As a childfree person who is also a writer, I was eager and curious when I saw that Marcia Drut-Davis – another childfree person & writer – had a new book out.
I went directly to Amazon, found her title, clicked “Look Inside,” and started reading. After a few paragraphs, I felt like she was speaking directly to me, but in the worst possible way.
“Authors write for many reasons. Some write to ignite their creative passions in the genre of fiction. Who hasn’t connected with the human emotion conveyed by a well-crafted novel? I, however, write to support those of you who, for whatever reason, chose not to birth or raise children of your own. I write to support. I write to educate. I write to help others see the pain and rejection that too many people experience as a result of their personal choice.” – Marcia Drut-Davis
In response to this cut (key word: “however”), let me start by saying I respect any writer who puts in the time and effort it takes to produce their best possible work. I’m sure she did that.
What’s sad to me, though, is the (unprompted – just tossed in there randomly, for some reason) implication that fiction is less valuable than nonfiction as a tool for generating sympathy, empathy, understanding, or support. That writers of fiction are merely interested in “igniting their creative passion” rather than in communicating something with a deeper, more far-reaching purpose.
To be fair, I do understand some people’s preference for non-fiction, because I have a preference for NOT historical fiction, which I refuse to read because it’s not 100% true or 100% fiction. Give me history, or give me fiction – don’t confuse me by making me wonder which parts are which! It’s too much!
But to shame fiction by reducing it to a thing some writers to do satisfy a creative passion does fiction, which is hugely powerful, a real disservice.
Writes author Lee Child in The New Yorker, “Fiction in its various forms proved just as powerful to our survival as any other factor. Some would say more powerful. Some would name us not Homo sapiens but Pan narrans: the storytelling ape. Would Voyager be leaving the solar system if we hadn’t long ago formalized and mythologized our inchoate desire to wander?”
But its power isn’t limited to helping us see our potential. It’s also invaluable in its capacity to help us see other people more clearly. As most of us have read or heard somewhere, “research suggests that both life-time experience of reading fiction and the extent to which a reader feels ‘transported’ by the narrative are associated with empathy.” (JEPS)
It was fiction, Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour,” that first made me realize emotions were sometimes ugly, sometimes nothing you’d ever share with another human being, but always natural. Normal.
As a writer, that’s why I chose, and continue to choose, fiction.
This is a reader review for my first novel, Pretty Much True, which explores the inner suck, rawness, passion, elation, rage, emotional ugliness, and sorrow of having a partner deployed to war:
“As the spouse of a soldier who spent a year in Iraq, I’m amazed that you can translate feelings of that magnitude into words.”
Because Pretty Much True was inspired by my own experience, it could possibly have been a memoir. But the story wasn’t about me. It was about everyone who’d gone through that sweet torment from the days of the first military battles. It was important to incorporate different deployment experiences, things other women had gone through. That meant I’d need characters. Relationships. Multiple political perspectives. Unique pains and triumphs and losses. Things readers could feel vicariously in order to walk away from the story feeling like they’d lived that life even for a moment.
“Story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth,” writes Tim O’Brien in his classic novel The Things They Carried.
As a childfree woman who’s divorced two men who, it turned out, wanted children, I also could have written a memoir instead of a novel to dig into the childfree pressure, resentment, ultimate fortitude, and other things I experienced and that belong in memoirs. But writing about myself has never felt universal enough.
I wanted readers to have a better awareness not of my feelings, but of THE feelings many of us as pressured or criticized childfree have experienced.
The Age of the Child, fiction, allowed me to address the broader discussion of what it means to be childfree–how the desire to not have children is every bit as deep, just as passionate, as the desire to have them, and what that feels like–and what it can feel like when that life is threatened. (The Age of the Child also allowed me to have some fun giving it back to anti-choice people by making them take responsibility for abandoned babies left on their doorsteps, and, later, curtailing pronatalists’ rights to have children. Heh.)
“Every once in a while I read a book that while it entertains also enables me to see things from a different perspective, challenges some of my deeply held beliefs. The Age of the Child is one of these books.” –Reader review
Fiction can do that. Fiction did that. Fiction does that.
There are unlimited issues and/or big conversations fiction is perfectly positioned to address. If you’re a non-fiction lover, I respect your choice, but please don’t dismiss fiction. You don’t have to agree to read it, but at least recognize its value.
Examples of a few novels that have had broad impact (unless otherwise noted, quoted factoids come from Wiki):
- Uncle Tom’s Cabin: “[H]ad a profound effect on attitudes toward African Americans and slavery in the U.S. and is said to have “helped lay the groundwork for the Civil War.”
- To Kill A Mockingbird: “[H]as left an indelible mark on generations and is a valuable lesson in looking at the world through another person’s eyes.” (World Economic Forum)
- Beloved: “Slave narratives are important not only for the fact they enrich and diversify African American literature, but also because they reveal the complexities of the dialogue between Whites and Blacks.” (International Journal of Applied Linguistics & English Literature)
- The Things They Carried: “[H]as been established as one of the preeminent pieces of Vietnam War literature” and “credited as the inspiration for a National Veterans Art Museum exhibit.”
- 1984: “In 2019, the BBC listed Nineteen Eighty-Four on its list of the 100 most influential novels.”
“The continuing popularity of ‘Nineteen Eighty-four’ is a reminder,” [Orwell biographer Gordon Bowker] said via email, “of the threat to democracy posed by those with power who proclaim ‘alternative facts’ and deny objective truths.”–Valley News
- Slaughterhouse Five: “[H]as been called an example of ‘unmatched moral clarity’ and ‘one of the most enduring antiwar novels of all time.’”
Where do you fall on the fiction/nonfiction line? Do you love one or the other? Both? What’s the most important-to-you thing you’ve ever read?Tweet
(Feel free to answer in the comments below!)
Kristen Tsetsi, a fiction writer, is the author of the novels The Age of the Child and Pretty Much True.