The Limits of Fiction

Gabriel García Márquez passed away recently.  A friend posted his thoughts on not having ever read any of his novels and, in fact, not reading much fiction at all after college.  Although I’ve read the most famous novel by Márquez, as well as several of his short stories, I didn’t consider them particularly life-changing.  Fiction, generally, is never life-changing for me, even though I love a good story.  I don’t read much fiction, either.  Why is this?

It’s because fiction is simulation, with all the statistical weaknesses of simulation and more.

For example, in medicine, my line of work, every several years there’s a new paper about the projected demand for this or that type of specialist.  Time almost always proves these papers wrong.  This is because they start out with a few assumptions, but never all the relevant assumptions, and then they proceed to model the projected workforce needs.  Did they take regional clustering of physicians into account?  (Usually, they did not.)  Did they take into account the multiple locations at which physicians work?  (In at least a few papers, they did not.)  They might use a Markov projection model or some other model to predict the future, but did they predict the Affordable Care Act?  No, they did not.  They could not have predicted it.

So, all of these studies are fraught with serious problems and are kind of a waste of time if you’re looking to read a paper and come away more knowledgeable.  Hopefully, they were well-written so that you could at least enjoy the language.  (Usually, they aren’t!)

Fiction, similarly, is simulation.  In On Writing, Stephen King describes the act of writing fiction as analogous to carefully excavating a fossil from the ground.  You put characters and situations together and then you quietly observe.  You record your observations.  The story was always there–it just needed to be excavated…or simulated in a believable or interesting way.

Therefore, because fiction is simulation born from the far-from-omniscient mind of another human, I don’t trust fiction to ever tell me the truth about things or to be a sufficient basis for changing my life.  It is, after all, fiction.  I just enjoy the beautiful language, the way that it brings characters and situations together and resolves tension, the simulation of situations and places I might never experience for myself, and I appreciate that it exposes me to the creative trajectory of the author’s mind, which often expands the realm of possibilities in my own mind and my capacity for wonder.  All of this makes reading fiction worthwhile.

If I wanted to change my life, however, I would look at high-quality, evidence-based data, or I would make changes and monitor how they affect me–in effect, applying the scientific method to my own life.

Additionally, I’ve long since realized that fact truly is stranger than fiction.  I’m satisfied with the mind-expansion I get from nonfiction, and I trust that the world is much more complicated than anyone’s fictional rendition of it or of any other world.  For this reason, documentaries, biographies, natural history, and exploration of the world on my own terms are much more interesting to me now than ever before.

Update 1/19/15:  Check out these fascinating articles on how stories–fictional or otherwise–change us!

The Power of Story

How Reading Can Change You in a Major Way


6 thoughts on “The Limits of Fiction

  1. I like the balance of escapism from fiction and realism my science career provides. I use the fiction writing process for a number of things, catharsis, to posit different theories about existence, to examine the facets of the human condition, but I don’t view any of these make-believe worlds as life-altering. Rather, I’d prefer that fiction make you ponder, make you delve into yourself and reflect, and at times simply take you away to a place w/o the cares and worries of reality.
    On the other hand, reading and writing non-fiction, more often than not, I find exceedingly tedious. I LOVE doing the science, hearing it presented, but the minutia I don’t particularly care about unless it is relevant to my work. Likely this is due to the overwhelming volume of data one has to filter through. When I see work that appears to show some new insight into a biological process, or any process really, I get excited and just as hyped, possibly more so, than when I read a really good fiction book.
    A good chunk of non-fiction (beyond data/research and even then there’s bias to be aware of), to be honest, is someone out there telling me their opinion. I suppose I’m not all that interested in reading a bunch of opinions. I’d rather come to my own conclusion. So much non-fiction today is touted as fact. Fiction makes no pretense to be anything but what it is, and that, I suppose is why I prefer it. 🙂

    Good essay 🙂

  2. never could get into his long fiction either. but his short works are excellent. chronicle of a death foretold, or of love and other demons.

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