A few weeks ago I got hit by a question for which I was not prepared. I was approached by a mother concerned about her child’s reading habits after a presentation I did at a free writing/reading event. This mother had been raised with the understanding that any books not based in fact (read as “fiction in any form”) was not worth reading. Fiction, however, was all her son wanted to read. Since that’s what I write, she wanted me to justify why she should allow her son to read it. I think her exact wording was “tell me why I should let my son read this garbage.”
I’ll admit I didn’t know what to say for several long moments. A part of me wanted to stand up and say “FICTION IS NOT GARBAGE! BE GONE FROM HERE!” But that wouldn’t have helped the situation at all. No, after a moment to collect my thoughts I did my best to explain how her son would benefit from reading fiction. I’m not sure how that turned out entirely, though I did see her and her son later carrying some new books (fiction) out of the store. I guess it turned out alright.
But I wish I’d had a better answer.
I wish I’d asked her if she’d ever read Shakespeare and understood how much those works of fiction have changed the understanding of thousands upon thousands of people across hundreds of years. I wish I’d asked her if she’d ever dug deep into the works of some of the greats like Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austen, Tolkien, CS Lewis, or Hemingway and truly thought about how the fiction they wrote has shaped the world in which we live. I wish I could have shown her how reading fiction, specifically fantasy, as a young man opened my mind to my own imagination, helped me question my limited view of the world, and changed my perspective on the people and places around me. I wish I could have shown her a room full of people whose lives had been changed for the better by fiction. I wish.
I didn’t do any of those things, though I will have a better answer in the future.
Fiction isn’t garbage. Fiction can and does change the world. It is only on the backs of our dreams (which are fiction until we make them into a reality) that progress is achieved.
How many children read Harry Potter and learned that racism is wrong by watching how Hermione was treated by the “purebloods?” Would they have read a book of history that discussed the same topic with as much fervor and devotion? How many young readers were able to learn about the real power of friendship and love through the bond that Ron, Harry, and Hermione shared? How many young readers would ever think they could be the heroes in their own lives and conquer whatever challenge lies ahead of them in life through determined effort, if they didn’t read about these same heroes in works of fiction that also entertained and left them with a desire to read more?
I don’t know. I don’t have those answers. But I can say with certainty that it is vastly more than if fiction didn’t exist or wasn’t widely read.
Fiction isn’t garbage. Fiction changes lives.
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