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Some thoughts on the purpose of fiction

January 25, 2011

By Alison Allen-Gray

Bertie Wooster's silliness is an inspiration

Following on from Katharine Quarmby’s thought-provoking piece in November  ‘On fiction and non-fiction’, I’ve been ruminating on the various ways in which fiction can contribute to the building of an individual’s world picture. The central purpose of reading fiction, it seems to me, is to help us make sense of the world. This may sound a bit sombre, but on the other hand, I find Bertie Wooster uplifting when the woes of the world feel too overwhelming. Sometimes there is good sense in silliness.

We are inquisitive beings. We want to know how other people think, how other places and times are different from ours, how problems that we may never have to face are overcome. Reading can open our minds to other worlds and other possibilities, and this is why I feel so sad when I come across children for whom reading, for whatever reason, isn’t part of life. I feel they are missing out on so much. I also think that in today’s networked world, where images of violence and depravity abound, fiction is more important than ever. Reading fiction, we have time truly to become involved with characters and reflect on their actions. In fiction we can find the balance that is absent in, say, a news story covering a violent event. In fiction the author navigates a course that makes moral sense to him or her and offers it as a possible way of making sense of the world. As writers, that’s all we can do – offer some suggestions, a space to reflect wrapped up in a great story. I agree with Katharine that we can’t shield our children from life’s ghastliness. But, at its very best, fiction can propose ideas, role models and positive perspectives that can help children take control of their lives as they move into adulthood, can help them face the ghastliness and counter it with something good. It can help them to build up their own moral perspective with which to question the things they are told. And if there were more questions, maybe there wouldn’t be so much ghastliness.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. childrensauthor permalink
    January 27, 2011 6:20 pm

    Thank you for such a thoughtful post, Ali. It’s good to pause to think about what we do.

    For me as a child, fiction offered an escape from a difficult present. But it did more than just provide me with historical escapism, it offered a variety of characters and situations I could try on for size. Rosemary Sutcliff’s heroes, for example, faced discrimination, tragedy and danger – and came through stronger. I learnt that villains could be outwitted. I discovered that fictional characters could share one’s own fears, which helped me to find ways of coping. Books were an immense comfort.

    And, unknowingly, I also expanded my vocabulary and absorbed an awful lot of history!

    Elizabeth

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