Monday, December 10, 2007

Why Read Fiction?

Lately, several times, people have said to me with some pride that they don't read fiction, because it isn't real. They read only non-fiction.

I am taken aback by this every time I hear it, yet I hear it again and again, many times from intelligent people who do read. Considering that non-fiction books outsell fiction books as categories by (last time I heard) 3:1, it is not surprising that this opinion is out there.

How do you answer these people, who say with pride that they do not read fiction? And they do not read fiction because it isn't real?

Without getting snarky that these are the people I would expect to watch reality TV shows, I stop and consider the deeper issue at hand: if it isn't real, what is the purpose of art?

The purpose of non-fiction is to inform. The purpose of technical writing is to describe a process, protocol, or idea. But what, what is the purpose of art as a whole?

It's not just pretty. Art that merely delights the senses with no deeper thought is pornography. It can't be to describe good versus evil. That is the realm of religion and morality tales.

The purpose of art is to explore what it means to be human, one human in particular and human in general.

But what then is the outcome of doing this? We already know what it is to be human. Been one all my life. Why should we read fiction and engage art?

It seems indicative to me that art and violence seem to be inversely proportional in cultures. While some (Cocaine Nights by JC Ballard) would deny this and even say that the insecurity of violence foments creativity, it seems to me that there are several examples of cultures where my premise holds.

1) The Chiracua Apaches of Southwestern USA (note: I'm a 1/4, so I can say this) had very little art. They retold stories through dance (though these were usually the recounting of exploits, not creative endeavors) and had a few decorative arts (beading and such). They were also one of the most violent peoples in history. Essentially, it was a culture of serial killers. Brutal, sadistic killing was encouraged and celebrated. They ate a lot of raw horse meat, many times their own horses. I'm researching serial killers right now for my next novel, and Ted Bundy, et al, were amateurs compared to Apaches. Art humanizes others to us. The Apaches' lack of art allowed them to not recognize the humanity of other people and so kill them, usually horribly.

2) Indians from India, on the other hand, fought very few wars among themselves and had peace for generations upon generations, even though many different ethnicities, languages, and religions crowd the subcontinent. They produced some of the oldest creative works known to man, decorated everything, and made art part of their religion. Their temples are some of the most gorgeous in the world. Even their clothes, like saris, are silk shot with gold thread. Every morning, many women make sand paintings as a religious devotion that is swept away every night. (Note: Navajos make sand paintings as part of their religion, not Apaches.) Jewelry, household items, and clothes are elaborately decorated. They invented condiments to further decorate food. Some of their spices add little taste to the already highly seasoned food but add color. Whole segments of society are vegetarian and practice ahimsa, non-violence to every living thing. These are the folks who threw the British out by passive resistance. They defeated the world's greatest empire by not fighting.

Some people might say that the disparity in the wealth of a culture makes a difference. I disagree. Rural India and the slums of Calcutta are every bit as desperate as the reservations are now and the desert was 150 years ago.

I think art humanizes us. That's its purpose: to make us fully human and able to see the humanity in others, so that we cannot be murderers.

TK Kenyon, author of Rabid: A Novel, coming in 2007 from Kunati Books
tags: novels, fiction, books, arts, politics, art, spirituality, non-fiction

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