There Is Truth In Fiction, Too

Jan 5, 2018

“But is it true? I only read nonfiction.”

Sometimes I get this response when recommending poetry or novels. The prejudice against imaginative writing has a long history, from Plato’s banishment of poets in The Republic to the Puritan mistrust of any representation not from Scripture.

This prejudice lives on in predominantly Anglo nations, where novelists and poets enjoy significantly less exposure on daily news cycles than do their counterparts in other cultures.

Of course, literary art does not exist to mirror empirical truth. What we call “non-fiction” also partakes in creativity: Histories and memoirs find causes and effects in events selected to create narratives that could have been spun differently.

Besides providing entertainment, literature tests experience from various perspectives. It broaches and names phenomena that are often otherwise overlooked or superficially evaluated, such as sexism, racism, and a wide range of issues.

Kafka helps approach bureaucracy, Huxley and Atwood propaganda, Beckett the absurdity and Keats the wonders of existence -- not to mention the psychological, sociological, and historical evidence that literary texts provide about cultural preoccupations.

As with “nonfiction,” literary works can perpetuate controversial perspectives. But finding permanent answers is not the purpose of literature; rather, it provides a platform for positing relevant questions and exploring possibilities.

Good historical writing is aware of this too. As the philosopher Santayana said, “History is always written wrong, and so always needs to be rewritten.”

To guard against tunnel vision, developing inquisitive habits is a truer approach to the complexities and mysteries of life.

I’m Bill Gahan, and that’s my perspective.