The Fiction Plague

I’ve just come across this article by Neil Gaiman. It’s not recent and contains the text of an introduction to a 2003 Dr Who book, but when I read it I felt something like this:

I’m so sorry for this guys. But it’s how I feel.

Pretty much everything Neil Gaiman says kind of makes me want to high five something. I’m sure there must be authors out there who write good stuff but are basically major league assholes in real life, but Neil Gaiman is not one of them. In fact, along with Amanda Palmer and a few other select individuals, he’s probably the closest I get to a personal deity. Everything he says is just so astute, such instinctively solid advice. (High five!)

Anyway, I’m done with the gomasuri so go read that article and then come back here and I’ll tell you what I think.

Back? Fantastic. When Neil Gaiman talks about being infected with the Doctor Who infection and having his entire world view shaped by it, I totally get that. Even more, I totally get the whole idea of having your world view shaped by fiction – not just Doctor Who (to which I am a sadly recent convert) but Roald Dahl and Terry Pratchett and hell, Enid Blyton, and all those other writers who stole our imagination away and transported it to wonderful new worlds. I don’t just totally get it, I’m thrilled by it, because it’s true. (HIGH FIVE!)

I’ve heard a lot of people say that reading fiction is a waste of time. It isn’t. Those of us who were infected by it found a more vivid, more enchanting, glittering reality to really believe in, and I think the best of us fiction-diseased are destined to try to perpetuate that in “real life”. It’s a beautiful thing, a hopeful thing – really believing in magic, in worlds upon worlds just on the other side of a breath. It gives us just that tiny extra bit of willingness to see the extraordinary.

Oh, I’m not saying fiction turns everyone into delusional malcontents. I’m saying that it makes you look harder and see the world a little differently, because your imagination has already been there. And hey man, even Dumbledore pointed out that just because it happened in your head, doesn’t mean it’s not real.

Even bad fiction, sad or violent fiction has this power. The journey back into the real world, that eye-popping vortex-suck back to reality, makes us feel thankful, a little more righteous, a little more indignant, because we’ve been there, and I think the vividness of that alternative reality of the story teaches us so much compassion and empathy. (Having been raised a Catholic I could bring up religion at this point, but I won’t. High five me for having self-restraint.) I’m not saying we should educate ourselves through fiction. But I also think there’s no story on earth that isn’t about the pain someone has really experienced at some point in history, and I think that sometimes the relatable way that it’s written brings us to a better understanding of that.

It’s not like people who peddle “the truth” haven’t understood that our minds take us places: it’s all in the telling. We’re susceptible to a good yarn, us. Sooner or later the smart ones amongst us learn to question the facts and the logic and the science and the history and the statistics. (I learned this the hard way after reading River God by Wilbur Smith circa age twelve or so and becoming convinced of my prowess as an amateur Egyptologist. No high fives there I’m afraid.) But that’s hardly a bad thing, right?*

I know this is kind of a weird and and roundabout and ranty post, but honestly I feel like a landslide of enthusiasm and emotion has been triggered and I want to run around waving my arms in the air and high-fiving the universe and screaming, “Yay! Read fiction! It infects your brain! It mutates your inner eye! Spread the plague of imagination and possibility! Wheeeee!” I wish I could say it as eloquently as Neil Gaiman, but I’ll get there one day.

In the meantime, go find a story. And escape. And question it! And feel your brain get infected! HIGH FIVE!

* When I was a kid my dad’s standard response to almost any query was “Look it up.” While in retrospect I realise this was probably the defence mechanism of a beleaguered parent, it’s a skill and philosophy that I carry and value to this day.**
** This is why smart phones are a godsend. You’re still debating whether Queens is named after a Queen; I’m already looking it up on Google. BAM.

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