Last week I met up with an old friend over drinks. This particular human happens to be a graduate student of philosophy at a world renowned university. While catching up she mentioned that she has been struggling with a literature class in which she is currently enrolled. I inquired as to why and she proclaimed that she does not see the benefit of fictional literature. “I mean, what’s the point of it,” she asked with a smile, knowing full well that my passion is fictional writing.
Now, to how many people this wonderful human has divulged her lack of respect for fiction I don’t know, but I’ve got to give her some credit for having the guts to say it to my face.
This was my response:
“I thought that we were friends but I think maybe I should leave now…” *Pretends to get up to walk out of the bar, ultimately sits back down and rambles somewhat incoherently about the importance of fiction as a mode for communicating philosophical thought.*
Thankfully, the conversation eventually turned to other topics once we politely agreed to disagree on the matter. Friendship salvaged.
About a week has gone by but I haven’t been able to shake this conversation. I haven’t quite managed to stop mentally replaying my response. Now that I’m in a slightly more lucid state, I’d like to address some of the thoughts I’ve since had about philosophy in fictional literature. As it turns out, there have been many.
Let’s start with a question: What is the point of writing?
There are a number of answers to this question depending on who you ask. Some will say they write to tell a story. Others say it’s to cleanse their mind of nagging thoughts.
I would say that it’s to impact the people that read what you write–to write for change. I’d even go out on a limb and say that most philosophers would agree with my answer.
So let’s get real for a minute here. If we’re talking philosophy versus fiction under the lens of impact, what is the general population more likely to read, a prominent philosophical paper or an acclaimed novel? If I write a stellar, ground breaking philosophical essay who’s going to read it? Probably a bunch of old mostly white dudes sitting around smoking wooden pipes. Maybe some PHD and graduate students will check it out too. It might even trickle its way down to a couple undergrad. lectures or to the computer screens of precocious high schoolers. But by the time it makes its way around the somewhat small philosophical world, how many people will have actually read it? How many people will be affected or change their approach to life because of this essay?
Chances are, not that many.
Now, how many people do you think have read The Giver by Lois Lowry? I’d wager most of the educated American youth who attended middle school in the last two decades. The entire premise of the novel hinges on a single question: What is the best way to live? *cough cough* Ethics. Is it worth sacrificing love and passion in order to live without pain and suffering? No one wants to deal with pain and suffering, especially when they’re in middle school, but this book has opened the eyes of many a preteen to the idea that without hardship it becomes nearly impossible to appreciate the joy of life.
Next take The Golden Compass series by Philip Pullman. This trilogy is a meditation on the suppressive nature of religion. Not to go all analytical essayist on you but I’ll support my claim with a quote from Ruta Skadi, one of the secondary characters of the work: “For all of [the Church’s] history…it’s tried to suppress and control every natural impulse. And when it can’t control them, it cuts them out.” When I was eleven I hadn’t read any philosophical texts or essays. Come to think of it, now that I’m twenty-two I haven’t read all that many either. But these books sparked my own meditative journey on the philosophy of religion that lasted well into my high school years. Hell, my mind still gravitates back to this series when thinking about religious themes or issues.
I could sit here and break down the philosophical merit of novel after novel but I think you guys get the point. Now, I’m definitely not trying to make the claim that all fiction has deep philosophical value. But personally I tend to enjoy and appreciate fictional works that push the reader to consider and question the current state of the world around them. In my opinion those are the books that people, especially young adults, should be reading. So those are the books that I intend to write.
What books have impacted your personal philosophy?
Do you write to tell a story or do you write for change?
No friendships were destroyed in the occurrence of this conversation or (hopefully) in the writing of this blog post.
3 thoughts on “Philosophy Versus Fiction: Writing for Change”
i agree with all of this 100%. there is something very very inherently human about crafting a story and telling it. at one point in history- and even now, in some ways- fables and fictional stories were how we explained the universe. they’re how we put our kids to bed at night, and how we entertain ourselves when our mind needs a break from stress…humans have imaginations for a reason, i’m sure we couldn’t survive without a sense of creativity…fiction is so crucial to our experiences as human beings.
Maddie, why didn’t we ever hang out?
Kassie, this is spot on. The conversation with your friend is the mirror image of ones I’ve had over the years with a friend of mine who leads fiction writing workshops at conferences and is a thriller writer. He loves to repeat the quote attributed either to Samuel Goldwyn, Moss Hart or Hemingway, “If you have a message, call western union.” It’s hard to keep my head when I hear him, bless his heart. He knows better. Apparently, underestimating the transformative power of fiction is not limited to non-writers.
Thanks for the post.