Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Value of Fiction

A number of years ago my analytic brained father told me that he didn't bother to read fiction. Why should something from someone else's imagination be of interest to him when there were so many interesting and important realities? After all, there is only so much time in life.

I never learned to share my father's disdain for fiction. I think that fiction serves important purposes beyond mere entertainment and escapism. Nor am I denigrating entertainment. It is an essential part of the human experience, but like dessert food, it is wisely kept in proper scope.

Good fiction enlightens and ennobles us. It is an important vehicle for conveying culture. Blogger Rob Parnell says, "We need stories to make us feel better about ourselves -- as human beings, as well as personalities. ...we need stories to help us make sense of life and the world around us." Parnell further explains:
"In real life, there are no beginnings and endings, just infinite sequences.
"You know how it is. You listen to the news. Everything is a segment, a teaser, a sample of every day life. Nothing makes sense because there's no structure.
"Without the confines that fiction offers us, we are drowning in a bewildering sea of actions and feelings and urges with no meaning.
"Stories 'frame' real life into manageable chunks that have tangibility, involvement and purpose, whether for us individually or as a race.
"Surely that's what we were placed on this earth to do!"
Very well, but can't nonfiction stories accomplish this as well as (or better than) fiction? We need a better 'story' than that to explain the purpose of fiction. Here's my shot at it.

Fiction is compelling because it allows us to explore beyond the narrow confines we place on our minds. When engaging reality we seek to frame new information within our current sociocultural strictures and developed prejudices, making the minimum possible allowances for growth. Fiction invites us to suspend these restraints to a greater degree, allowing us to more fully explore and experience our inner humanity. Even Jesus used fiction in teaching the gospel.

Nevertheless, I have horrifyingly found myself becoming increasingly like my father was with regard to fiction, in practice if not in meaning. I don't disregard the value of fiction; I simply find myself enjoying and reading it less and less. I usually have several reading projects ongoing simultaneously. But in recent years these have decreasingly included fiction, although, I feel that I have profited much from reading fiction in the past.

Fiction can be portrayed in other types of media than books. Last week I watched the local high school's production of West Side Story, mainly because friends were involved in the production. The drama teacher is one of my former Boy Scouts, neighbors were involved, and some of our son's friends played major roles. It was a grand performance that demonstrated great talent and much hard work. But I agree with another friend who said, "I loved the production but I hate the story. Always have."

I also recently saw the movie Ender's Game with some of the family. Unlike my family members, I had not read the 1985 book (or any of its sequels), or even the 1977 short story upon which the book was based. I had only a general idea of what it was about. I knew nothing of the lessons the story seeks to teach.

Andrew Lindsay does a decent job of discussing the movie. I thought the movie was great, although, it is intense, dark and brutal. It's not something I'd take my pre-teen to see without her having read the book. Harrison Ford (Col. Graff) and Asa Butterfield (Ender Wiggins) were very good together. I very much liked performances by Viola Davis (Maj. Anderson) and Ben Kingsley (Mazer Rackham), as well as a number of the younger actors. The small statured Moises Arias (Bonzo) was chillingly ruthless.

More than halfway through the movie I started to get a sense of the point the movie was driving toward. Or at least one of its major points. I wanted Ender and his team to win. But I also felt increasingly uncomfortable about the moral implications of where the story was headed. (The morality of using children in war had already been confronted.) Indeed the climax leads to an immediate gut punch that takes the wind out of your sails. This is followed up by a chance for redemption, which I understand is more fully explored in the story's sequels.

As I watched the movie, I lamentably sensed missing enriching back story elements that could have been filled by reading the book. Some transitions seemed too abrupt. This too would probably have been mitigated by reading the book.

After discussing this with my wife, she dug out both the short story and the novel. They are still sitting on my desk untouched, although, I can't for sure say why. Yes, life's been busy since she put the books there, but I have found time to read other material. Maybe I need to convince myself that reading the book would be of value.

To be frank, I'm one of those guys that has always had difficulty engaging in entertainment just for fun. I know of the research that demonstrates the necessity for humans to have fun. I generally have no problem with entertainment if the purpose is to benefit someone else. I'm not sure why I have difficulty internalizing the fact that I could better serve others if I occasionally took time to recreate. Just for fun.

Maybe I will pick up that book this weekend.

1 comment:

Scott Hinrichs said...

By the way, I did end up reading the four short Enderverse stories. I then immediately plunged into the Ender's Game novel and completed it fairly rapidly (for me). It's not a terribly long tome.

While the movie and the book definitely differ, I felt as if they both successfully drove home the same major points. The book (as would be expected) includes much richer strategic detail and character development.

As far as criticisms, I personally felt that most of the foul language included in the novel failed to meet the test of adding enough value to warrant its use. I'm sure that many would say that the language made the story more believable. Perhaps. But not enough so that less crude terms could not have been sufficiently effective.

That being said, the book provided gripping reading. Card is successful in getting the reader to care about the significant characters, even as he paints them with varying mixtures of positive and negative traits. Card does a good job of getting the reader to care about the book's main point.