This is the classic conundrum, right? Is writing fiction a pointless endeavor, some kind of self-gratification equivalent to intellectual masturbation? I mean, I hope not. I think any author would aggressively defend against a statement like that. (Not to say, of course, that masturbation is a bad thing. I think it’s pretty great, actually – but nevertheless we sometimes want to gratify more than ourselves alone.)
Of course, we have a reflex to say OF COURSE IT MATTERS. We’re authors or readers, after all. But why? It isn’t solving any problems. Surely you could use the time you put into writing volunteering at a food bank. That brain power could have been put toward a new scientific development. What if – horror of horrors – the person who had the capacity to cure cancer instead caught the writing bug at age 15 and spent their whole life writing mediocre fantasy novels with a very small readership? These are actually big concerns for me, and I don’t just want to brush them off, but I think I can answer them nonetheless.
Now, there are a few classic rebuttals to the people who argue against fiction. Most of them are on a grand scale, talking about earth-shaking canonical literature and its extreme impact on the whole world. Think Shakespeare, or Plato (which gets pretty hilarious when you think about his arguments against poetry). I want to push a little further, though, and make a kind of audacious claim.
When does fiction matter? As soon as it matters to one reader. That’s it. Literally.
I’d like you to picture a scenario. You’re walking home from work and you see a teenage girl sitting on some old weather-beaten stairs. She’s sobbing violently. You stop, put your hand on the soft grey sleeve of her sweater. “Are you okay?” you ask.
She’s not okay. She’s pregnant. Her boyfriend broke up with her as soon as she told him and she knows her parents will kick her out if they find out. She’s made the hard decision to terminate the pregnancy, with an appointment tomorrow morning, but tonight she’s a mess. “The worst part,” she says, “is I know it’s not doing any good to sit here and think about all of it. I can’t change anything. He’s still an ass. I’m still terrified my parents will somehow find out. I’m so worried that people at the doctor will judge me for my decision–but I KNOW thinking about it all night is just making me sick with worry. But I just can’t stop! Half of me wants to get shitfaced drunk so I don’t have to think anymore.”
You mull things over. With no commitments ahead of you that evening, you say, “Why don’t we go get a coffee? We’ll walk around the park and gossip about all the little funny stories we have to tell. We can feed the pigeons or go skip rocks in the pond.”
A little reluctantly, she agrees. It turns out to be a great idea. You let her tell you about all the little dramas of her school friends, the dress she wore to prom, her goal of becoming an anthropologist. You share all your anecdotes from work: the secretary who eats a pack of peanuts with her mouth open every day, the time someone rigged the CD drive on your computer to automatically open and shut every thirty seconds and you almost lost your mind. You chat about attractive celebrities and the latest movies and the appalling amount of fat in the coffee you’re both drinking. A couple times, she breaks into tears again, or makes a regretful comment about the boyfriend, and you allow her space to feel without focusing on the pain.
As the evening wanes, she starts yawning and you walk her home. “I can’t thank you enough,” she says. “I wanted to actually die. I was sitting here thinking about how much I hated my life, and how I thought I might literally throw up from the stress of it. But you distracted me enough to get through tonight, and I don’t know how I would have otherwise.”
Do you go home from this thinking, “Man, what a freaking waste of time”? Not likely. If you’re a kindhearted person (and most of us are, deep-down) you feel really good. You’re glad you had a chance to alleviate some pain and stress in someone’s life. You think fondly of how much happier that girl looked when she could stop thinking about her worries for a moment and just laugh. You’re glad you kept her from a more dangerous way of forgetting.
So why is it any different if that same girl, instead of meeting a stranger on the street, opens a book on her e-reader? Maybe the book is total crap. The plot-line is probably weak; I can guarantee that the characters are less than original. But she’s no connoisseur of literature, especially when she’s an emotional wreck. She wants to know what happens and she laughs at the cheesy jokes and for an hour she actually forgets that anything is wrong with her life. For her, fiction matters, even if it is crappy fiction. As painful as it is for me to say, even if she’s reading a grammar-error-laden mess of a One Direction fan fiction, that fiction still did a beautiful thing.
So to all the rest of you out there who know, just like me, that you’re not exactly writing Pulitzer material, and definitely not something life-changing (except for yourself, as you’ve given up your whole social life to write feverishly), I want to say: what you’re doing matters. As long as one person reads it and forgets their cares even for a second, it matters. It’s worth your time. Write on, for the housewife who’s battling depression and the man on the subway who wants to pretend dragons are real and the waiter who thinks he’s really good at guessing the ending of mystery novels, even though he sucks at developing a meaningful relationship with his teenage son. Write on.