Thursday, May 7, 2009

Fiction: As Real as It Gets

Like music, fiction is an indispensible part of popular culture. Fiction encompasses many genres, and reaches its audience via books, magazines, movies, television and, now, the Internet. Even news media, having discovered how lucrative fiction can be, include fiction in much of their content to help sell the news.

Storytelling, regardless of the form it takes, is useful for educating, for recording and preserving history, for presenting new ideas or scrutinizing old ones, or simply as entertainment. It’s also a tool for changing history (not all fiction is history, but all history is fiction). History is written, then rewritten again and again, to best serve the purposes of whatever group happens to be in power; Republicans are particularly adept at this—even when they’re not in power.

All fiction contains elements of truth, and many stories present ideas worthy of further exploration. Ideas are the seeds of reality, and sf writers, in particular, cast those seeds far and wide to help shape the world in which we live. But all genres of fiction hold up a mirror in the face of society to show us what we are—or what we’re in danger of becoming.

“Virgil had an interest in short stories when he was in college, but journalism seemed more immediate, something with its claws in the real world. The older he got, though, the wider he found the separation between reported facts, on one hand, and the truth of the matter on the other hand. Life and facts were so complicated that you never got more than a piece of them. Short stories, though, and novels, maybe, had at least a shot at the truth.”

from Heat Lightning, a novel by John Sandford

On Friday, 4/17, The Chinuk posted four must read sci-fi works on his Real Oregon Reality blog. A little more than two hours later, Preemptive Karma’s Kevin posted about his life-long love affair with sci-fi. These short blog articles reminded me of my own relationship to fiction in general, and to science fiction in particular.

Having had the good fortune to get a mom who thought that reading to her kids was a smart thing to do, I always considered myself lucky in all the ways that truly mattered. And while her bedtime readings had opposite the intended effect (instead of luring me to sleep, they contributed to my insomnia), I credit them—and her—for my early fascination with words, an insatiable curiosity, an active imagination that often runs amok, a strong desire to learn, and a lifelong love affair with fiction. And a restless mind that won’t—or can’t—shut down.

Reading came easily to me, and I took to it like a fish takes to swimming. As a third-grader, in early 1954, I discovered sf authors Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and Lester del Rey. From that point on, the term “age-appropriate fiction” lost all meaning for me. Okay, okay, at that age I’d probably never heard the term “age-appropriate fiction; it was more like “why can’t you just read what the other kids are reading?” See Spot run.

By the time I was a high school freshman (1959), I’d become familiar with, in addition to the aforementioned Heinlein, Asimov, and del Rey, most of the great sf writers of the day. Ray Bradbury, A.E. van Vogt, Theodore Sturgeon, Fritz Leiber, Frederik Pohl, Donald Wollheim, Arthur C. Clarke, and many writers whose names I’ve forgotten provided uncounted hours of entertainment while they educated me on the necessity of questioning the underlying assumptions of just about everything, and of looking at consensus reality and conventional wisdom with a great deal of skepticism.

In the ensuing years I’ve broadened my horizons to include almost all fiction genres, Gothic romances and chick lit excepted. In the sixties I read Mickey Spillane and Richard S. Prather, John Steinbeck and James Michener, John O’Hara and James Jones. In the seventies, it was J.R.R. Tolkien, Ursula K. Le Guin, Kurt Vonnegut, Irving Wallace, John Updike. The eighties, otherwise known to me as the “lost decade” because of competing interests, were the least prolific in terms of my reading, but I still found time for Ayn Rand, John Irving, Ken Kesey, Robert Ludlum, and Tom Clancy.

During the nineties, my circumstances again having changed, I dabbled in Anne Rice and Tom Wolfe, devoured Dean Koontz like a hungry bear, blew through Stephen King like a Teflon bullet blows through body armor. I discovered Patricia Cornwell and Katherine Neville, read as much Ross Macdonald and John D. MacDonald as I could get my hands on, and reread many of my earlier favorites, particularly Heinlein, Bradbury and Vonnegut.

As the first decade of the 21st century winds down, the reading frenzy continues. Since I started keeping track of my reading at the beginning of 2005, I’ve read nearly 340 books and more than 120,000 pages and, in the process, discovered dozens of writers previously unknown to me—and gained a new appreciation for the writers who already were.

For the naysayers who argue that fantasy fiction is not worth one’s time, I urge you to read J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy; Richard Adams’ Watership Down; Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series and Duma Key; Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea stories; Neil Gaiman’s Stardust and The Anansi Boys; and, just about anything written by Storm Constantine. You can’t—absolutely cannot—read these works and walk away from them unaffected.

“People who view fantasy as second rate or childish are usually people who don't read or understand it. I like to tell them that good fantasy is social commentary combined with good storytelling - Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, the Oz stories and so many others. Sure, the stories take place in an imaginary world. But those worlds mirror our own and tell us things about ourselves that need to be said and understood. I also like to tell them how often other forms of literature use fantasy as the bedrock of their own stories. Fantasy transcends its own form in wider scope than any other type of writing.”

—Terry Brooks

And for anyone who doubts that women are capable of writing crime thrillers as well as men, I ask you to compare Katherine Neville, Patricia Cornwell, Faye Kellerman, Tess Gerritsen, Tami Hoag, Alex Kava, Karin Slaughter, Kathy Reichs, and Erica Spindler to any of the men who write in the same genres. I think you’ll find that women writers are easily the equal of their male counterparts.

Good writing is good writing, regardless of who does it. Good storytelling is good writing skills brought to bear on the subject at hand. The imaginative use of words, a clever turn of phrase, carefully constructed sentences and paragraphs that convey meaning and build an emotional response in the reader are, in and of themselves, reasons enough to read. Those are among the reasons why I read fiction in many genres.

Those are the reasons why I hunger for more.