Truth in Fiction

I wish I had a dollar for every tweet I’ve seen that said something like: “He’s a writer–he should just tell stories and not express his opinion.”

The simple response is that writers–like plumbers, accountants, and Walmart clerks–are American citizens and have a right to comment on the society in which they live. But for writers, making observations about society is in their job description. Remember in high school when your English class had just finished reading a story, and your teacher asked: “What is the author trying to say?”

Many authors don’t express opinions in their stories, and that’s fine. I read and enjoy stories and novels whose sole purpose is to entertain. I also enjoy stories and novels that express the author’s observations about the world in which we live, as long as the author isn’t preachy. Fiction writers should craft their stories to convey meaning through the story’s conflict and its characters and the interaction of those characters.

Not all opinions are created equal. One opinion based on knowledge,  astute observation, and critical thinking is worth 100 opinions based on ignorance, misinformation, and barely enough thought to turn on a nightlight. The best writers are sensitive, good observers, and accomplished critical thinkers. These qualities increase the chances that they can pass along some nuggets of wisdom. There is even some research indicating that reading good fiction can improve the reader’s empathy and social skills.

Writers won’t change the world with their observations but if we look carefully, we can find truth between the lines. Many dangers Ray Bradbury warned us about in Fahrenheit 451 and George Orwell warned us about in 1984 have come to pass (and are continuing to come to pass) because people dismissed those novels as fiction, and an apathetic public allowed the changes to happen slowly and insidiously over many years.

This process reminds me of the story about boiling a frog. If you toss the frog into a pot of boiling water, he’ll scald his little tushie and jump out, trailing a string of expletives behind him. But if you gently place him in a pot of warm water and turn on the burner he’ll feel so cozy that he’ll paddle around, maybe even take a nap. The water temperature will gradually rise, and he’ll be cooked before he knows it.

It’s cool if you read strictly for entertainment. But if you should stumble upon a story with a nugget of truth at its center–the best stories entertain and offer nuggets of truth–turn that nugget over in your mind and think on it a bit. Many writers can be quite prescient.


Categories: fiction, Reading, Writers

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