“[Fiction] could point the way to all potentialities of life…” (Nin, Ch. 7, location 3073; emphasis original)
I don’t think you can get a more lively discussion going with a bunch of fiction writers than to ask the question “Why do you write?” Reasons for writing fiction are usually personal. Not long ago, the question was asked on a fiction writer’s group and there were arguments with one writer who insisted that the purpose of all fiction is obvious and non-negotiable – to entertain.
I held this idea for a while a few years ago. I wrote the draft for the first book of a historical mystery series and extensively outlined the next two. My one main goal was to give readers another time and another place to escape, a rather grisly circumstance (a murder, obviously), and a puzzle to solve.
But I came to realize that to define the purpose of fiction as entertainment only was too narrow and that readers, like writers, come to a book with their own set of values and desires (apart from those set up by a particular genre, such as expecting a romantic relationship in a romance). I realized that I couldn’t make a story fulfilling to a reader until I dissected what it was that I sought in fiction, as a writer and a reader. Only when I know what my own purpose was, really looking at the deepest corners of my own beliefs and desires, could I make it true for my readers.
There are many articles on the internet discussing the purpose of fiction, both general and genre-specific. A few of them I’ve considered:
Entertain: So-called “escapist” fiction, the fiction that distracts us from the stresses of our lives when we immerse ourselves into the story. It can be through humor, fantasy, poetry, gritty realism. When I was writing historical mystery fiction, I read a lot of the classics, like Agatha Christie, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Anna Katherine Green. The historical context and the whodoneit set up took me into a world that was both charming and where justice was always served, unlike in the real world.
Inform: To show us a world we might not know much about, whether real or imagined. Or it might be to give us a portrait of someone, as in biographies and autobiographies. Usually the writer has done extensive research so that the details are believable because they are realistic and verifiable.
Inspire: Fiction that includes of a journey, usually not just physical but also mental or spiritual, that is geared towards encouraging strength and resilience in the reader. I see a lot of these, especially in the self-publishing world. For example, I just saw a book on one of my ebook newsletters about a mother overcoming the challenges of taking care of an autistic child.
There is one last purpose that I discovered for my own writing: Emotional connection. This is no doubt influenced by my emotionally chaotic childhood. On the one hand, my father was emotionally distant and on the other hand, a mother who was stiflingly affectionate and emotional. This made emotional connection difficult for me so that I value it more and want my readers to value it too.
Anais Nin states, “[t]he function of the novel is to give you an emotional experience… The writing is intended to sweep you along like a ritual.” (Nin, Ch. 7, location 3069; emphasis added.
This idea of sweeping the reader along is, I think, the most important purpose of fiction. A concept known to fiction writers created by writer John Gardner in his seminal writing book The Art Of Fiction is suspension of disbelief. Gardner’s idea was that fiction writers must create a world, real or imagined, that the reader is willing to enter into without question and absorb himself or herself in. It’s a tall order because it requires a writer to be imaginative and skilled enough to make the reader believe in their world but it is what engages the reader and all of his or her senses completely.
The Alderdice family is at the heart my novella series. Their world breeds estrangement, disappointment, and suppressed emotions. The novellas give the reader a sense of what it is like to live with the rigid and antiquated expectations of a wealthy family in a big city. I hope readers will be able to relate to their struggles and disappointments and cheer on their efforts to connect with a world outside the confines of their family expectations.
I need to note that any purpose of fiction, whether it is emotional experience, entertainment, information, or enlightenment, cannot be isolated. The ideal is that any good work of fiction will relate to readers on most or even all of these levels in some way. But without immersion, without that suspension of disbelief, this really cannot happen.
Nin, Anais. The Novel of the Future. Sky Blue Press. The Anais Nin Trust, 2014 (original publication date 1968). Kindle digital file.