When Alice Munroe won the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature, the CBC played a clip of a past interview with the short story writer, where she recalled her time working at a bookstore. When she would ask customers if they were looking for non-fiction or fiction, they would often reply with, “Oh no, I never read fiction.” Who would be so frivolous? Who has time to read such fantasy?
If you are a fiction lover, like me, you might even find yourself recalling Belle in that opening scene from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Belle tries telling the town baker about the recent book she’s read, about a beanstalk and on ogre. We’ve all read that one. The baker’s reaction? “That’s nice. Marie—the baguettes. Hurry up!”
The latter example is taken from a work of fiction itself, but serves to prove my point that fiction mirrors life, and still raises the question: when did fiction become such a dismissed craft? Why is it seen as so frivolous? It comes down to a lack of understanding. Increased illiteracy. Not illiteracy in the way of not being able to read words, but illiteracy in the ability (or lack thereof) to read fiction specifically. Also, the recognition that different types of writing require different sets of skills to read and understand is unacknowledged by most. The skills required to write, read and study literary fiction don’t earn anyone a quick buck. In a world where time is money, understanding literary fiction takes time.
There are so many things that go into writing a good piece of fiction that we can’t really say that we read a novel with just one reading. It takes multiple readings to understand what a book is about. With that first reading, most of us will focus on plot—especially if it’s a linear plot. This is not right or wrong, it’s human psychology. Upon that second reading, when you are already familiar with the plot, is when you begin to pick up on integral details you didn’t focus on at first: dialogue, character, style, tone, rhythm, themes, story structure, traditions, etc. As Pulitzer Prize winning author Salman Rushdie writes in his 2012 memoir, Joseph Anton, these are no longer the days of Jane Austen, when a fiction writer can get away writing solely about the drama of attending balls so that your daughters can catch the attention of high-ranking gentlemen. These days, the masters of the craft have to have a healthy understanding of the history and culture that shapes their characters. I’m talking context.
Not Applicable to Real Life
Another criticism that I often hear about fiction is that it does not apply to real life. The twelve stages of Joseph Campbell’s mythic structure, The Hero’s Journey, not only serve to tell every single Disney movie you have probably even seen, but are also the core of the Alcoholics Anonymous treatment plan (The Twelve Steps). You can apply the values of fiction to real life because fiction is based on real life. Always. Fiction, like all art, finds a home with the existentially depressed. Whereas non-fiction seeks to explain life, fiction seeks to explain and give meaning to it.
Fiction is a tradition that is as old as human psychology. This doesn’t mean that we understand it inherently. It’s a language you learn to recognize and speak. Think of it this way: unless you have learned to read music, you can’t really say that you understand music just because you hear it. Like composing music, writing fiction is not easy. It’s not straight forward, it does not offer instant gratification and it’s definitely not innately frivolous. On second thought, I’m beginning to think that’s why fiction is so dismissed after all.
Marina Reis is a project manager at Word Alive Press. She graduated from the University of Winnipeg in 2015 with a Bachelor of Arts in English.