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A few weeks ago I got a chance to address a class of creative writing students at a college in Delhi. The session was interactive and animated. The aspiring writers in the room were full of questions. One of the many interesting questions they raised was about the purpose of fiction. Why write fiction? Why create a world of your imaginings and invite readers to step into it? A student referred to the work of Munshi Premchand, a well-known Indian writer, in particular. Describing Premchand’s fiction as an attempt to share a vision of a more just and humane world with readers, she wondered whether all writers are motivated by this impulse when they tell stories.
I didn’t have a simple answer to hand out to her because there are as many reasons for writing as there are writers. Many writers do believe that a better world is possible. This hope is reflected in the stories we tell. Ultimately fiction, as David Foster Wallace said, “is about what it is to be a human being.”
Scientific research has proven that reading fiction makes us more empathetic. Psychologists at the New School for Social Research, New York say that reading literary fiction literally makes us better people. It improves our ability to identify and understand other people’s emotions. This equips us to negotiate complex social relationships in the real world with greater skill. In this context, the writer essentially helps us connect to our own humanity. When fiction writers bare the inner lives of their characters it makes us reflect on our frailties and flaws. The quirks of these invented characters make us smile. Their troubles become ours. We share their laughter and their tears and walk with them as they muddle along in their search for beauty or truth or meaning. This is the magic of fiction. In the end, a good novel or story gives us a better understanding of ourselves by drawing us into the lives of characters that have sprung from the writer’s imagination.
Fiction is essential to the survival of the human race because it helps us to slip into “the other’s” skin. It builds tolerance because it gives us an opportunity to see the world from different perspectives. It is a shining beacon of hope in an increasingly intolerant world.
Fiction also has the power to instill a sense of wonder in us. Stories can take us to magical places. They jolt us awake when we slip into the rut of the mundane. They liberate us by giving free rein to our imagination. This is not to discount fiction as an escape hatch from reality. The history of literature is lined with works of fiction that explore themes as significant and varied as racism, gender politics, war, modernization, technology, and its impact on human lives. Toni Morrison’s novels portray the horrors of slavery and racism with unflinching clarity. As Morrison says, her fiction “suggests what the problems are, what the conflicts are,” not necessarily as a means of solving them but as a means of recording and reflecting them. Michael Ondaatje’s haunting, lyrical novel, The English Patient, explores the chaos of war and the dangerous dimensions of nationalism and dreams of a world without borders. In A Case of Exploding Mangoes, a dark, biting juggernaut of a first novel, Mohammed Hanif deconstructs the death of a Pakistani dictator, giving us a ringside view of politics and global power struggles.
All themes are grist for the fiction writer’s mill – love and loss, adultery and marriage, politics, history, the lives of kings and queens and commoners, the making of a terrorist, the bloodthirsty strategies of warmongers, the struggles of peaceniks in an imploding world. All of these – and more – are thrown into the mix in order to ask the questions that need asking. Stories illuminate the dark corners of our world, broaden our understanding and to stretch our horizons, unlock the floodgates and makes us laugh and cry and run wild, inspire us to pause and reflect, to wonder, to explore, to dare to wander across paths not taken.
Fiction is not a repository of answers to our problems. The fiction writer is not a messiah who was born to heal the world or a magician who pulls a rabbit out of a hat to keep the audience entertained. You simply set out to tell a good story and hope that it speaks to people no matter who they are or where they live.