The Purpose of Fiction

I’ve been skimming through book descriptions online this evening and reading reader reviews, trying to pick out my next read. I’m always amazed how a novel for one person might be “my favorite book of all time” (5 stars) and for someone else is “a waste of time” (1 star). If you’ve never done it, go pick out a few fiction bestsellers and check out a few 5 star reviews and then a few 1 star reviews. It’s eye-opening. I’m consistently stunned by the gap between good and bad reviews. Every best seller has huge fans but also many readers who just didn’t enjoy the book (for a number of reasons).

Everyone is entitled to their opinion. Obviously even the most loved and prestigious authors don’t write books that appeal to everyone—how could they, when opinions and preferences vary so widely?

A sentence one reader included in her book review has stuck with me. (I won’t name the book, nor the author….nor the reader. But I’ll note that the novel is a New York Times bestseller, in the historical fiction genre.) This reader wrote: “There was a lot of sadness in this book perhaps the author wanted life to be real but this was a novel and I wanted to escape.”

What this woman wrote drove home for me the point that readers seek out fiction for very different reasons. To be informed. To be uplifted. To learn something new. To grieve. To celebrate. To be emotionally moved. And yes, to escape. And that’s okay, to come to a story with your own expectations.

I hope that reader finds the book she’s searching for, one that helps take her away from the drudgery (or pain, or loneliness) of her own life.

Someone once said that “Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” (I have seen this quote attributed to multiple people, and I’m not sure who was the original. The poet Cesar Cruz? The artist Banksy? The journalist Finley Peter Dunne? Let me know if you know!) I like the quote, and I think it could be applied to many great books that shine a light on injustice. But, of course, the quote fails to describe other stories that are dedicated to cheerful tellings and happy endings.

Sometimes a book is a work of art, and it shakes up our world view. Other times, a book is a refuge, a lifeboat of hope and happiness when our own real lives are sad enough.

What do you expect books to do for you?