This week, I read an Alain De Botton book about work. What I found most interesting was the author’s evident belief that work was something he would have to observe other people doing – author, academic and philosopher not being normal or ’proper’ jobs. There was some comfort to be had in knowing it’s not just me who angsts over this.
I can make a case for the not-fiction work being useful. Not least because every now and then, someone comments to precisely that effect. I suspect a fair amount of time though, I am preaching to the converted – I think those of you who read my stuff already have a predisposition towards wondering and questioning. I may offer useful things to throw at that now and then, but you were already much of the way there. The difficulty is that so many people are not – especially those with material power. I am never going to get whole governments or business leaders to sit down and listen to my ideas, and therein lies the problem.
Most of the time, writing fiction feels like the silliest job imaginable. The fiction author invents that which never was and probably never will be, and spends many hours on this. Once thrown out into the world, the novel, (or other written forms of amusement for that matter) will entertain its victims for a few hours and then, for the greater part, will be forgotten, having done nothing more significant than used up a modicum of paper and time.
And yet… according to Neil Gaiman, China is now seeking to develop a fantasy and science fiction genre. Forms that had previously been banned (too decadent and bourgeois, I assume) are now required. The Chinese have made a link between the presence of speculative thinking, and the presence of innovative industries. They want the latter, therefore they conclude that they must have the former.
Fiction has a capacity to get in under the radar. It can prompt us to think and feel in unfamiliar ways, precisely because we do not take it too seriously. In many ways, a fiction work has more potential to change the world than a non-fic, because it can sneak in and travel further. Consider the relationship between Frankenstein and genetically modified food. Consider how a culture of space-opera-adventure feeds our collective desire to reach for the stars. Think about how Disney taught us to equate beauty with virtue and ugliness with being evil. Consider how JK Rowling has gone some way towards reversing that. There is power in those unreal things.
Religions are made of stories – often quiet implausible ones at that. All aspirations for the future are stories we tell ourselves, and we process the past into coherent narrative form, too, turning the chaos into meaning. We are story telling creatures, and we respond to narrative. So while writing fiction often feels like the most pointless, ineffective thing I could try and do, I also know that it is the thing I do with most potential for real impact.
I did not aspire to be an author because I craved fame and fortune. As a child and young adult, I wanted to write because I wanted to make a difference and I believed in fiction as a medium for delivering ideas. The trouble was that at that stage I didn’t really have any ideas, I didn’t know enough, hadn’t lived or thought or felt or empathised enough to have any clue at all about what needed saying, much less how to say it. For a while I stopped believing that I could write a book that would touch people. I lost faith in the process when I should have just recognised that I was too young and inexperienced to pull it off yet. I’m still probably too young and inexperienced. But I’m starting to think it may be possible after all, to do something meaningful that is made of fancy and impossibility. I’ll keep you posted.