I’ve been mulling over the argument I posted about this week - that it’s irresponsible to pay attention to “stories that are made up” when the world is in crisis. Ok. I get that fiction is not everyone’s cup of tea, and honestly there are many people in my life I love and respect deeply who don’t read novels. It’s not a huge deal.
But I’m curious what happens if we take this idea a bit further, and apply it to all things “made up”.
- “No, Steve. I don’t want one of you Ipad thingeys. We didn’t have them when I was growing up - it’s an idea you just made up.”
- “No, Doctor. I don’t want that new brain surgery. It may have saved the lives of over 3000 patients, but really, admit it, you just made it up.”
- “Thank you. but I don’t want your interest-free loan. That’s a service that you folks at the bank just made up to get my business.”
- “Turn off the radio. All that music is just made up!”
- “I hate aerobics classes. The choreography just seems made up to me.”
- “Energy-conserving housing. No thanks. Somebody just made that up.”
- “A cure for cancer? A bunch of scientists tucked away in a lab somewhere made that up.”
- “Pah. Philosophy? Made up. Ditto economic theory and any other abstract thinking.”
- ”No, Jennifer. I won’t support your dream of becoming the next prime minister. I don’t believe in things that are made up.”
Maybe I’m missing something, but don’t all goals, actions, intentions and changes start with an idea? And aren’t ideas just things that we make up? It seems to me that human beings make things up. Surely, that’s how we get anything done.
What would the world look like if we didn’t have any interest in anything that’s made up?
“Survival issues are bound to intrude. There is always the rent to pay. The facts of existence weigh heavily. Create anyway. It is the way we rejoice right in the middle of a hard reality!”—Eric Maisel. The 97 Best Creativity Tips Ever. (no. 91)
My last post was about the claim that appeared in The Guardian recently - that when things in the world are bad, it’s irresponsible to read fiction since we should be reading the “serious stuff.” So this post is a defence of fiction.
Hyopthesis: Fiction is a forum for complex “thought experiments” that advance our understanding of the world and our role in it.
Say you’re a scientist. Say you’re curious about the properties of hydrochloric acid. You set up an experiment in your lab to see what happens when you combine hydrochloric acid with other substances, and under a variety of different conditions . You mix it with other acids, foods, solids, liquids. You manipulate it with heat and cold. You watch the results. The applications of your experiment might be all sorts of things ultimately – industrial, pharmaceutical, food storage, etc – but for now, you are merely interested in learning all you can. “What if…” you say to yourself, and in the laboratory, you can do all sorts of things that you might not do in the “real world” to help you to answer that question.
Fiction - a story that is “made up” - is similar. The author ponders “What if…” and sets up a situation to answer that question. Ideas that would never otherwise meet are put together. A boy meets a tiger on a lifeboat (Life of Pi). Death meets a young girl living through the Holocaust (The Book Thief.) Quantum physics meets child development theory (A Child in Time). How do the characters under these conditions react? What does that tell us about the historical period? The prevailing norms and values of that society? Our own society? Human nature? Grand themes like love? Revenge? Mortality? The human path through time? Love? Families? Within fiction, the author can create the conditions for these things to “react” with each other, while controlling the environment and the possible confounding variables.
So is reading fiction (or creating it) irresponsible when the world is in crisis? Well, firstly, the world is always in some sort of crisis, depending on which “point-of-view” (a narrative term, by the way) you take. Secondly, it is precisely when the world seems to be going to pot that we most need the capacity to ask “What if…?” or “Imagine that….” It’s at those times that we most need to be able to “make things up,” see what happens when we put different things together, and imagine alternative ways of thinking, being, relating to each other and imagining the future. When we most need to see that things may not always have to be the way that they are, that we are merely experiencing a moment in history, that there is a bigger picture, that there is hope for new connections. We may not know what the “products” of that thinking are (I’m not suggesting that there’s an easy relationship between what we read in books and what we then implement in our societies and lives), but the experiment is still useful, not just with fiction, not even just with art, but with any practice that encourages us to value that which we “make up.”
And, to carry the analogy even further, just because there are some people who prefer not to paw through scientific journals to find out everything they never needed to know about hydrochloric acid doesn’t mean that the experiments aren’t important.
"When our daily news is apocalyptic, it’s irresponsible to read made-up stories. It’s time to start reading the serious stuff instead."
by Zoe Williams. The Guardian, Saturday 19 November 2011.
Interesting point of view. I could argue both sides - that fiction is vital and that fiction is completely useless; I guess it all depends on how you tell the story.
Spoiler alert, though - I also write fiction and have an English degree, so I may have a bias.
Having written a PhD thesis on narrative and storytelling, I’ve often wondered…given that we can change the perception of whether something is fictional or non-fictional simply by our word choice, syntax, stucture and adherence to generic conventions, what is is that defines the difference between non-fiction and stories that are “just made up”? Does “non-fiction” actually even exist, or is it just yet another story we tell ourselves?
And what happens to the whole notion of “art,” or any other form of creative thought for that matter, if we decide that it is irresponsible to spend time on things that are ”made up”?
Besides, a cynic could quite easily make the case that much of the “serious stuff” we read about the economy, politics and the state of the world is itself far more “made up” than the average novel, perhaps even more so because it purports to be the “truth”!
“A work of art is not a matter of thinking beautiful thoughts or experiencing tender emotions. It is a matter of intelligence, skill, taste, preparation, knowledge, discipline and industry; and especially discipline.”—
I don’t always agree with Evelyn Waugh, but I do like this quote. Of course, being me, I need to edit it slightly. I would say that a work of art is not just a matter of thinking beautiful thoughts, etc - I’d hate to cut beautiful thoughts or tender emotions out of the creative process entirely.
I might also follow Eric Maisel’s lead and replace the idea of “discipline” with the idea of “devotion” - it’s a softer word that still captures the amount of time and heart that goes into a beloved creative project.
Happy to announce that my article in this month’s Parents Canada is now available online. A lot of articles about parenting and creativity are about nurturing your kids’ creativity. This one is about nurturing YOURS. Enjoy!
(Big thank you to those I quoted in this article - I appreciate all your help!)