At one point in HBO’s Westworld (don’t worry, no spoilers) Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) gives a speech about stories, about the value of fiction. He references a belief that fiction elevates — or at least illuminates to good value — the human condition. The belief also holds that those who read a lot of fiction are in some sense “better” people.
The idea is controversial on several grounds. Firstly, it’s hard to define what makes people “better,” and you can’t measure or test what you can’t define. Secondly, even if “better” is defined, not everyone will agree with the definition. Thirdly, there’s a nature-nurture aspect that makes comparisons like this very hard to tease out of any data you can gather.
Maybe a place to start exploring the idea is to first define “fiction” and go from there…
In the speech that Ford gives, he says:
“Since I was a child I’ve always loved a good story. I believed that stories helped us to ennoble ourselves, to fix what was broken in us, and to help us become the people we dreamed of being. Lies that told a deeper truth.”
Besides referencing the belief about the value of fiction, he also states that fiction is lies.
Which is true, as far as it goes, but those who study storytelling often put it a different way: There is truth, lies, and fiction.
[Wonderfully, the fundamental rule about fiction follows the well-known fiction — or at least writing, but especially common in fiction — Rule of Three!]
If fiction is lies in search of a deeper truth, then it must be something between them. Or perhaps a synthesis of both.
In a sense, the lies are on the small-scale — the plot and the characters — but the truth is on the large-scale — the theme and the meaning.
That fiction is something other than truth or lies becomes more obvious if we contrast fiction with facts.
Facts are either true or false. A statement about facts is either true or false. (The logic of such a statement is either valid or invalid, but that’s a separate topic.)
Fiction, which is non-factual by definition, is either “authentic” or not. It is the authenticity of fiction that measures its connection with the human condition. The more authentic a piece of fiction is, the more it tends to engage or resonate with us.
Even very silly fiction — broad comedy and slapstick — can speak to us when it has authenticity. We can connect with the characters who, despite existing in a preposterous state, retain their humanity which allows us to identify with them.
Alternately we may recognize that, although the situation is ridiculous and made extreme, it proceeds from authentic experience. We then connect with the authentic kernel of truth, the seed, from which the silly tree grew.
But a lack of authenticity takes us out of the story, it breaks our willing suspension of disbelief. We no longer identify with the characters or situation. It feels false to us.
In storytelling there is the idea of “transparency” — the degree to which the storyteller and the storytelling mechanism become invisible so that the reader or viewer becomes completely caught up in the story. The ideal is to enter the story completely, to be there.
“Style” is the opposite, or at least the enemy of, transparency. For example, surrealism can eliminate the idea of narrative entirely, leaving the viewer or reader to interpret the experience as they will.
As a general rule, the more stylized a story is, the harder it is to speak truths through it. One mark of a master storyteller is their ability to speak authentically through surrealism (which is exactly why I’m not sure what I think about David Lynch).
As a general rule of thumb, the more attention a storyteller draws to how they tell the story, the less attention can be paid to the story itself. It requires a great deal of skill to do both well.
The idea that fiction makes people better seems to come mainly from the idea that the more life one experiences, the “wiser” one is. Fiction — if it is authentic — does provide a wealth of life experience far beyond any one person’s ability to actually live through.
To see life through the eyes of a 19th century whaler, a Russian royal princess, a slave in the antebellum deep south, an astronaut stranded on Mars, or any of an infinite cast of characters, seems necessarily to grow the thoughtful reader.
Experiencing the authentic lives of others improves our theory of mind — our ability to recognize the internal mental states of others. It creates empathy and understanding.
To understand the actions of well-drawn authentic characters requires us to understand their thoughts and feelings, it requires us to understand them.
Film and television focus primarily on the actions of its characters and usually does not give us access to their internal mental states. We are carried along by the visuals and activity. Narration, one method of revealing internal thoughts, is usually considered a Bad Thing in the visual arts. A key rule of thumb is: Show it, don’t say it.
I can’t help but wonder if our love of visual storytelling hasn’t taken us away from an important source of wisdom: good literary fiction. And if that isn’t part of what seems (at least to me) as a collapse of culture and shared experience.
How many people seek out great fiction or even realize its value? Many do consume various forms of very shallow fiction — what I think of as “beach” or “airplane” books. These are quick snacks, not nearly as nutritious (or ultimately as delicious) as the banquet of great fiction.
As I worry about where society is headed, our embrace of the shallow forms of storytelling, and our rejection of the deeper (and, yes, harder) forms of fiction, are — if not a cause — at least a sign or symbol.
Whither humanity? I’m no longer sure it’s a viable proposition.
Save the human race! Go read books! Lots of them!!