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  • Writer's pictureAlan Dale

The Value of Fiction - A Conceptual Two-Edged Sword?

A country’s fictional output offers insights into its historical, cultural, artistic, musical, political, social and economic development and origins. Many of these aspects occur simultaneously in a novel, affording material for students from each discipline. The well-documented and attested psychological benefits of escapism, together with the creative inspiration frequently derived from fiction, form another, diverse, pair of enticements.

I am constantly intrigued by other writers’ approaches to these opportunities. Those within the writing group to which I belong, all follow their different muses’ callings. Listening to or reading extracts from their finished or current works, one senses the interplay between the various influences summarised above.

Those creating a dystopian landscape, peopled, perhaps, with a dishevelled, semi-feral race of survivors, draw heavily on extrapolations of contemporary political and social trends. These interpretations give powerful pauses for thought, stimulating discussion. Many examples naturally assume the form of savage social commentary, prescient, mordant, perspicacious or devastating in turn.

The opportunities for creating false or unbalanced impressions, through undue emphasis of any feature or influence, therefore appear legion. Do those harrowing Dickensian descriptions of odiferous, rain-lashed poverty and starvation overemphasise the conditions, while omitting sufficient analysis of the causes? I suggest that exposure of the barbarous conditions endured by the disadvantaged was arguably the author’s prime purpose. It could also be argued that the latter area of enquiry lies outside a strictly fictional remit.

An alternative viewpoint, however, is that it could be central to a period political novel. I have enjoyed much contemporary political fiction, admiring different writers’ approaches to this balance between atmospheric, dramatic description and intrigue-ridden suspense.

Roy Hattersley’s The Maker’s Mark comes to mind, as a fine example. The characterisation, description and plot, set against the accelerating rapacity of the industrial revolution, form a dramatic snapshot of social history. Having served a post-graduate engineering apprenticeship, I particularly appreciated the description of earlier working conditions in a parallel, but very recognisable industry. Readers would quickly appreciate how the Victorian work, housing and social hierarchy combined in the mephitic, arduous industrial tableau that Hattersley vividly invokes.

Interestingly, some of the book’s contemporary reviews lament the lack of a conventional narrative arc and character development. I, by contrast, thought that it was precisely the repetitive, quotidian nature of both these features that lent them their power and value. Certain characters continue, throughout, to depend on others’ decisiveness and willpower. A repetitive attention to technical detail apparently repelled some readers. Both comments, while valid as personal opinion or conventional literary appraisal, seem to me to miss the point. Hattersley is seeking to show the effect of these very circumstances, hence he highlights both their psychological and material consequences.

The endless need for attention to physical and administrative minutiae, some people’s very lack of growth or development, thus become central narrative themes. I think the novel would have lost its essential power without such focus.

These examples of different reviewers’ opinions illustrate a broader front in the discussion of the purpose and intrinsic value of fiction. I find it fascinating, as it mirrors current mores and developments, while setting their historical equivalents in appropriate contexts.

Simply considering the diverse possible assessments of this one book, illustrates an extensive, panoramic landscape of enjoyment and analysis opening before the reader.

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