I’m currently reading Lord of the Rings to my youngest son. I continue to be amazed by Tolkein’s completely convincing account of an entirely fictional world. And yet, as I read the book, I wonder how it’s really of any value.
What’s the purpose of something like that, a convincing fiction? Why not read a real history instead? Aren’t fictions just a diversion at best, a lie at worst?
No. I tend to believe that fictions, be they literary or performance-based, are awesome because of, and not in spite of, their fictional boundaries. They are able to do things for us that depictions of reality can’t do. Everything in a fabricated work can be clearly, safely defined and, to a large extent, understood and processed.
If I read a history of New York City, there are numerous unanswered questions, ramifications, and issues with how accurate the accounts are. On the contrary, a work of fiction is restful in that it is self-contained and therefore “reliable.” While the actual events may not have happened, they are ideally so consistent and well organized on paper so that they can be contemplated in a useful manner.
Because of this, a good fiction gives me a chance to organize my thoughts in a way that reference does not. The organization of the fiction lends itself to my brain. I can get my head around it and think clearly.
Fiction doesn’t replace non-fiction. It occupies a different space, providing certainty, however temporary. Certainty can be deadly in real life, but in a fiction it is quite helpful.
By extension, I think performances serve the same function. What is ambiguous in a discussion can be crystal clear in a performance. The audience gets a chance to orient themselves, settle, recalibrate, so that when they return to the vagaries of the real world, they know which direction they are facing and which one they intend to travel.
Now it’s true that fiction and performance have a dark side. The so-called clarity of a fiction must never pretend to be the truth. If we forget it’s fiction, then it can be the most dangerous kind of propaganda, and we’ve all seen the cost of that.
So “Yay” to those who honestly produce fiction and “Yay” to those that perform it because they provide us something we need and can’t get anywhere else. For this reason, educating people to be the best writers and performers they can be is no less vital than the fiction itself. Truth.