[Author’s Note: Back when NPR was soliciting essays for their “This I Believe” series, I decided to participate. I ended up recording this piece for local NPR station WETA in D.C. My belief in fiction hasn’t changed.]
I believe in fiction. I believe that when it comes to understanding what life is all about, imagination trumps fact.
In the crazy days after September 11, I re-read Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. “They’re trying to kill me,” Yossarian says — and he’s not just talking about the Germans. I finished it on the plane during my first post-tragedy flight.
Then I got through the 2004 election by re-reading Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here.
It may seem paradoxical that I found comfort in books describing terrible times. But that’s the transformative power of really good fiction — it changes the way you see things. Heller and Lewis reminded me that the world has always been dangerous, that I was deluding myself when I thought I was safe. And yet Yossarian and Doremus Jessup both survive.
I can’t remember not knowing how to read. My parents used to come into my bedroom at three a.m. and tell me to turn out the light and go to sleep. I spent my summers curled up in the big reclining chair in the den, the fan blowing directly on me in those pre-air conditioning days, reading the pile of books I got from the bookmobile.
I read everything — still do — but I loved adventure stories the most. As a teenager I made my way through stacks of mysteries and spy stories, identifying with the (male) hero and trying to ignore the sexist view of women. When many years later my friend Jeron Hocker introduced me to C.J. Cherryh and her wonderful science fiction adventures about women (and non-human females), I was transformed. Identifying with a woman who was the main character in an adventure story — as opposed to the main character in a romance — empowered me in a way that no well-written feminist essay ever did.
I read and respect nonfiction, of course. But I cannot help but think of fiction as the higher art. My favorite compliment for a nonfiction book is that it “reads like a novel.” How powerful is fiction, that other forms of writing are described as its absence!
I don’t love all fiction, of course. In fact, the more fiction I write, the pickier I get about what I read. But I do believe in all fiction.
In this overly rational world, fiction is what remains of magic. It lets me explore different places and times, makes me cry and laugh, sends cold chills up my spine — sometimes even on the dozenth read.
Every time the main character in Theodore Sturgeon’s “The Man Who Lost the Sea” says “God, we made it,” I shiver. Every time the narrator of the James Tiptree Jr. story “The Women Men Don’t See” says “Two of our opossums are missing,” I cheer. Every time Zooey tells Franny who Seymour’s fat lady is, I cry. Because at that moment, I’m the man landing on Mars, the women who got on the alien ship, and either Zooey or Franny, depending on my mood. (I cry either way.)
At that moment, I feel exactly what they feel. I’ve figured out a little bit more about what it means to be human.
Flashes of Illumination, a collection of my short-short fiction, is now available here from Book View Cafe. This 52-story ebook collects the flash fiction I published weekly during the first year of Book View Cafe, and adds in a few later stories as well.
My novella Changeling remains available as an ebook through Book View Cafe. It’s a coming of age story.
Both books are $2.99 and available in four DRM-free formats: mobi, epub, prc, and pdf.