).

    I read a lot of fiction and non-fiction. I love a compelling true story, and I love a good novel that transports me to somewhere new.

  7. Rick said: It may be less allegorical and more entertaining today than it was in the past, but consider this: reality will only tell us what was, not what could or should have been. For those hypotheticals, we need fiction.

    Yep ... couldn't have said it better myself.

    True-life stories aren't the be-all and end-all. You need the fiction to show the world the ideal to aspire to or the terror to avoid. Reality television and celebrity biographies can't do that. Only fiction can.

  8. Of course, there's more to writing than just providing a fun story. (Even if that were all there was to it, it would still be worth doing.) Novels still provide those insights. Biographies usually don't get deep into the person's mind. They propose ideas about what the person was thinking, but that don't know for sure unless they ask the person or quote them. Even still, are they being truthful or editorializing?

  9. "It has become *merely a form of entertainment*...If books aren't doing anything more than providing a few hours of *distraction*..."

    "*just* a story"

    These are strong, provoking words. And I don't believe you believe them. :)

    But I do see your point, the role of fiction has changed/is changing. I never thought of what you brought up as one of the reasons: what was once considered private is out for the world to study and ponder.

    I still think fiction can provide a deeper understanding of truth than facts alone can.

    I started reading Annie Dillard's Living by Fiction last night, and read your post this morning. I need to think harder about what I'm supposed to be learning.

    BTW: neither Bella nor Sarah. And both Olive and Michael. :)

  10. Tricia, I love what you say about privacy. That is one of the things that makes a book special. Sometimes when I'm reading, especially in a public place, I feel like the author is whispering secrets to me. There is something to be said about that.

    Rick, Maybe the celebrity books are just a fad. I'm not sure if that is the case, but I hope so. The idea that fiction can present the hypothetical is an interesting one. One of the best compliments I got on my book from a reader was that someone was afraid she would turn out like one of my characters if she didn't change her ways.

    Karen, I see. So, the value of fiction then, is that it can also clean things up, perhaps fix things that stay broken in real life. Actually, that's the case in my book, but I had never noticed it before.

    Scott, thanks for your thoughts. I hope that is the case! Things are changing, as I said, and it may be that the way we distribute our books will have to change. Self-publishing, affordable self-publishing, may become very relevant very soon.

    Piedmont Writer, while I think your argument is valid, I'd also suggest that there are some really revealing non-fiction books out there that do provide the inner working of people. Writers like Maya Angelou, Joan Didion, and Samantha Dunn have opened up their real lives to us, and I think often those explorations are deeper and more complex than what I have encountered in fiction. But, I really like what you said about not having to know the characters. Perhaps fictional characters have the power to be universal because they are not real.

    paulgreci, thanks for your thoughts. Maybe there is room for both fiction and non-fiction in our gathering of information. Thanks for the quote!

    Matthew, I think maybe fiction and non-fiction can work in different ways. I know for a fact that my watching some reality TV definitely teaches me about what I don't want to become! Fiction, perhaps, has the power to reach further to explore more--but are we as writers going that far?

  11. Others have shared some great thoughts here, Davin. And you've asked some tough questions. Stories go back so far, even to Jesus and the parables in the Bible. Oftentimes, as I teach children in my sunday school class, I've found that nothing gets through to them more than a story - and oftentimes it's the fictional stories that touch them the most.


    To know something never existed or happened, but relate to it anyway, that's pretty powerful. I don't think fiction will ever lose all its sparkle. Not for me, anyway. And I don't think you really believe some of the things you've put in here - not with how much I know you! I agree with Yat-Yee. Which, by the way, hello Yat-Yee! It's nice to see you around. :)

  12. The nice thing about fiction is that anything can happen. Superman can fly, Harry can cast spells. But no matter if the work is fiction or non-fiction, it has to have plot, character, and drive - or it's just not fun to read.

  13. Lois, thanks for your thoughts. I wanted to propose that recent biographies may still fall into the fiction category, but I thought maybe that was going too far. Thanks for doing it for me!

