The Importance of Story, Part II: Fiction’s Place in Reality

All of these thoughts about story stem from a previous entry concerning the search for meaning in literature (and consequently, our lives). The reason people read fiction at all is because the meaning of those fictitious events and the purpose of the fictitious people who experience them is a mirror of the readers’ own lives. We find meaning in our own existences by comparing them wih the well-crafted and deliberately presented meanings in fiction. And so the writer, in effect, creates not only the story he writes about, but also contributes to the “stories” of those who read him.

This is how literature influences social norms. During times of war, writers tend to write of war as a noble, if unhappy, undertaking, while the attitude of peacetime novelists toward war is quite different. Yet both of these points  of view manage to find “meaning” — by which I refer to the intellectual justification for whatever course of action is portrayed in the novel — and those “meanings” differ with respect to the social conventions prevalent at the time when the story is written.

Thus a story about ancient Rome would necessarily be tempered by our 21st century views about things like slavery, war, law, and the place of women. We do not understand stories from the 18th century in which heroic white men hunt and kill Native Americans as if they were wild beasts. Indeed, we do not understand stories in which wild beasts, let alone men, are regarded in this manner. And because the social conventions of our age are so different from the age in which those stories were witten, their meaning to us is lost. This is in itself proof that literature, like all forms of art, is not really eternal, as we may have hoped, but subject to the Zeitgeist of the age in which we live.

The secret to writing “enduring” fiction, then (if anything created by human beings can be called enduring), is to look beyond popular conventions to true emotional discovery. But more about emotional truth later. For now, just be aware that what is hip is not always what is true, and what is popular, while virtually essential to having your popular fiction published,  is not always what is meaningful. Sad but true.