Madeleine Robins

How Story Saves Our Lives*


Once Upon a Time, I worked with a man who did not believe in fiction. He admitted its existence, he just didn’t get it. In every other particular, Justin was a lovely man: charming and funny, sharp as a tack, and very successful. He was visually handicapped but a huge consumer of the written word. But what he liked to read were how-to books, essays, commentaries on real estate law, history–things factual. “Fiction is a lie,” he said. “Why do you want to read things about people who don’t exist?” And I got the impression he felt there was something immature, stunted, about people over the age of ten who read fiction. That fiction readers were hiding out from the hard, real facts of life.

Now, I am as close to a fiction addict as you will find this side of a twelve-step meeting, and I didn’t relish being told my passion for story was babyish. This led to discussions, friendly but unresolved. In truth, it was as if we were beings from two different species trying to reach detente. I’m afraid I didn’t know enough then to explain, or defend what I found so necessary about story. Twenty-five years later, with a lot more experience, I’m still thinking about the question; only now I have more ammunition.

A year after I met Justin, I attended the Clarion Writers’ Workshop–that bootcamp for science fiction and fantasy writers. One instructor, SF critic and writer Algis Budrys, brought the issue of story’s purpose up in class. His position was that all reading was a life-saving activity. That all reading, perhaps especially the fictional stuff, was instructional. That fiction gave us models for behavior in crucial situations, and allowed us to evaluate what works and doesn’t work, where a character’s behavior clashes with our own personalities or values. The example that he gave was: what does a thirteen year old get out of Romeo and Juliet? For one thing, he suggested, the play allows teenagers to experience an extreme variation on a very real situation they may face: first love, with someone their parents disapprove of. It’s a textbook case of how not to handle the situation and a homily on the effect of chance on even the best laid plans.

If you look at story this way you can see its utility everywhere, especially with kids. Boys–and these days, thank God, girls–read adventure stories to experience, and prepare themselves, for lives which will require physical and emotional courage. I could give you a laundry list of wonderful books which present these challenges, but right now I really only need to mention two words: Harry Potter. All over  the world kids faced physical challenges and explore honor, betrayal, fear, loss–and the glee of putting one over on the hall monitors–with Harry and his friends.

Here’s a thought experiment: think of a favorite book and ask yourself: Why That Book? What part of your emotional life did it echo or validate? In story we get to experience adventures–and trials–we will face in real life. Our choices may not be as terrible as Sophie’s, but some will be hard enough. Our worlds may not be as colorful as Garp’s, but they will be filled with sudden, horrendous loss and and anger and love, and experiencing that world gives us a chance to think about how to manage own own.

For years after attending Clarion, I thought about each book I read this way: how did reading this book save my life? In some cases, the fix was slight but real: after a long chaotic morning at work, lunch in the ordered universe of Lord Peter Wimsey might lower my blood pressure enough so I could face the chaos again. In others, the fix was lasting and profound: when I was a teenager, moved from New York City to an isolated rural area, with a parent whose alcoholism was rapidly revealed, I found my experience mirrored, and validated, and rendered bearable, in Red Sky at Morning, a wonderful book that is both howlingly funny and deeply perceptive. That book saved my life. It reminded me that I was not alone, and encouraged me to celebrate the absurd as a way of surviving.

Story also allows us–not to hide from pain, but to to approach and deal with it. I couldn’t have written my novel The Stone War if I hadn’t had children, that invaluable aid to a writers’ imagination. My favorite example: when she was three, my older daughter knocked out a tooth at the playground; Every night for several weeks afterward she wanted to hear the epic tale of how she lost her tooth; the repetition became a way of making a painful and frightening experience familiar, to make it a part of her story–a small, manageable part. Far from allowing us to escape harsh reality, story often lets us embrace it–manageably.

Five years after working with Justin, I was editing and writing for another resolutely non-fictional guy, a child psychiatrist who specialized in infant depression. One of Paul’s theories was of something he called previewing: the notion that parents prepare the way for their children’s development by showing them what the experience of that new stage is going to be like. When an infant begins to push on her feet, her father holds her up standing, giving the child the chance to experience the sense of weight on her feet, the change in her point of view when the world is seen from two feet off the ground instead of four inches. It’s as if the parent is saying “Hey, look what’s ahead of you. You keep going the way you’re going and this is what it will be like.”

That’s one of the functions of fiction, too. And particularly one of the functions of genre fiction. For most of the last century (and arguably for a chunk of the century before that) science fiction and fantasy have been ghetto literature, relegated either to the kids’ section or to adults who are perceived as being somehow stunted or immature. But science fiction, the good stuff, has also had the power to show us where we may be going and, in suggesting those directions, to triangulate back to show us where we really are now.

In the late 60s and early 70s, when I started reading science fiction, a lot of it was resolutely depressing. As a society in the 60s America had the leisure and the money to question the wisdom of all sorts of things: war, educational traditions, rampant consumerism, race- and gender- relations, economic inequality. And SF was the perfect literature for such discussions. In science fiction this was the era of the “if this goes on” story–if we keep threatening each other with nuclear weapons, if we keep ignoring the toll our lives take on the Earth we inhabit, if we keep treating each other inhumanely, if we don’t take into account the costs of what science offers us–something bad’s gonna happen…

Many of these stories were strident and one note–as a good deal of political rhetoric can be. But unlike political rhetoric, fiction, by making the discussion hypothetical–or maybe virtual is a better word–allows us to make a little laboratory, to set up conditions and see how they affect the humans in the story–and then to see how the results make us feel. Do we like the results? Do we admire or fear what has been wrought? Could we pay the price demanded? And if we can’t pay that price, does the story suggest new solutions or make us look for solutions ourselves? Does it send us away thinking “there has to be a different way?” That may be fiction’s most transformative gift.

That’s what story does. That’s how story saves our lives. After twenty-five years I finally have my rejoinder to Justin and the people who suggest I get my nose out of that book. Story is not for the weak. Far from insulating or infantilizing us, fiction is the training ground for all the battles–public and private–we face when we close the book and look up at the world.

* This is a lightly edited version of a talk I gave at the 4th Universalist Church in New York City in 2000.