Why Fiction Matters

The DispossessedI’ve had several conversations with fiction writers lately on what we should be doing about climate change, the election, and other important concerns of the day. My immediate response was that now, more than ever, they should write.

They dismissed that advice. I got the feeling they thought of fiction as a luxury or even an irrelevance at the current time, even though they’re very fine fiction writers. But I wasn’t advising them to indulge themselves or escape into their work.

I really believe that fiction – telling stories – is one of the most important things we do as human beings. I believe that because reading fiction is one of the things that made me who I am today.

Stories matter. One of the most comforting items in my Facebook feed on Wednesday – and I saw it in more than one place – was a few lines from Lord of the Rings:

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

That’s fantasy, the supposedly “escapist” literature.

Now I wasn’t telling my fellow writers to write to the exclusion of everything else that needs doing. Other things also matter. Politics matters, despite our habit in the U.S. of disparaging it. We need good people to run for office and work on campaigns, because it’s hard to get anything done when the people in power are stacked against you.

Activism matters. We need the people who mass in the streets because Black Lives Matter and those who block pipelines. We also need those who are creating new structures – those building the worker co-ops and social justice entrepreneur programs.

Most of all we need a vision, so that we can see where we’re going. And that brings me back to fiction, because stories can give us vision.

In Staying with the Trouble, a manifesto on how to survive the difficult times ahead that includes fiction, Donna Haraway says:

To study the kind of situated, mortal, germinal wisdom we need, I turn to Ursula K. Le Guin and Octavia Butler. It matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with; it matters what concepts we think to think other concepts with. It matters wherehow Ouroboros swallows its tale, again.

Haraway goes on to talk about the “carrier bag theory of fiction”:

[Le Guin’s] theories, her stories, are capacious bags for collecting, carrying, and telling the stuff of living.

One of the things that always delights me in Le Guin’s fiction is her penchant for messy semi-utopias. Not everything works as it ought to; not everyone is happy; there are no saviors that make everything perfect.

We need to think about those kind of utopias these days. Climate change is going to alter our planet, and we cannot count on those with power – both in governments and in the business world – to take the necessary steps to change it. Haraway’s “The Camille Stories: Children of Compost” sets up some ways people might change. Yes, it’s imaginary, but I can see it inspiring someone to try something similar.

Haraway started these stories as part of a group writing project at a symposium. One of the things I’d like to do is bring people together to work on stories in a similar fashion, perhaps at some science fiction conventions, perhaps where I live. Writing is usually a solitary practice, but coming together to imagine ways to stay with the trouble could get a lot of creative juices flowing, not just in writers but in organizers and activists.

I’m going to keep doing my own writing as well, because I have things to say that need to be heard. It’s very important to me that the progress human beings have made toward becoming civilized continues even as we struggle with bad leaders and a warming planet. We have learned so much over our short history on Earth; I don’t want us to start from scratch. I’ve never been a fan of reinventing the wheel.

I can just tell you my ideas, as I’m doing here. Nonfiction is important and I read a lot of it. But I’m found that reading stories changes me in a way that learning ideas does not. There’s something about setting ideas in a world that allows a reader to make them their own.

By the way, not all stories have to change or enlighten us. Sometimes we just need to visit someone else’s world for awhile. I imagine every reader out there has a favorite kind of comfort reading. Mysteries fill the bill for me. Others like their quest novels or romances. Those of us who write shouldn’t neglect those tales, either.

Life is hard enough. We have to have some fun while we’re saving the world.



Why Fiction Matters — 11 Comments

  1. One of the specific things that this genre does is dream of the future. Because, until you can imagine it, you can’t make it real. So before anyone goes there, we have to be there. In one of his comic books, Alan Moore said, “All war is a failure of the imagination.” We have to envision it — peace with our enemy, swords beaten into plowshares. Otherwise it can’t happen.
    When Robert Heinlein died, Charles Sheffield organized a memorial service for him at NASA Greenbelt, in Maryland. Heinlein had never been there. But so many of the rocket scientists at NASA had gotten into space science because of Heinlein’s novels that it was necessary to have a service. That’s what Heinlein did, for the future. And so must we.

    • This is why Haraway argues that the SF work of people like Le Guin and Butler is so important — they give us other ways of looking at the future. Now more than ever we need to envision how to get to better futures.

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  3. Thanks, Nancy Jane. That’s one of my favorite Tolkien passages. Right now, after the election, a lot of us are feeling despair and wondering if anything we do can matter, with the cards stacked against us and against the survival of a viable planet if environmental efforts are slashed. That’s when we really DO need to keep writing and keep providing visions of possibility. And remain connected!

  4. I am currently feeling a very strong urge to reread Doris Lessing’s Canopus in Argos: Archives series, and in particular The Sentimental Agents in the Volyen Empire, which satirises our tendency to be swayed by rhetoric and sentimentality. I thought it was very funny when I read it the first time, many years ago. I wonder whether I will find it so again.

  5. I so agree.

    You mention Tolkien, who talks about just this thing in his essay “On Fairy Stories.”

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