I once met a woman who smugly declared that she never read fiction. “I figure, if I’m reading, I may as well be reading something real, something true, and learning something. I mean, I realized that reading fiction was basically wasting my time.”

Edith Wharton would BEG TO DISAGREE.

Edith Wharton would BEG TO DISAGREE. (From her library at The Mount.)

I think she expected me to be impressed. I was in a particularly… accommodating mood, so I didn’t just stare blankly at her. Instead, I tried explaining how the point of so much fiction was to tell the truth.

Non-fiction can be just as powerful, but it doesn’t give us the psychological safeguard of “It’s only a story.” We sometimes go into non-fiction with our defenses up. We judge real people as we do not judge characters. Fiction, we tend to make ourselves more vulnerable to, and in doing so allow it to slip past our prejudices and re-arrange our principles. Ask Jane Austen about the once-rare companionate marriage (or about the importance of the novel itself, for that matter). Ask George Gissing or Henrik Ibsen about the merits of divorce. Or Harriet Beecher Stowe about slavery. Or William Gibson about cyberspace.

In the coming years, LGBT YA literature will play an increasingly essential role in teaching young people that the LGBT community deserves every bit and more of the equal rights and respect they are only beginning to receive from the population at large. I hope to soon see Women’s Fiction abandon the qualifier and just become “fiction,” so that works written by and for women aren’t considered niche. When women are allowed to imagine new narratives for themselves and have those narratives taken seriously, they will live out those narratives more frequently. A recent op-ed in the NY Times lamented the paucity of children’s books featuring children of color. When children start seeing people who look like them in the media they are exposed to, they will learn that they have the potential to play out the fictions of that media in their lives. You can’t work towards something you have not somehow been taught to visualize.

Non-fiction can describe the truth, and decry injustices, and it can compellingly advocate for and give examples of change. But fiction can describe our ideals as if they were already realized, and in doing so, help us be firm in our beliefs that those ideals can and should be realized.

I gave a shorter version of this speech to my acquaintance, expecting that she might perhaps be moved by my passion to consider things in a different light.

She was not. I abandoned the more complex tools of history and psychology. Driven to extremity, I leveled the cudgel of hard logic at her: “Do you also only watch movies and television shows that are based on true stories?”

She replied that that had never occurred to her. “But you’re right!” She said, wonderingly, “It’s the same thing!”

Who knows if she ever thought about our conversation after that. But I obviously have. And now I’m going to read another novel.



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