Having spent a good portion of my life being involved in education, I have, obviously, put in a lot of hours reading “scholarly” works on subjects of some interest or utility to me. Since I retired, that sort of reading has tended to focus around the general topics of (1.) the life, times, plays, and theatre of William Shakespeare and his contemporaries; and (2.) the events, people and theories relating to the witch trials in Salem, MA, in 1692. Being a descendent of two people accused (one hanged) during the events in Salem may explain at least some of that interest, although I confess to some real fascination with the damage which combining religious fanaticism with politics, law and social tension can do.
My interest in Shakespeare may be a bit more complicated to explain, but I think that it comes, primarily, from my being a theatre person who has believed for many years that Shakespeare was viewed (at least by many scholars [most of whom were in English Departments]), primarily as a poet. The fact that the bulk of his works were dramatic doesn’t seem to be a part of their thinking. It is true that these dramatic works tend to use a combination of rhymed and unrhymed poetry as well as prose, with the balance varying considerably. But, it certainly doesn’t alter the fact that, during his time, he was often referred to as a “player” (he was also an actor and theatre-owner), but seemingly much more rarely as a “poet.” My interest, then, is based on the idea of putting his plays back in the theatre (where I think they belong) and removing them from the category of “musty, old” literature only to be read by boring, old critics and frustrated academics. Thankfully, I am not alone in this endeavor and Shakespeare has moved a good way back into the theatre and out of just the classroom and library. But, I am digressing….
My topic here was stated to be “the importance of fiction.” By that, I am not trying to diminish the value of non-fictional writing. News, opinion, scholarly works of all sorts, are all of value and I have spent many hours reading and studying such works with some care, especially as they relate to the topics mentioned above.
On the other hand, I have also spent a great deal of time in fictional worlds, both professionally and for pleasure. Let us be accurate, drama is fiction, with very few exceptions! Even Aristotle says so. Personally, I find little difference between a novel and a play, except for format. Thornton Wilder, who wrote both plays and novels, explained what he considered the difference between the two this way:
In much the same way, most of Shakespeare’s plays take events which Will took from historical or literary stories and modified them into his plays, often describing events, motives and characters which came from places “long ago” or “far away” into his plays. One can even read many, if not most, plays in much the same way that one reads novels, although, since Shakespeare provides few stage directions, the reader must use more ingenuity in filling in the details of locale, etc. which is, generally, provided in novels.
So, I would argue that the difference between written plays and novels differ primarily in the manner in which they are conceived to be presented. PLAYS are intended to be presented by live actors in the same space as the audience as if the performers actually ARE the characters being portrayed and that the “fictional” events being presented ARE actually happening as we, the audience, are watching. THAT is the “now” of the theatre, and it requires an imaginative leap of the audience to allow it to happen (Coleridge’s “willing suspension of disbelief”). The novel does not require the same sort of leap because it describes its events from a different point of view, as events called up and described by the narrator, so there is a sort of “pastness” which is inherent in the form, which one encounters much as does the reader of a play, as opposed to an audience member at a performance. But, at least from my point of view, there is little ultimate difference between the two forms, except that the novel may be easier to read because the reader has less to create out of his/her imagination. Both are, I believe, essentially forms of fiction differing primarily in the manner in which the author intended for his/her audience to encounter the work.
I believe that both of these can be of real value. Novels are portable and require only that the reader has the time and energy to enter into the fictional “world” by reading the words. Plays, on the other hand, require much more from the reader because they were not intended to be read, but PERFORMED. This was one of the things I tried (probably not always successfully) to convey to my students. A novel is written for a reader to read. A play is written to be read by the people of a theatre company and transformed (translated) by them into a theatrical event, with all of the pitfalls which can enter into any translation.
Translations are never perfect, which creates one of the major delights (I think) of theatrical production: interpretation. Since the playwright has, with rare exception, not filled in all of the details, the theatrical presenters must make decisions as to what they feel is the best way to present the plot, characters and actions of the play to their audience by providing the details of the environment (physical and vocal) which surround those events and allow them to be seen (and felt) as now. Thus, Branagh’s Hamlet is not the same as Olivier’s, nor Burton’s, although all of them may be legitimate interpretations of Shakespeare’s play. The same is true of your production of Our Town, as opposed to mine.
This, I believe, is actually also true of novels, as the described details of a novel will, in fact, be imagined somewhat differently by different readers, although they may be more similar as the author has, usually, provided more detail in the novelistic form. I still consider both forms to be, essentially, fictional.
So, what’s valuable about fiction? I think that it is that fiction (at least well-written fiction) can take us out of ourselves for a time to explore times, places, events, and emotions which we are unable, or don’t wish to actually encounter in life. When I read Heinlein, or Asimov, or Lewis Carroll, or Jim Butcher, for example, I can explore an imaginative universes which I can’t encounter in real life; when I read Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novels and stories, I am transported into the late 19thCentury in a country I can visit in the present, but which is not the same as it was then; when I read Bernard Cornwell, I can experience some understanding of life during the Napoleonic Wars or the time of Henry V; and so on. I know that none of these are completely historically authentic (they ARE fiction), but I can gain some sort of insight into those times and places and, perhaps, learn something which might help me to better understand and/or appreciate the events of the “real life” present where I do actually live.
I think that is at least a part of the importance of fiction. It allows one to consider ideas, events, and emotions from within the safe bounds of not having to experience them in real life. If you don’t want to actually have to live through an atomic war, read On the Beach by Nevil Shute. It was written a good while ago, but it still provides plenty to think about, most of it not pleasant. And there are innumerable other possible examples of ideas, characters and emotional states to be explored.
Fiction gives us insights into the consequences (good and not so) of events which are possible (or not so possible) in the “real” world. It gives us a chance to use our minds, to consider the idea that we don’t know everything, that thinking before acting might be a good idea. After all, we all want to…