Recently I found a website that offers fiction as therapy. You have a consultation of sorts and they send you away with a list of novels to read over the next twelve months. The problems sound like the concerns of everyday life, not serious psychiatric disturbance and the list given to people to read sounds like a prescription of sorts, specifically for you to heal yourself through reading a list of novels, selected specially for you.
Having just rediscovered fiction after almost a lifetime of hardly reading any at all, I now wonder about the idea of fiction as therapy and think that this idea needs to be interrogated. What goes on? What is read? What is the psychic shift that occurs – or that the prescriber hopes will occur – in the reader? Does everyone get the message, get affected in the same way by the same works? Do classics work better than other forms of writing? Does your age make a difference? And more of course…
As I work my way through ‘Missus’, a classic of Australian fiction written by Ruth Park sometime in the 1950’s about the characters who will feature in her later classic, ‘The Harp in the South’ I cringe painfully as I start to recognise character traits in myself, in people I know, in people I live and work with including members of my own family. I recognise modern versions of the same dilemmas faced by the characters in the novel and wonder how I would resolve them in my own life. You always balk at the reality of insight as it hits you and it is this realisation that I have come to about fiction.
Fiction gives us the opportunity to share in the stories of our own times, in the taken for granted understandings and insights about the human condition. Novels may be thinly veiled fact, or completely imagined, but the characters, situations and tensions are all drawn from something in real life. Everything’s a story one way or another and in reading fiction we all seek to get to the point of the work, and there is always a point, a message, a reason for the storyteller to put pen to paper in the first place. This is the novel that we all have inside us, the tale that we all wish to tell.
I am not a scholar of fiction, literary or otherwise and can only offer opinions on having rediscovered both being a writer and a reader. My writing takes the form of everyday administrative rubbish, occasional scholarly work and more regular blogs while the reading now takes the form of a delicious immersion in fiction.
I feel like I have rediscovered a secret world, an open secret held by everyone but me, a world of tales unique and common, imagined and real populated with characters who I both love and hate, easily identify with and ponder the reasons why some author bothered to characterise, draw and write about some of them at all. And some of the people I’ve read about, well, there are characters that I really dislike. I’ve been reading and writing non-fiction for so long, I have wondered what the point of fiction was? Ridiculous really for someone whose bread and butter is people’s stories of everyday life…
So if the point of therapy is to cure, and novels are being recast as therapeutic tools, then what is happening when people read in a curative fashion? Are novels taking the place of elders in the community? Are they taking the place of the lessons we learn from parents, friends and others in our social worlds? Are they providing the ah ha experience that is lacking in our friendships, in our social relationships? Are they replacing the GP, other people within society in whom we put our trust, share our fears and seek guidance from?
So let’s get back to the real and away from the conjecturing – what have I learned since I returned to the novel?
I’m finding out about women, about the conditions of life that we have lived in and continue to live in. A feminist autobiography rather than a novel really, but it rekindled and reaffirmed my belief in feminism and reminded me of the real challenges that women continue to face.
I’m finding out about the stories that circulate about parenting. Reading fiction about families has taught me about what some of the taken for granted understandings are that parents across generations, across ethnicities and across time have shared. Not all children are perfect and so too, neither are parents. And we all have varieties of children, and these tales too have already been told.
There used to be more privacy and respect for privacy too. Sharing on the scale that we encounter in the modern day just never existed. People had private lives, private thoughts, private desires and others didn’t necessarily participate in these the way we all do now in our voyeuristic and observing societies in which nothing cannot be written in response to ‘how are you feeling now?’
I’ve learned about relationships, about the kinds of things we strive for, about self-disclosure within relationships, about needs, both met and unmet and about the different ways that people come together through varied circumstances. I try to fit my own narrative in there somewhere too…
Intangible elements such as the joy of following one’s nose, following one’s passion and becoming a leader in your field despite obstacles get portrayed in fiction. I love this and find it inspiring. We all need to be inspired and find this through different ways in our lives.
There are stories to guide you in your quest for self-improvement and enlightenment (help me please, I can’t stand some of this), but it does teach you something about your own limits as well. Do I put down a story I’m hating by page 33, or do I persevere? Is this a metaphor for my bad relationships too? Should I just learn to let go earlier? But, like in relationships, there’s always something that just keeps you on the page…
I’m finding that I’m drawn more and more to biographies, even to autobiographies, which if you’re writing these mid-life are really a form of memoir. While claiming to be factual, they can only ever be a perspective, even if it’s your own perspective on your own life. Everything is contextual, isn’t it? How do people account for themselves? How do people account for the horrors of their upbringing? How do they account for the marvellous circumstances in which they found themselves? Or how do they account for the striving in their lives that brought them to the place in which they can sit and reflect now? I love people’s stories.
So can fiction help you? I think that it can, in that fiction exposes you to characters, situations, dilemmas, the possible and the impossible and shows you how someone else has conceptualised a dilemma, a person, a situation, a feeling and how they’ve dealt with this. In doing so, fiction can help us know more of the world in ways that we hadn’t accounted for, and that brings a richness into our own lives and the way we live and share our lives.
So am I ill for needing fiction? Am I cured through reading fiction? Both and neither at the same time. It really depends on your perspective… I’m loathe to succumb to the further medicalisation of everyday life, but perhaps the reading of fiction allows us the opportunity in much the same way that tales always have of fixing that within us that needs mending through the knowing and knowledgeable words of others.