In an all-too-real world of 24-hour news, is fiction still relevant? And how do we decide which stories to tell our children?
About a month ago I was chatting with my father-in-law about books, religion, and our favourite genres of writing when he posed the following question: “How do we decide what stories to tell our children?”
It struck me as a vital question — one whose answer might contain clues about our most fundamental beliefs and values. I have been pondering the question ever since and it keeps growing larger in my mind. It is not only important to consider what stories we tell our children but also what stories we tell ourselves through our adult lives. As a long-time student of literature I’m a bit biased, but I am convinced that stories are crucial to each person’s sense of self and sense of the world they reside in. The stories that we read, create, and revise exist at the root of our humanity.
During the above mentioned conversation my father-in-law admitted that he feels guilty reading fiction because it is not a “real” or “concrete” representation of the world and, therefore, doesn’t help you to understand important global issues. He characterized fiction as a diversion and non-fiction as a window into the big questions of history and current world events.
Thus began a friendly debate in which I had to emphatically disagree. Fiction is reality distilled. Fiction is an image of the world unfettered by the constraint of relating purely factual events. Fiction authors use the freedom of their imaginations to explore the very essence of human nature, to ask the questions that are ignored by politicians because they won’t result in re-election, to delve deeply into the controversial, the horrific, and the intensely beautiful moments that make up our lives.
The reality of particular events and characters is not important — these are tools to get at ideas and philosophies that are very much real and hugely important. Why would governments ban works of fiction if they didn’t say something concrete about the state of reality and work to criticize acts of repression? There are countless examples of books that have been banned because they challenge entrenched world views and ask readers to consider alternate realities:
• Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses has been banned in multiple countries including Egypt, India, and Iran for alleged blasphemy against Islam.
• Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe was banned in the USA during the civil war for its stance on anti-slavery.
• Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll is banned in China for anthropomorphizing animals and insinuating that they have equal value to human beings.
• Philip Pullman’s series His Dark Materials has been banned at times across Canada by the Catholic school board for putting forth the notion that freedom for humanity will be achieved through the death of God.
There are hundreds of other examples, but the bottom line is the same — fiction is a powerful weapon against insidious ideology and governmental powers know it. Political attempts to silence authors and remove their books from shelves for the purpose of “protecting” the public from dangerous ideas that will cause social unrest, and potentially uprisings against the rulers, prove that fiction does indeed have much to do with reality. Books show us the most beautiful parts of the world and also the parts that should be dragged into the light and subjected to public scrutiny and criticism.
So I must return to the question: How do we decide what stories to tell our children? The narratives that they receive will shape their worlds and their frameworks for making sense of their lives. A child told the story of Christianity may see the world differently from a child told a story of atheism or Buddhism. Should we tell our children a story of Santa Claus? Should we read them books that portray diverse family structures that challenge the primacy of heterosexual nuclear families?
Should we let them read Nancy Drew novels (mystery stories that have recently been pulled from library shelves across Canada)? Should we insist, after a reading of Alice Through the Looking Glass, that Carroll’s vision is wrong, and animals are nothing at all like human beings after all? Do we tell them the details of our own histories? Should we censor the narratives of our own mistakes or share them openly to serve as lessons? These questions are complex and the answers won’t be the same for everyone. But these are question worth thinking about seriously and the answers have real world consequences.
I will continue to read the news, I will read magazine articles and book length explorations of history and world events, but I will read novels too and hope that one day, if I have children of my own, they will do the same. The line between fact and fiction is blurry at best anyway. Human memory is faulty and even the most factual account of an event will be tinged with personal bias.
Maybe William Golding’s Lord of the Flies can teach more about lust for power and propensity towards violence in human societies than the latest news of global wars. Maybe E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web provides greater justification for a vegetarian lifestyle than any sensational story of animal cruelty PETA has yet unleashed on the meat eating public. And maybe the countless novels that depict love at its purest give us a reason to hope on days when we are overcome with images of violence, degradation, and human suffering. Without stories of beauty and uplifting tales of the goodness to be found in the human spirit I suspect we, along with our children, could easily succumb to despair.
So pick up a novel. I can at least guarantee it will teach you more about the real state of the world than George W. Bush’s recent autobiography Decision Points…
“Book” laurenttzzui @ Flickr.com. Creative Commons. Some Rights Reserved.