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August 26, 2008

Fiction matters

Breaking_dawn Two commenters wrote to tell me that the Twilight series is fiction, and I have to tell you, I'm relieved. The thought of all those vampires and werewolves running around the woods was starting to worry me.

I kid, of course. However, I thought these comments were worth a follow-up post, because they represent what I think is a pretty large school of thought among Stephenie Meyer's fans. While working on my review of the series, I was keeping track of fan reaction to the newly released Breaking Dawn (book four) on the Internet, and "It's just fiction!" -- and many variations thereof -- was a claim I saw over and over again, in response to those who disliked the book. You can see a few examples here.

You may feel it's just the English major in me overreacting again, but I get slightly alarmed when people use "It's fiction" as shorthand for "It doesn't matter if it's horrifically bad." What many of these fans don't seem to realize is that there's a long and honorable tradition of reviewing, yes, fiction. (Pick up a copy of the New York Review of Books or the Washington Post's Book World next weekend and see if you can find any reviews that read simply, "It's fiction, so give it a break already!")

And there's a reason for that: because fiction does matter. It reflects who we are as a society, and who we want to be. It inspires, informs, moves, and sometimes even transforms us. While it's not meant to be used simply as a vehicle to send a message, themes and messages are always going to be inherent in it, whether Stephenie Meyer understands that or not. (Even Mark Twain couldn't really get away without any.) And those messages -- and the quality of the book in general -- are not always going to be good, even if the writer has good intentions.

So how do we deal with that fact?

It's not as if every work needs to be, or can be, understood in the same way. We all have our guilty pleasure books and movies; we've all enjoyed our fair share of fluff. I certainly have. And I'm not arguing that everything we read, hear, or watch has to be all sweetness and light. Just yesterday, as I was in the car thinking over what I wanted to say in this post, it suddenly struck me what I was listening to: a Broadway compilation CD including songs like "Cabaret" (celebrating hedonism), "Roxie" (infidelity, greed, murder), and "A Little Priest" (cannibalism).

So yes, I get that not all fictional messages are meant to be taken seriously. What's needed is some context, emotional distance, and discernment. The trouble is that Meyer provides exceedingly little of the first two in her work, and many of her fans seem to be arguing against bringing any discernment to the table.

As a culture, in fact, we seem to be experiencing an increasing inability to think seriously about fiction, what it entails, and what it means. And that's unfortunate. Whether it's a teacher who understands that many of her students love to read fiction and write about it, but doesn't know how to use that in the classroom; or a fan who can't respond to a bad review of a novel without making unfair and unrelated accusations against the reviewer; or a bevy of teen romance novel fans who tell you that you have no right to judge a novel at all; or any of a number of other scenarios, the way we treat fiction nowadays seems to indicate a lack of willingness to think things through, apply standards, or follow any of a number of other practices essential to critical thinking.

That in itself should be enough to show us that the way we think of fiction has serious implications about the way we think in general. A passionate, visceral reaction to a work may not be a bad thing in itself -- it may even be exactly what an author hopes for -- but backed up by an inability to argue logically on behalf of the work, or even by an insistence that one's liking for a work makes it a sacred and untouchable text, it's a legitimate cause for concern.

Ideas matter. Emotions matter. Dreams and goals and values and ethics matter. And if all these things matter, then fiction -- which deals with all these things, and more besides -- most definitely matters.

(Image © Little, Brown)

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Steve (SBK)

Beautifully said Gina.


"the way we treat fiction nowadays seems to indicate a lack of willingness to think things through, apply standards, or follow any of a number of other practices essential to critical thinking."

and your last paragraph:

"Ideas matter. Emotions matter. Dreams and goals and values and ethics matter. And if all these things matter, then fiction -- which deals with all these things, and more besides -- most definitely matters."

(My slapdashery of a comment on that previous thread, in which I think I was trying to say something about the need for discernment [because fiction matters], was just waiting for its better. Thanks.)

Gina Dalfonzo

Not to make this into a mutual admiration society, Steve, but I thought your comment was really good!


Steve's right, Gina - an excellent summation. We're often told that works like "Uncle Tom's Cabin" changed society for the better; can't fiction also change it for the worse as well?

It's interesting to ask those who "seem to be arguing against bringing any discernment to the table" why they don't read the Bible, even merely to acquire cultural literacy. (Makes me wonder if the Greek god Janus would have spluttered and huffed when he spoke.)

And BTW I'm really impressed at your multitasking: driving, listening to music, and composing an erudite blog post in your head, all simultaneously! Probably drinking coffee, too. If I'm ever near PFM HQ, I may ask for your route so I can drive a different one. ;-)

Gina Dalfonzo

If it weren't for the coffee, you'd REALLY need to take a different route. :-)

Diane Singer

I echo the praises you've already received for your thoughtful comments on why fiction matters. I'm teaching a British Literature class this term, and it's often difficult to get my students to believe that the fictional works they are reading address "important" issues, issues they should care about -- like is there a God, what is He like, what does it mean to be a virtuous person, how can we live peacefully and joyfully with one another? Often, serious literature offers the answers to these questions by showing the negative effects of disbelief, and sinful and destructive behavior. Thankfully, some of them get it; others, sigh, never seem to rise above their concept of fiction-as-entertainment (and if they are not entertained, they dismiss it as not worth their time or attention).


Gina, let me add my own kudos to this; very well said, and something that's critically important to say. I am also frightened by the tendency in our society more and more to actively push away from an honest discussion about the value in fiction, a movie, music, etc. We are so entrenched in this subjective, no absolutes, "whatever path you want is totally okay" culture that any hint of criticism or an objective discussion of values is seen as a personal attack or betrayal. It baffles me how so many people take the "it doesn't matter, it's just (fill in the blank)" position. Of COURSE it matters. All of those things are shaping our entire worldview, which determines our motivations and actions and has a tremendous affect on our life and the lives of those around us. Why is it that we are no longer interested in developing discernment at all?

Regarding the "Twilight" phenomenon specifically, it strikes me as having distinct demonic influences and undertones - the subtle, underlying messages of control, the lack of value of human life by nearly every major character, the way Stephenie Meyers first got the seed of the idea in an unusually vivid dream, the fanatic fans... it's frightening.

I believe there is a very real craving in people for some form of supernatural adventure, to learn that the world is more than it seems - this is woven into our souls to cause us to hunger for God and His supernatural power to work in our lives, and to teach us to be aware of the spiritual battle raging around us. Some of the best fiction, like “The Chronicles of Narnia” or “The Lord of the Rings” taps into that craving and calls to us by mirroring God’s truth – that He isn’t a “tame lion,” and that there is danger and adventure and a quest awaiting us if only we will choose to accept it. But it’s so easy for that craving to be misdirected to stories like this, deluding people into looking for that element of supernatural or magic in dark places. I have no doubt that Satan can – and will – use “harmless fiction” like this in many ways.

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