    Yat-Yee, nice choices, LOL. Regarding the point I made about privacy, I experienced that second hand with a writer teacher I had a few years ago. When I was taking her classes, she must have been in her late fifties, and she told us that when she first started writing, her honesty helped get her published in places like The New Yorker, But, in recent times, her honesty isn't revolutionary enough anymore. So many people with more bizarre live are telling their tale, and she felt like that left her works on the sidelines.

  14. A deliberately provocative post, good sir. I think you knew the answer before you asked the question. I'll weigh in nonetheless. :)

    Of course there is still value to fiction. Our other forms of entertainment provide us with only the superficial, the visuals, with some voiceover at best to illustrate the internal world. Fiction allows us to delve way, waaaaay inside characters, in a manner that provides more insight than even the most searching of films. The connection can be deeper, the conflict more nuanced, and the relationships more fully explored in fiction than in other media.

    Our need for escapist fun can easily be met with films, video games, or teh internets. Our need to connect with and understand human beings? Not so easily assuaged. Fiction allows that.

  15. Fiction provides something reality lacks - the what if factor. And there is value to exploring the "what if" within fiction. We can imagine possibilities without really expending any resources (other than time). We can ask the big questions posed within these what-if scenarios.

    I disagree with you however, that fiction books do not educate people on topics anymore. While Dan Brown may not be on the level of Anna Karenina (depending on your opinion of course), reading his books can make you think about the implications of iconology (a fascinating subject as far as I'm concerned). Tom Clancy's fiction has "foretold" many of the misfortunes we see today in the realm of wars and terrorism. Too bad too many of us didn't pay attention.

    One problem is that the industries putting out entertainment (whether it be books, music, television or film) believe dumbing down the material makes it more palatable to the rest of us. They have made us numb to the process, and unfortunately too many people accept this level of entertainment without question. The fact that so many television shows and movies are nothing more than re-written tales of the same story (albeit with different names and actors/actresses) illustrates how that industry believes we no longer need to pose big questions in entertainment.

    I would argue that society is begging for "big question" books to arrive on the scene, if for nothing else than to give them something to think about. I like to think that most people who read these days would welcome intelligent writing rather than choose to avoid reading it. "Hotel On The Corner Of Bitter And Sweet" is a perfect example of this.

    Perhaps I'm being a bit naive and full of misguided hope, but I don't think I'm wrong.

  16. Davin, maybe we don't get educated about things like adultry anymore through novels, but I believe a lot of important "learning" goes on, particularly through multicultural fiction. I defy someone to read "Rooftops of Tehran" and feel casually about bombing Iran. Or to read "The Poisonwood Bible" and think the same way about missionaries and, more importantly, those to whom they mission.

    Even now, with millions of cable channels and the wide use of the internet, people are remarkably ignorant about those who are different from themselves. Some of our best novels bring us, literally, to each other. They force us to know someone different from us.

    It's no small thing, even now.

  17. Sometimes when I'm reading, especially in a public place, I feel like the author is whispering secrets to me.

    That is a very cool thought! Well stated.

    television shows and movies are nothing more than re-written tales of the same story

    It's a cash-grab. So many shows and movies are akin to one-hit wonders of radio. Change the location and you have a brand new CSI show. Re-make a classic horror movie and you have a guaranteed audience. But these will not be the iconic masterpieces that define our generation.

    There's gold in them thar hills, you just have to pan for it.

    I would argue that society is begging for "big question" books to arrive on the scene

    I agree with this, too. We aren't the fools our politicians and producers of entertainment make us out to be.

    I think the thirst for "big question" books is a large part of the success of THE DAVINCI CODE. It doesn't matter how good or bad the research was, or who facile or complex the puzzles were, or the quality of the prose. The story elevated a controversial concept from the underworld of counter-culture into the mainstream, and people went nuts for it.

  18. I'd like to expand on what Piedmont Writer said. I think reading fiction can show you what it's like being someone else. A skilled fiction writer can get deeper into someone's head than a less skilled celebrity writer talking about him/herself, even if they both use first person. I think fiction can teach you empathy and tolerance for others and different cultures.

