Fiction. Fun or Functional?

fictionfunfacttypewriterI keenly remember a professor in one of my graduate literature classes asking the students to defend the purpose of fiction. It seemed ironic to me that a person who spent his life teaching fiction would ask others to substantiate it. It was a query he claimed was spawned from his brother’s strong opposition to what he considered a frivolous waste of one’s time, asserting that only nonfiction had any value to one’s intellectual development.

So their sibling rivalry forced me to not only defend but to also question my purpose in reading fiction and more importantly in my desire to write it. Suddenly everyone’s answer including mine seemed very important at that moment because I now was caused to wonder—was fiction simply just for fun or did it have an important function? And this question gave rise to an even more significant question for me—was my writing purposeful or pointless?

We all sat silent for a few moments. We readers of fiction, lovers of make-believe, hopeful writers were stunned. After a few sighs of disbelief and a few groans of indignation, each began his and her individual defense.

The woman in the front row insisted on the transportative powers of good storytelling. After all, many of us had been imprisoned in the Bastille or braved the rough seas aboard the Pequod. A man in the back emphatically defended the transformative power of beautiful prose. True, many of us had been affected or slightly changed by an exquisite passage that made us pause, wanting to live in the beauty of the eighteenth century British countryside or explore the wilds of the Congo.

The protests from us aficionados of literature grew impassioned as we argued that fiction’s purpose is to shape one emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually. We gave examples, we told stories, we offered proof. Except it wasn’t proof as our professor quickly pointed out. His response, we were all begging the question.

Begging the question is a phrase that is commonly misused to mean raising a question; however, it is actually a form of logical fallacy. It is a circular argument in which one’s initial assumption of a statement is considered true without actually proving it. So asserting that fiction affects one emotionally because it makes one feel is simply a restatement of the original premise.

Simply and sadly, he quickly negated our argument and refuted our reasons, invalidating our “proof” that fiction is functional. And he may have been right until science became involved.

“Your Brain on Fiction” by Annie Murphy Paul was published in the New York Times outlining scientific studies, which have provided proof that fiction affects individuals’ brains in more ways than many imagined. Studies are now showing that fiction helps readers feel empathy, develop socially, and have experiences outside of their own life, which enhance one’s growth emotionally and psychologically.

So perhaps the folks in the science department are now learning what we folks in the literature department always knew—fiction isn’t just fun, it functions as a vehicle to teach, transport, and most importantly transform. So grab a good book, curl up and don’t feel a bit of guilt because it isn’t just fun, it’s functional.

Please read this informative article that give us fiction readers and writers props.

Thank you for reading. I’m excited to hear what you think.

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About Sherry Parnell

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