Nonfiction has purpose. It informs, educates, and illuminates. What does fiction do? Nothing but provide escape.
And what’s wrong with that? Nothing, as far as I can see. If there’s any time when people need escape, it’s now. I don’t have to detail the current political, social, and news situations to know that’s true. At times like these, who doesn’t want to escape to a desert island or another planet?
Actually, escapism has never been a bad thing. There are always things in life that need escaping from. At least there have been in my life. Misunderstanding, bullying, depression, loneliness – fiction helped me escape from these, from Green Eggs and Ham to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to A Wrinkle in Time to The Lord of the Rings.
Nor do you need high-brow fiction to provide escapism, though that is there as well. I’ve found escape in Dorothy Gilman’s Mrs. Pollifax books, a cozy mystery/adventure series with included travelogues. In fact, mystery books still provide an escape for me. And science fiction and fantasy, perhaps the ultimate escapist literature, still fill many spots on my to-be-read list, as well as my to-be-reread list. (The fact that I am friends with several sf writers is also a factor.)
I’ve had my innings with classic literature, it’s true, particularly in college, when I was an English major – though one of my favorite courses was children’s literature (aka kiddie lit). If you look at my e-reader, you’ll find Shakespeare and Cervantes along with Grafton, Heinlein, Dumas, and others.
Fiction, like nonfiction, can inform, educate, and illuminate as well – spark thought and inspire to action.
Take Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. In that book, it’s poetry (another “useless” pursuit) that helps the protagonist understand the value of literature and the futility of trying to suppress it. It’s still extremely relevant, considering all the book bannings lately. Or take Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, as appallingly relevant as the day it was first written. Or The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell, which has the first contact with an alien civilization being made by Jesuits. If that’s not thought-provoking, I don’t know what is.
There’s also historical fiction, which, while not always totally accurate (we have nonfiction biographies and autobiographies for that), speculates about the inner workings of famous people’s psyches and posits reasons for how they lived. Melanie Benjamin’s The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb and The Aviator’s Wife, about Anne Morrow Lindbergh, are two examples.
Then there is fiction about fiction and books that provide escape for the mind that cannot be found anywhere else. The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak, is one such. John Irving’s The World According to Garp is another famous example. With books like these, one can delve into the mind of the creative person who provides escape for others.
Of course, nonfiction can be escapist as well. Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars provides an entertaining history of the space program, but also NASA’s current exploration of the possibilities of, well, going to Mars. Now that’s escapism – but not fiction. Histories can whisk us away to another time and place with explorers who climbed Mount Everest or charted the Amazon. Ernest Shackleton’s diaries can take me right out of a sweltering day and make me feel the freezing air and hear the buffeting wind of Antarctica.
I will admit that there’s a lot of nonfiction on my e-reader – including true crime, science, biographies, adventure travel, language, and mental health. But it’s fiction I return to again and again. I recently read a beloved novel that I hadn’t read in at least 40 years, and I still remembered not only the plot but also lines of dialogue. And I’ve tried my hand at writing fiction too, which provided mental escape of a different sort.
So, what good is fiction? Even if it’s only escapism, it’s extremely valuable and not to be sneered at. At its best, fiction can make one’s interior world more vibrant, more fascinating, and more meaningful; and the world around us more wondrous, more exciting, and more entertaining. That’s enough of a recommendation for me.