Wednesday, March 21, 2012

“Is Fiction Relevant to the Real World?”

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Is Fiction Relevant to the Real World?”
March 21, 2012

Novels have long been lauded as a form of entertainment that activate the brain, provide insight into character and present a version of events that we know to be fictional, yet are based on human emotions and reactions we know to be real. While there are variations, there are a finite number of human emotions, most any of which can be found described somewhere in Shakespeare or Dickens. From the website, I came across a list of 143 emotions, ranging from tense and enraged to calm and foolish. A person, more literate than I, could surely assign a well-known fictional character to each emotion. Reading fiction, we know, improves our understanding of the people who inhabit the world in which we live.

But novels and plays may do more. Anne Murphy Paul, writing in Saturday’s New York Times, in a piece entitled “Your Brain on Fiction,” tells of some fascinating studies from the field of neuroscience. The studies she cites suggest that brain cortexes, such as olfactory, sensory and motor, respond to reading about an experience in the same manner they do when encountering that same actuality in real life. Reading about pizza, for example, stimulates one’s olfactory cortex in the same manner as walking into a pizzeria. “When subjects,” Ms. Paul writes, “read a metaphor involving texture, the sensory cortex, which is responsible for perceiving texture through touch, become active.” Additionally, studies done by two Canadian scientists demonstrated that individuals who read fiction are better able to understand people, and empathize with them more clearly than those who do not. Some of this is self-evident, as writers often refer to fictional figures as epitomizing characteristics one wishes to highlight, whether it is Hamlet, Stuart Little, Elizabeth Bennett or Oliver Twist.

In a world that has become increasingly digitized, it is comforting to know that scientists affirm that writers of fiction continue to perform duties for which computers are inadequate – helping to understand the complexities of society, and the interrelationships of its members.

Coincidentally, it is also interesting that, like Mark Twain’s premature obituary (“reports of my death are greatly exaggerated!”), the death knell for publishing has been exaggerated. Julie Bosman, writing last summer in the New York Times, noted that publishers in 2010 sold 2.57 billion books, in all formats, an increase of 4.1% over 2008, and which generated a 5.6% increase in revenues to $27.9 billion, during the same period. The growth was led by e-books, which increased from 0.6% of the trade market in 2008 to 6.4% in 2010, along with juvenile and adult fiction. One can rest assured that that rate of gain (or a faster rate) for e-books will persist.

There are people who never read anything but fiction. Nevertheless, it has always seemed to me that the addition of some history and biography helps broaden the mind. However, much of history written today has the purpose of furthering a particular political agenda. Other than indisputable facts, like dates (specifics that I understand many schools have eviscerated from textbooks), one has to be wary that what one is reading is not fiction masquerading as fact. Of course, with history and biography, it is hard to differentiate fact from fiction. Did George Washington really cut down the cherry tree, as Parson Weems in his 1800 Life of Washington, claimed? No. He used the story as a metaphor to describe his honesty. The same, unfortunately, is true of biography, especially books that extol the living, like Jodi Kantor’s The Obama’s, an ingratiating, bootlicking depiction of a couple that never were.

In contrast, with fiction there is no hidden agenda. Its purpose is to entertain, but with the added value of providing insight to a complex and ever-changing world, and to the people who inhabit it. Novelists come with political agendas, but we know upfront what they write is fiction – consider Ayn Rand on the right and John Grisham on the left.

With the exception of footnotes and tables in annual reports, government statistics and frightening items from the White House, like the recent “Executive Order – National Defense Resources Preparedness” (which I wish were fiction), most of which we read contains some element of fiction. Certainly newspapers and magazines are more shill than not. The pieces that I write, despite my assiduous search for facts, would be mistakenly categorized as non-fiction; they are expressions of opinions.

But none of this fictitious non-fiction is as important in terms of understanding the human condition, as is unadulterated fiction, especially that which is classical – stories written before the advent of movies or television, when the author relied on words alone to describe his or her characters and the emotions affecting them. Fagin is unforgettable, as is Ahab, Lady Macbeth and Undine Spragg. The reader needs no camera to recognize what the character looks like, or any prompter as to how they will behave.

Is fiction relevant to today’s world? Certainly, even in this day of IM’s, tweets, texting and Facebook; and especially so if one believes in the importance of behavior in trying to understand what moves stocks or influences dictators. All of this is worth remembering, as we come closer to the May 10th publishing date of my daughter-in-law Beatriz Williams’ first novel, Overseas, and her two memorable characters, Kate Wilson and Julian Ashford.

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