How Fiction Means

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Some people just don't "get" fiction. It's all made up, right? So how can it say anything that is true?

That is an excellent question, one that I'm probably not the best-equipped to answer, but one that I think about a lot and speculate on.

Fiction that is properly composed does not tell you anything at all, except by implication. The writer of a great work of fiction shows something and leaves the reader to experience that event. In every great work of fiction the reader experiences some everyday things and some new things. These new things are the nucleus around which new thought occurs, if the reader is inclined to treat them so.

In "The River" by Flannery O'Connor, the young protagonist is followed as he witnesses and is driven by the experiences of Church and baptism. So driven is he that he meets his fictional destiny in the course of the story. In that moment the reader is left to wonder about the nature of baptism and the nature of the thirst for God. O'Connor allows the reader to experience an event that forces him or her to clarify what and how they think. She does not tell the reader what to think--although it is clear she has something in mind--but she allows each person to draw conclusions. For some, those who have little understanding of faith or longing for God, the story will seem absurd, hideous even. For others, the absurdity vanishes to be replaced by a concrete sense of what the young protagonist's desire means.

Fiction means not by telling but by showing and eliciting from us a response--sympathetic or antagonistic. Harold Bloom, in one of his books on reading the great books says that great literature is not so much read by us as it "reads us." By that, I take him to mean, that it unearths things we generally like to keep buried. Nonfiction can do this, as shown by the fact that the Bible has been the source of inspiration and constant conversion for countless people; however, in general, in nonfiction the normal attitude assumed is that of "objective scientist," testing the facts, images, and truths brought to us.

The screens for fiction are not so strong, and because fiction does not generally tell but shows, we are in the role of critics in the cinema of the mind. What we experience in reading fiction is something of the author's intent mixed with something of our own experience, and the two together lead to revelation. Our reaction to the fiction can be the measure of the impact of the revelation.

Fiction uses different techniques and different strategies to bring us to similar ends as nonfiction, an understanding of the world around us. But fiction tends to focus on hearts and minds--too often nonfiction focuses on the analytical and external. Even philosophy does not tell us so much about hearts and minds as it tells us how hearts and minds should, ideally work. Fiction tends to show us how they actually do work.

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A memoir writer, non-fiction writer on faith and the arts {Walk On Water, among other titles} and remarkable fiction Madeleine L'Engle has written so often about "story as truth" that I can no longer land a particular quote on the fly.

Jesus said, "I speak to you in parables..."

Flannery O'Connor, a short life full of fiction that touches us over and over.

Owen used all my examples ... but clearly the three of us are on the same "fiction tells truth" page. What gets me is how it can strike home so sharply even when we know it is fiction. Which also says to me clearly that we were made to understand truth through fiction, through stories.



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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on December 6, 2006 12:51 PM.

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