I just read CJ's post, and I couldn't agree more with her idea: that the best writing, or even real writing, is the writing you can barely believe you're responsible for or maybe even capable of. Until, well, there it is on the screen, and you just know it had to come from somewhere...
But I've been thinking about another way that fiction is magic, or at least unconsciously perceived as being magic, and that magic isn't always so benign. I'm going to use the word "fiction" here in the larger sense, encompassing any kind of narrative art, in any medium, and even the kind of everyday fictionalizing that we engage in through gossip, or speculation about other people and their motives, or advertising, or an embarrassingly large proportion of political discourse. By "fiction" I mean that ballroom of the imaginary that covers the entire surface of the earth and a whole lot of territory beyond: a ballroom where we are all perpetually dancing, both cursed and blessed by our own enchantment.
(Does that sound like an exaggeration? It really is how I perceive human existence, though. Man is a narrative animal, and our narratives have a pretty sloppy correspondence to the truth even when we try to be objective, which isn't often. We live in a whirl of fictions, and we might as well admit it. Hard data barely register, not even when it's desperately important that we stop dreaming and pay attention.)
I increasingly believe that many people perceive fiction as being magical. Not that they would say so, or even admit it to themselves, but it shows in the way they relate to stories. At its crudest, this is fairly obvious, a kind of wishing-makes-it-so. Some fictions are based on this kind of straightforward wish-fulfillment; their message is that everything is going to be awesome, we're going to be eternally loved and have incredible powers, and we don't have to do a thing to earn it. But that magic only works up to a point, since it jostles against our experience of reality. The magic may actually become more powerful as it bends to let in suffering and difficulty, precisely because it's more believable.
More interesting, though, is the way that fiction can be perceived as a threat.
Years ago I saw the movie After Life by Hirokazu Koreeda; it's still one of my all-time favorite films. The premise is that the recently deceased wind up in a sort of run-down boarding school, where they have a week to choose only one memory with which to spend eternity while forgetting everything else. It's incredibly poignant and wrenching, since the characters have to come to terms with exactly which moment in their lives is most worth preserving, and for some the choices are not what they would have assumed. (For some, the memories are even deliberately fabricated!) Shortly after I talked with a woman who'd seen it too. To my surprise, she denied the entire premise of the movie; the characters weren't really going to spend eternity with their chosen memories! Just, oh, a week, or maybe a few days... I found her reaction strange, and not only because the movie made the whole eternity business so clear. She seemed genuinely panicked, so frightened by the ideas in the film that she couldn't even admit what she'd seen. It was as if she unconsciously believed that acknowledging that something had occurred, even in a work of fiction, would make it true. She denied it to protect herself from winding up in a run-down boarding school, forced to choose the most important memory of her own life...
So often fictions are attacked for presenting a world that people don't want to accept--never mind that there are horrors going on in the real world that dwarf just about anything we could invent. There seems to be a kind of underground argument going on, between people who believe the role of fiction is to illuminate truth through metaphor and indirection, and people who believe fiction should protect us against reality, or magically transfigure reality into something more palatable.
We'll never wind up in After Life's shabby boarding school, in short, but like its characters we might have to make excruciating choices about what we value.
Fiction can't protect us or transform us, but maybe, just maybe, it can illuminate enough to help us find new ways to transform ourselves.