Book Column: The Perennial Importance Of Fiction

Graphic by Nina Potischman

As college students, when our focus yields to academic material and research, there is a general inclination toward academic journals, news articles, autobiographies, reports — any deviant from pure fiction.

These scholarly texts begin to situate themselves above our fiction novels, and our immersion into our vocational pursuits gradually alters our perceptions of fiction: a less revered form of writing, reserved solely for leisure.

This transition from fiction to nonfiction makes logical sense, as it mimics our own transformation in cognitive development from child to adult.

As children, fictional stories formed the world we lived in. Winding lines of fallen leaves would become the trail for Hansel and Gretel, the ladder in the playground would lengthen in our childlike eyes into a thick beanstalk.

Stories straying farthest from reality would make a mark on our curious minds and infiltrate  our own lives as we were said to “play pretend.” But these stories didn’t solely serve as mere entertainment. Rather, this mystical fiction aided our cognitive development.

It was through these implicit portrayals and our ability to expand and interpret from our imagination that our cognitive abilities were strengthened, suggesting that there is more to fiction than just “pretend reality.”

But there is something to be said about fiction that relays a lot of the information we may find in nonfiction implicitly. Fiction not only seems to convey these ideas in a purer form but also allows readers to sort through their own thoughts, free from the influence of authority.

Walter Benjamin posited that the act of translation is merely a form of the original, but that one must return to the original to truly comprehend the material in its honest presentation.

This translation is akin to the recall and dissemination of knowledge in nonfiction texts. There are some discreet nuances of the information that are lost through the retelling of knowledge. It is difficult to convey a poem through another’s rewording of the text, other than by recounting the exact words that lay on the page, because that is what creates the true aura of the poem. Anything else tarnishes it.

While fiction and poetry are also a shadow of the natural world, they lose less information than explicit retelling does, as some of the nuances are captured in the story that is emotionally felt — just as Sigmund Freud claimed dreams are an image sequence of our worries — rather than explicitly told. Fiction goes through one phase of translation, while nonfiction experiences multiple layers.

Fiction tacitly informs us about the human condition, gives us insight into historical events and cultural norms, and most importantly gives us insight into our own character.

“Fiction’s what it is to be a fucking human being,” David Foster Wallace once said.

Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone With The Wind” tells the story of Southern Belle Scarlett O’Hara during the Civil War, and her journey in not only finding the true strength lying within her, but also the man who loves her for herself, and not her superficial presentation.

O’Hara isn’t the typical lady. Throughout the novel, she defies social norms surrounding what it means to be ladylike, and the role that is expected of her as a woman.

Her resilience when she loses almost everything and her manipulation of events for her own benefit rebuke the image of the quiet, compliant woman who stayed at home and followed the movements of her husband — a popular societal ideal during the 1800s.

“Gone With The Wind” not only transports us to a period in history, but also presents the breaking of a social barrier, as we experience the changing ideal of what it means to be a woman.

In fact, even the language written by Mitchell’s pen informs us of how times and norms have changed if we compare it to a more contemporary novel, like Rosalie Ham’s “The Dressmaker.”

The language in “The Dressmaker” and “Gone With The Wind” is separated by cultural differences in jargon, as the former is an Australian novel, while the latter is American.

Even more so, the style of writing, created by specific terms relevant to the differing time periods, implicitly details the fine subtleties of what each historical period was like.

As English writer Samuel Johnson argues in the preface to his dictionary, there are many words that come and leave, and alter with time.

Fiction and poetry are creative pieces that convey more than the explicit words printed on the page. They tell us something about ourselves as well as who we are specifically in the moment that we are reading the poem.

Each time we read, we have the potential to find something different. Despite our findings not being what the author intended, the space of ambiguity bound to the story form provides readers with the opportunity to read themselves into it, finding a place of self-reflection in the text.

Be it feelings of loneliness, anxiety, unrequited love, or confusion, fiction holds up the mirror to that emotion and plays out the scene that will soothe its worries.

 
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