Thursday, May 3, 2012

Thinking: On Value...

I've been having some slightly tongue-in-cheek conversations with a friend recently about his apparent spurning of fiction, after some unsuccessful run ins with books he's been recommended. The only think they've had in common, really, is that they are works of fiction, and he seems a lot happier now he's gone back to ready worthy tomes on history and economics. Each to their own, of course - and I've certainly gone through phases of reading factual material exclusively - but what's been interesting is the term "value" has come up a few times in the conversation, and that has got me thinking, because value, as applied to fiction, is an interesting concept.

Now I'm not talking here about financial value, or the "£ per hour of entertainment" metric, or anything like that. Relaxing and entertainment clearly have a value, because we all do it in our ways, to stave off madness, stress, or passing thoughts of murder. Maybe that last one's just me. But anyway, entertainment has a value, clearly, whether its on the xbox, in front of Coronation Street, reading a book, or walking the dog. So lets park that, and think about works of fiction.

Again, as a society we clearly value fiction because we create so damn much of it. Telling each other stories is what we do, even when we deal with real events. Politicians talk about "narrative" to get their message across, news channels of all stripes spend a long time trying to frame events in clean terms, even when events aren't, and as someone with a keen interest in History it's noticeable that many of the most popular periods are ones with easily discernible through-lines which help the interested to get into the meat of the subject matter. But this is using the refined techniques of fiction to portray the real world, and make it simpler to understand, so what is the attraction, therefore of the purely fanciful, simplified world of fiction itself.

Because it's not real, you know? By the very nature of fiction the only truth is artificial. We talk about works being "realistic" or "gritty" but they are as artificial as a Disney film, the author has just made the choice to resolve his storylines that way. I love me some James Ellroy, but the soul-tainting corruption of his works that none of his characters can escape is still a stylistic choice and as contrived (in a good way) as any happy ever after you care to mention. Sure, fiction can make us laugh or cry, but there must be more to it than that, something that separates say, Ellroy, from say, Dan Brown, and that's harder to define.

G K Chesterton - a writer I don't particularly like, oddly - wrote "Fairy tales do not give a child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon." What he is saying here is that value of fiction is the lessons it imparts, and crucially those lessons are true irrespective of the objective truth of the story itself. You can learn courage, and leadership, and other virtues from imaginary people doing imaginary things, and in fact you can learn them better, because the power of the author over the narrative means you can strip away the messy caveats of the real world. 

John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath exposes the desperation of the dustbowl better than any news story because he can load the story to make the point he is trying to make. Bilbo Baggins resonates because the story of being a small person in a world far bigger, and far scarier than you ever imagined is something every child will have to go through. Winston Smith's world remains an loudly echoing warning despite never existing and that fact it probably never could. Dickens stirred the conscience of the age with his studies of poverty and wealth, Wells directed colonialist destruction on the height of Imperial Britain, Neil Shute's On the Beach made me cry, and Slaughterhouse Five left me torn between hope and despair for the nature of humanity. 

All of these stories are false, but all of them are true. 

And I think that's the value of fiction - it can be a powerful tool to present truth, not fact, to tell you things, to show you things, free from the messy burden of reality. Sure, sometimes it's frivolous nonsense, but the power of stories comes from artificial control of the narrative to deliver the intent of the author, because of their sometimes loose connection to the real world, not despite it. We tell stories to understand the world, to express our desire to change it, and to open our minds to things beyond our eyes and ears, and I can't think of anything that deserves to be valued more.