What Fiction Is Supposed To Do

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A well-regarded children’s author on what “kids need to see” in books:

Screen capture of Twitter.
Screen capture of Twitter.

And who could really take issue with that? It seems reasonable enough. And not being a children’s author I have no opinion about what children’s authors believe “kids need” – kids are their audience after all.

Yet as I thought about it, something about that sentence bothered me. If that declaration may be made so definitively about what “needs” to be in youngsters’ books, one would think something similar may be asserted about books for everyone older than that. Indeed I have here and there seen that “need” raised about books for “oldsters” as well.

Suddenly this perspective hit me. Noting how kids “need to see themselves in books” led me to think back on my own reading as a kid. I recalled “Peter Rabbit,” talking trains, talking school buses, and talking cars. I recalled also other characters of various shapes and sizes, most of whom weren’t human. Of those who were humans, never once did I read a book starring a half-Italian-American boy.

I had been unsure momentarily also about what “other” meant there. It seems self-evident that books with kids as characters also contain “other kids.” Quickly, though, I realized “other” in that context presumably refers to characters who are “the same” as the readers.

Free Stock Photo: A girl holding a book.
Free Stock Photo: A girl holding a book.

But how a writer is supposed to manage to satisfy that requirement seems itself to require a lot more explanation. It is impossible to ascertain just who every reader, or potential reader, is. Creating characters who are “the same” as every reader is simply out of the question.

I read my first adult book when, at about age 10, I found my father’s copy of Thucydides: The Peloponnesian Wars on a bookshelf. I had been fascinated by its cover: a painting of a hoplite’s helmet. As I read it, I was barely able to pronounce in my head many of the names of the people and places in it.

However, it was a massive eye-opener to me as a pre-teen living in New York. In struggling through the nearly 2,500 year old history I became mesmerized by city-states (and what was a city-state anyway?) such as Athens, Sparta and Corcyra – the politics, the speeches, the lives lived. And the death: I still remember the first time I read about the plague that killed so many Athenians and how frightening it was to my 10 year old mind.

Free Stock Photo: Group of business people.
Free Stock Photo: Group of business people.

What I learned from that classic book, as well as from numerous others like it which I read through my teens, was that the world was in fact NOT about “me” and didn’t revolve around “me.” Rather it was full of people who were NOT like “me.” Yet in encountering people mostly unlike myself in those books, I simultaneously internalized how we are all still fundamentally much the same.

That was an important double-pronged life lesson.

Decades later, I write novels aimed at adults. I am privileged to have readers from various parts of the world, including countries where I never imagined any novel I’d write would ever be read by anyone. I presume most of the characters (perhaps even all of them) are not necessarily “just like them,” but hope nevertheless those characters resonate with them regardless.

Excerpt from "Frontiers." Click to expand.
Excerpt from “Frontiers.” Click to expand.

There are naturally times we all find some reassurance in stumbling upon a novel with a character who is “us.” One understands the sentiments underscoring calls for as much of that as authors can manage. However, a major aim – my major aim, at any rate – should be that any adult finds a tale accessible, enjoys it (and in saying that, that doesn’t mean it has to be “happy” reading start to finish), and learns something from it at least partly because it conveys a universality of human experience.

Meaning hopefully a reader doesn’t “need” to “see” himself or herself looking up from the pages for the book to have an appeal. Unless I missed the “Official Author” memo decreeing so, fiction is not meant to be an affirmation of anyone’s personal narrow identity. What it’s supposed to do is entertain a reader, transport her or him someplace new, capture the imagination, and broaden the mind.

That’s just what I think anyway.

Have a good Monday, wherever you are in our world. 🙂

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