The Power of Fiction

Fiction affects society, for good or ill, often as much or more than real-life situations. If Charles Dickens had lectured about the plight of real-life orphans in London, would it have had the same effect as writing Oliver Twist? Or to use an example I see as very negative, would as many people have been obsessed with an essay about BDSM as they were with 50 Shades of Gray?

Fiction is powerful. We talked about this a couple weeks ago, but all in a positive light since I was arguing that fiction has value. It can also have a more negative influence as well, which is why I think both writes and readers have a responsibility to self-censor. It’s not up to someone to tell writers not to write a certain kind of book or discuss a specific topic, or to tell readers what they can and cannot read. But it is a good idea (particularly if you’re a Christian) to think carefully about the reading and writing choices we make.

Writer Responsibility

On March 31, 1750, Samuel Johnson published what has become one of the most famous statements in regards to the potential of fiction. While I don’t agree with his arguments against imaginative invention of the fantastic (I write fantasy, after all), this passage intrigues me:

if the power of example is so great as to take possession of the memory by a kind of violence, and produce effects almost without the intervention of the will, care ought to be taken that, when the choice is unrestrained, the best examples only should be exhibited; and that which is likely to operate so strongly should not be mischievous or uncertain in its effects.”

I think what Johnson is saying is that authors have a responsibility not to use the power they weld to influence their readers negatively. Responsible authors exercise a form of self-censorship, which doesn’t necessarily mean they shouldn’t talk about complex or even “bad” ideas. But fiction can be enormously influential, and authors should be conscious of the fact that what they are writing has the potential to fill their readers’ minds.

Writers of fiction set out to create a story that draws readers in, and once this happens the readers are under the writer’s influence. Johnson thought that, “the best examples only should be exhibited” so that there is nothing “mischievous or uncertain” in fiction’s effect. I don’t think we need to go that far, but we should be mindful of the power we have to influence readers.

Reader Responsibility

As readers, we should also be mindful of what we expose our minds to, remembering that we’re giving our reading material the opportunity to change or influence our thinking. I came across a great article titled “Self Censorship Better Than Book Banning” a few weeks ago about teaching your children how to make good decisions about their reading material instead of trusting the schools or government to ban “inappropriate” books (which will be defined differently for each individual).

This is pretty much what my mother did, though I wasn’t required to talk about every book with her after reading it (I usually did anyway, so she didn’t really need a rule). The only time I remember my mother taking away a book was when I broke down sobbing one day and confessed that I was having trouble dealing with the main character losing her father to cancer. There were a few other books that she strongly recommended I give up, and I usually (eventually) agreed with her. Harry Potter was “banned” in our house when it first came out, and that’s the only book I can remember being specifically told not to read.

It seems to have worked for the most part. There are books I wish I hadn’t read (and a few I’m sure that I really I shouldn’t have been reading), but for the most part I’m glad I had that freedom. It helped teach me to think for myself, which, to reference John Keating from Dead Poets Society, is the goal of good education.

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