COLUMN: Finding Yourself In Fiction
Published: Sunday, September 29, 2013
Updated: Sunday, September 29, 2013 20:09
Ever since I was little, I’ve been fascinated by fiction. My childhood was very much defined by the stories I read. I remember spending countless nights in my footsie pajamas, tucked away under my covers, reading my favorite books by the glow of a flashlight. I’d retreat into different realities, into places where wardrobes were portals to magical realms, where gardens were full of mysterious secrets, and where mice could heroically save princesses.
The implausible elements of these worlds didn’t seem to faze me then. I never considered how bizarre it would be for a kind spider to befriend a little pig—that reality didn’t seem to clash with the one that I actually lived in. I believed E.B. White’s tale wholeheartedly, and that was all it took to make the story real.
When I got older, though, and started reading “big girl books,” the author’s job became more of a challenge, because with maturity, came hesitation and cynicism. No longer was I quick to buy into narratives about rabbits with pocket watches and grinning cats that disappeared. This kind of fanciful fiction was asking too much of me. I couldn’t reconcile two opposed realities.
So, instead, I started reading novels that I thought were more conceivable, more “real.” I fell in love with Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, and Ian McEwan’s Atonement—all novels that did away with talking animals in favor of romantic British plots.
If I’m being honest, however, these books were really no different than the ones I had read before. What made me think that it was any more likely for a wealthy, proud gentleman to propose to an average, stubborn girl than it was for a man to be made of tin or for a lion to be without courage? It wasn’t obvious to me then, but these stories are all the same: they’re all fiction.
I attended a lecture this Wednesday evening by book critic and writer James Wood—he spoke to this question of fiction, defining and exploring it in reference to his latest book, How Fiction Works. In one of the chapters, he writes, “Fiction moves in the shadow of doubt, knows itself to be a true lie, knows that at any moment it might fail to make its case. Belief in fiction is always belief ‘as if.’”
As I understood it, Wood, at the lecture, was trying to explain that the beauty of fiction lies in our ability to believe it just as much as is necessary for it to be “as if” it were true. In other words, fiction is not asking us to truly accept the plausibility of a giant peach housing an orphan boy and his singing insect friends—it’s only asking us, rather, to believe enough to keep turning the pages, to believe in the story as a story.
That is, after all, one of the many reasons we read fiction books. We read them to be taken away from the banality of our own lives and to be transported to a new, exciting reality—one that is “not quite” real, but is almost real. One that we can imagine ourselves being a part of.
And if we can’t see ourselves in the world that the author constructs, if we can’t relate to the characters that the writer creates, well, then, there’s nothing stopping us from closing his book and tossing it out of a window. We have the freedom to choose what we read, to choose which realities we accept and which we don’t.
So, even though fiction, by definition, may be one giant lie, it’s in fiction that we sometimes find the greatest truths. We find stories that mirror our lives. We find characters that reflect ourselves. We find that somewhere, either in this world or in that of our favorite novels, we fit in.