Why fiction is needed more than ever right now

 This is a guest post by Leah Swann

You open a novel, you open a door.

I learned this from my first chapter book – Enid Blyton’s The Naughtiest Girl in the School. Although shocked by the ‘spoiled’ Elizabeth Allen, deliberately behaving badly enough to be expelled from the school she’s been sent to against her will, I felt sorry for this character so different to myself. The train full of boarders heading to Whyteleafe, the tin with a jam sandwich inside, the midnight picnic —  like magic, I was there! I re-read that same story until my mother found a box of second-hand chapter books in the Trading Post.

She was barely through the front door when I fell on the box. I was ravenous for new adventures, new worlds, new perspectives – and a book nerd was born. 

Technology has changed the world since then, and we live in a culture saturated in information. A fact is an easily yielded thing. We reach for the phone, we get the answer. It’s so convenient, so satisfying, so endless. But does all this data mining make us happier?

Not according to Dr Iain McGilchrist, a psychiatrist, former Oxford literary scholar and author of the acclaimed The Master and His Emissary. He suggests the brain’s left hemisphere – our logical side – is so obsessed with reducing everything to mechanistic detail that it’s robbing us of the capacity to appreciate deeper human values. As a result we’re less happy than we were half a century ago. 

The left brain is focused, utilitarian, grasping, acquisitional, and thinks it knows it all. The creative right brain understands empathy, morality, emotional refinement, nuance – like irony and body posture – in short, all the meanings that sit below the surface. We need both but the ‘master’ of McGilchrist’s book is the right brain.

Imagination builds understanding. A fact, a statistic, a constructed ideology, even non-fiction doesn’t enhance empathy the way a novel does, especially – according to a 2013 study by psychologists Evan Kidd and Emanuele Castano research – literary fiction.

Stepping into intangible space of a novel lets us dwell in the symbols, mythic knowledge and mysterious language that refresh us. Fiction is the ideal counterbalance to our data rich culture.

In The Art of the Novel, Milan Kundera argues that the novel is where the imagination can explode, and is grounded in the relativity and complexity of all things human. He quotes the European novelist Hermann Broch:

“The sole raison d’etre of the novel is to discover what only the novel can discover.”

Reading fiction can lead us to understanding the inner states of others – known as Theory of Mind or ToM. Fiction writers can write from the psyche of another, from the inside out. When characters are written well, readers can truly step into their shoes. A shy little girl can imagine being the wild, feisty, trouble-making Elizabeth Allen and it shapes something in her; a possibility.

As writers we don’t reduce, we expand. We create spaces where we dramatise incidents and move characters through rooms and landscapes and time, and witness what the story reveals – to ourselves and to readers – about life in all its dizzying layers and contradictions and dimensions.

When we’re writing fiction we listen to what’s coming towards us, including strange details, and let those strange things metamorphose. When I was writing Sheerwater, a character called Ava decides against packing her son’s rust-bitten toy truck from the sandpit. I pictured the truck abandoned on the sand. The detail seemed to matter so I left it. Many drafts later, there’s a truck on the sand at the book’s conclusion and I realized that the toy truck was an unconscious foreshadowing, a symbol. This is the joy of writing – the discovery. 

The late Toni Morrison described the power of fiction beautifully in her Nobel Prize speech, when she said:

“Language can never ‘pin down’ slavery, genocide, war. Nor should it yearn for the arrogance to be able to do so. Its force, its felicity, is in its reach toward the ineffable.”

It is here, in the ineffable, that we get in touch with our deeper selves. 

Leah Swann’s novel Sheerwater published by HarperCollins is out now.

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