Fiction is Magic--Another Angle

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.


  1. Wow, what a brilliant post! That is what I love about fiction too. How it illuminates things and allows us to transform our lives.

    And After Life sounds amazing. Going to add it to my netflix queue now!

  2. Glad I broke away from the holiday gobble-fest long enough to check out this post. It's not often that the stuff I do for my Ph.D. (which includes some narrative theory) and my YA world overlap, but they do here!

    Re. the "narrative animal" that we are: There is some really interesting thought cooking since about the role of narrative in human experience. In _Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language_, Robin Dunbar essentially argues that narrative coevolved with us, which has interesting implications for how we process the world. Another cognitive science take that's more heavily focused on fiction is Lisa Zunshine's _Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel_.* Both are very readable.

    *Theory of Mind is the cog sci term to describe how we think about what others are thinking--our ability to imagine states of mind, intentionality, etc. And this is all wrapped up in how we** experience narratives.

    **Some people object to the use of "we" to talk about narrative experience like this, because there are individuals--the example par excellence seems always to be those with autism--who seem not to be able to experience narrative in the same way. Gaylen Strawson argues against the tendency to make normative statements about narrative experience in the aptly titled essay "Against Narrativity," which you can find by googling his name and the title.

    Okay, this is probably waaaaay more than you wanted to know about narrative theory! And far too academic for the holidays, but your post was thought-provoking, and I couldn't hold myself back!

  3. Hi Ashley! It's not at all TMI on narrative theory. I'm totally interested, and I'll add some of those books to my long-term to-be-read list. I remember reading one theory that narrative and imagination evolved with us, because if we could imagine scenarios about what might happen, what problems we'd encounter etc., we'd have a better chance of surviving them. (E.g. Maybe that panther I noticed earlier climbed into that tree over the path right there, so it might be a good idea to go a different way...) That would make narrative, if not necessarily universally intrinsic to the human mind, pretty fundamental: actual survival depends on the use and abuse of stories.

    These days I'm mostly reading about environmental problems affecting the ocean, as research for the third volume of my YA mermaid trilogy... I was actually thinking about climate change denial as a kind of narrative black magic when I wrote the post.

    Thank you for the great response! I just read your blog, btw, and totally enjoyed the cake song etc. I'm about to go bake a cake now!

  4. Hi Stephanie! Thank you! Let me know what you think of After Life.

  5. Fiction IS Magic! I feel like fiction DOES transform us in ways. As a reader, we are learning opinions and views of the world & situations we wouldn't otherwise come to know, whether it be through narrative, character dialogue or reactions to character's situations. Sometimes, like the woman you met, we give reality to certain fictitious happenings and react to it in ways that seem strange to others outside that perspective. But at the time, that IS our reality. I wish I grew up with more people who realized how POWERFUL fiction is. Great post Sarah! I also wanted to share THIS with you :) (don't worry, it's only a link to my blog :)

    Happy New Year!


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