  19. Well, "value" is an interesting word here. If you mean "commercial value," then maybe "reality" (if, you know, this stuff is even true) is currently selling better than ficion on average. But if you mean "social value," then we all know you don't think fiction has lost its value, Mr. Malasarn, else you'd not write it.

    I think "reality" in the form of celeb bios and the like are mostly just escapism, and maybe that's always been the main reason people turn to entertainment in the first place. But fiction, and especially literary fiction? The purpose is to give the reader a chance to experience life in a broader way than before. Or, to quote C.S. Lewis, "passion is present for the sake of imagination, and therefore, in the long run, for the sake of wisdom or spiritual health--the rightness and richness of man's total response to the world." I think fiction does a better job of that than celebrity bios and the like.

  20. Hi to you too, Michelle! I may not have commented lately, but I've read every one of the posts here. And when Annie Dillard and Davin Malasarn both bring up the topic of fiction as life, I have to chime in. :)

  21. Michelle, that's a great example with the parables. There is something about using one's imagination to create a story that's memorable.

    Carolyn, Fiction does have the power to make the impossible believable. I think the popularity of fantasy and science fiction can attest to the power of that!

    Simon, I've had a few people tell me that they thought no other artform could dig as deeply as writing. That's always been something that has intrigued me. I don't necessarily know if it's true, but I would like it to be.

    Eric, I agree with you whole-heartedly, and I think you've made a point that I didn't make clear in the post. I think fiction has the potential to be all that you say, but I wonder if WE aren't working hard enough.

    Jennifer, I good example. It seems like books are really emphasizing place and culture these days. Even different parts of American are being presented to us.

    Sandra, thanks. I think it's our job to do that sort of digging, and we can't go easy on ourselves. The value of fiction is not inherently lost, but it can be lost in individual stories if we don't work hard to preserve it.

    Scott, for this post, I didn't mean commercial value but social value. Perhaps each tale told well provides that different avenue for a person to be aware of, each story opens up their view slightly more. That's a nice way to think about it and it leaves a lot of room for more writers.

  22. This post really strikes a chord with me. I just recv'd a rejection saying 'while this is a novel I might have picked up a couple of years ago, I'm afraid it is too quiet for the current market'.

    are we doomed to read vampire stories forever? *sigh*

    Nothing wrong with an exciting paranormal adventure ... I'm all for it, but those of us who try to write things with this teaching you discuss here are struggling in the midst of it.

  23. Tess, Sorry you had to get that rejection. But, I hope you can see that as quite the compliment as well. I can't tell you how excited I am to read your work. I think you are a beautiful writer and I'm a reader who wants exactly what you have to offer.

  24. I don't believe fiction is dead. Look at library storytimes for children--they're usually packed! Oh, all those future readers make me so happy.

    I agree that fiction teaches, but does it always have to? Right now, we are so bombarded with facts and media, maybe fiction is needed less for imparting info than as a way to think for ourselves?

  25. Davin, this post provoked a strong reaction in me. So, I have to say something, even though I'm coming late to the conversation.

    The problem with biographies is that they are not always beautifully written, and therefore, the truth of the stories is muddied or comes out less poignant. They have been getting much better over the years. But I believe that sometimes the best person to write a story is not the person who actually experienced it. And let's face it--lots of amazing writers don't have equally amazing experiences. That's why we need fiction.

    I still rely on fiction to take me places I've never ventured. And I don't just mean fantasy or sci-fi. I'm thinking of writers like Barbara Kingsolver and Russell Banks. With them I've been to Appalacia and Africa. I can't wait to see where Kingsolver takes us next--into the lives of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, into the exile of Trotsky. I can read biographies of these people, and I have, but I'm betting Kingsolver will give me something more. She can really tell a story. Biographies and memoirs are not always real stories. And there will always be a place for stories.

    Truths are truer when they're beautifully written. Didn't somebody say that?


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