Quick Note: This is an essay I wrote for my World Literature class in high school. It was easily the best class that I have taken to this day and I thought I would share this essay because it was one of my favorites.
In my experience of reading fictional novels, I’ve noticed that when contemplating the purpose of fiction, authors usually tend to fall into one of two categories. There are the authors who believe fiction’s purpose is simply to entertain; then, there are the authors who believe that fiction’s purpose is to remove a veil over a topic that provokes society’s dismay. This proposes a certain dilemma; which viewpoint is correct? Should a reader take in the magic of fiction or continue to believe that it serves as simple a purpose as to entertain? In his dedication of his bestselling novel, IT, author Stephen King seems to believe that we embrace the magical viewpoint that fiction provides of society: “Kids, fiction is the truth inside the lie, and the truth of this fiction is simple enough: the magic exists” (King). Based on King’s testimony, the purpose of fiction is to show us the side of the world that us, as humans, don’t get to experience first-hand.
The world is a large, complex place. Within the earth, we have people with different viewpoints and not everyone agrees with all these viewpoints. If people don’t agree with every single view point, how is it possible for novels that critique society or expresses a different viewpoint to be bestsellers? In an interview he did with The Paris Review, King defines popular fiction as: “fiction in which readers recognize aspects of their own experience—behavior, place, relationships, and speech”; however, does this mean that everyone has to agree with a certain opinion for fiction to become popular (King)? Fiction itself should be able to allow people to disagree, it should bring up the kind of dinner table discussions that lead to forks banging on the table and angry family members stomping away because they’ve been forced to see the logic in an opinion that’s not originally theirs. King’s definition is correct in saying that fiction should evoke emotion. The best way for a fiction writer to evoke emotion is to create a story that brings forward an opinion that relates to their everyday life while showing them that an opinion that’s not their own can have just as much value. That’s the beauty of fiction according to Ian McEwan in his novel, Atonement: “And only in a story could you enter these different minds and show how they have equal value. That was the only moral a story need have” (McEwan 38). This brings forward the idea that the purpose of fiction is to enlighten. Fiction enlightens us to the opinions of different people and prevents us from blindly presenting our own opinions. Fiction enlightens us of the value of another’s opinion. Best of all, fiction has the power to encourage and enlighten us to the value of tolerance in a time where it’s not all that common.
Aside from enlightening its readers, fiction can also ease their burdens. Whether it be reading or writing fiction, fiction shows the reader the other side of their own human experience. If they are hurting, fiction has the power to show you all the reasons that they should be happy by teaching them all the ways to appreciate what they have. The character of Ashoke, from Jhumpa Lahiri’s Namesake, demonstrates that a reader can make the best out of any situation if they choose to search for the good. After his train accident, Ashoke uses the incident as a sign that he is meant to see the world, heading the advice of the stranger in the train car: “You are still young, free. Do yourself a favor. Before it’s too late, without thinking too much about it first, pack a pillow and a blanket and see as much of the world as you can. You will not regret it. One day it will be too late” (Lahiri 16). Using this motivation, Ashoke finds the strength to heal and start a new life, emphasizing the idea that fiction can prompt the reader to consider a new perspective without forcing them to experience a life threatening situation. Fiction has the ability to show us the different perspective of learning to be content with what we have or altering our lives so that we can be content instead of lingering in the sorrow that the real world can bring. Ashoke, who had been reading the short stories of Nikolai Gogol when the train crashed, chooses to let Gogol’s name be a symbol of the new life he creates instead of a reminder of the tragic accident: ““Is that what you think of when you think of me?” Gogol asks him. “Do I remind you of that night? Not at all”, his father says eventually …”You remind me of everything that followed”” (Lahiri 124). By naming his son Gogol, Ashoke uses fiction to overcome a nightmare that once haunted him and rediscover the promise that he could have a good life. Through the characterization of Ashoke, we are shown that fiction can motivate us to rediscover the joys of life even when we are at our lowest points by giving us a character to grow with. These characters provide us with the hope that we have the strength to heal, that we are not alone, and that there is some good in our lives.
Some might say that non-fiction is more factual, giving the ability to read facts through the eyes of a real person with just as much emotional connection that reading a fictional novel might bring. Some might even say that there is more of a connection with a nonfiction novel because it was told through the eyes of a real person. However, according to author, John Green in his Crash Course Literature Course he says: “The book exists for the benefit of you. If we as readers, could have a bigger and richer experience with the world as a result of reading a symbol that wasn’t intended by the author, we still win. Reading is a conversation between an author and reader. But give yourself some power in that conversation” (Green). While a conversation still occurs within a nonfiction novel, it appears to be only between the author’s present self and the author’s past self. However, a nonfiction novel doesn’t give always give you the ability to converse with the author because they are either recounting blatant facts or their own life story. While the reader is able to input their own opinions about what they think that the author should have done in his own life, the author essentially has the power to invalidate the reader’s opinions because it was the author’s own life. In fiction, us, as readers, have the power to create our own interpretations and opinions and we can argue that the author could have wanted to say something specific about human nature or a social issue. The reader can mold the symbols, motifs, and themes to fit their own schema, whereas in nonfiction, the reader is given a direct theme. Taking a textbook for example, can the reader really input their own interpretations in a book that simply states: Henry VIII had six wives. Can they dispute that? Fiction gives the reader the ability to have their own voices heard by characters that don’t exist but still give them the same validation that a nonfiction memoir about the same topic can, as John Green says: “The real reason that the green light in The Great Gatsby is such a wonderful symbol is because we all know what it’s like to be outside in the evening, staring off into the distance, at a future that may never be ours. We’ve all felt that stomach churning mix of yearning and ambition that Gatsby feels as he stares out at that green light across the harbor and from that, we learn more about those who came before us, and we learn more about ourselves” (Green). Having our emotions validated by someone in the world, even someone that we’ve never met, connects us to the outside world. It reminds us that we are not alone. Both fiction and nonfiction stories create a story that allows us to connect our experiences to a story that is not our own; however, nonfictional stories, such as memoirs, show us the perspective of how one person has grown through their experiences. Fiction shows us multiple perspectives by allowing us to interpret symbols, motifs, and themes in a way that may be unintended by author, but still allows us to connect to the world around us instead of just one person.
Fiction is important. Not simply because it provides us relief from monotony or the devastation of our daily lives, but because it provides a greater truth as to what we can gain from others’ opinions and how we can grow as people. Fiction provides us the ability to view the world from different perspectives and create an argument for our own beliefs by using the impacts of opposite beliefs on people who may not really exist, but have just as much as an importance in a social issue. We use fiction to create a world where our interpretations and perspectives give us power and value. So what’s the importance of a class that revolves all around fiction? It teaches us tolerance in a world where tolerance is rare and ignorance is common. It teaches us how to look past the literal and embrace the metaphorical. Most of all, it teaches us that our emotions are valid and our opinions deserve to be heard.
How and Why We Read: Crash Course English Literature #1, YouTube, 15 Nov. 2012,
King, Stephen. It Stephen King. Sevenoaks, 1987.
Lahiri, Jhumpa. The Namesake. Mariner Books, 2013.
Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher, and Nathaniel Rich. “Stephen King, The Art of Fiction No. 189.” The
Paris Review, no. 178, 2006, Accessed 28 Feb. 2018.
McEwan, Ian. Atonement: a novel. Anchor Books, 2003.