For writers, self-doubt is something we’re all too familiar with. It’s unavoidable, really. Whereas most careers are built on concrete evidence and a clear end goal for each day, writers usually operate from a sort of murky, hazy subconscious desire. Our goals are driven by a mysterious voice that sometimes chooses to speak to us… and sometimes doesn’t.
Really, it makes sense. After all, a professional fiction writer is someone who gets paid to make stuff up. It’s a thoroughly exhausting job that takes a long, long time, and usually offers the writer very little financial reward. Writers aren’t writers because we desire worldwide fame and lucrative amounts of money: we’re writers because we’re passionate about writing, and because we have something we want to say to the world.
So, let’s ask the obvious question. In a world full of such varied and highly essential careers as doctors, nurses, architects and police officers, why is writing fiction still important?
Put bluntly, what is the writer’s role in society?
This question goes beyond the simple entertainment value of a good story. It also goes beyond the symbiotic relationship that’s experienced between a writer and his/her reader. Not that this symbiosis is unimportant—in fact, for the writer and the reader themselves, that relationship is probably the most important thing—but it’s not what we’re discussing here. No, our focus here is on what the writer’s role to society is. What does the writer bring to the world that no on else can?
My answer is this: writers and storytellers are the individuals who have designated themselves with the daunting task of recreating the time, place, and characters of whatever era they live in. I feel that this is especially the case when it comes to fiction; while an encyclopedia entry about the 1990s might fill in the details, it doesn’t paint a picture. A novel written during the 1990s, on the other hand, can definitively show the flavor of the time, the voices that were most important, and the subconscious fears that drove that generation’s actions. The different fiction genres each demonstrate a unique facet of the writer’s society. A horror writer will memorialize the discomforts of his era. A science fiction writer will demonstrate that era’s views on technology, change, and widespread social issues. A literary writer will display what mundane everyday life was really like. These genres, of course, can all be combined, mixed/matched, and so on.
By writing a novel, the writer acts to keep their era alive for future generations, so that our children and grandchildren can understand who we really were, and what we stood for.
However, there’s more to it than that. Much more. By nature, writers are teachers. Again, writers write because they have something to say to the world. They have a lesson to teach, a lesson so important to them—whether it be moral, intellectual, idealistic, or cynical—that they’ve sculpted an entire story for the sheer purpose of teaching that lesson. To demonstrate this point, a few examples are listed below:
Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley, is the first novel to question the idea of creating life through scientific means. While Shelley’s concepts have been used in millions of subsequent stories—from movies such as Splice to novels like Galatea 2.2—Frankenstein was the first novel of its kind. The ethical quandaries that Frankenstein ponders are so troubling that we continue to ask these same questions today. As we, the readers, become absorbed in the story of Victor Frankenstein’s rise and fall, and then, as we find our sympathies slowly drifting toward the murderous creature, we are forced to realize that the act of creation is never the end of a process. Once you have created life—presuming that the creation of life is the ultimate, perhaps even divine task—Shelley’s novel posits that you have the responsibility to care for that life, and by not doing so, you become responsible for whatever that thing you created turns into.
Broom of the System, by David Foster Wallace, teaches us about the way that we use words and language to frame our society and our actions. The novel questions the notion of free will, while demonstrating how one can use words to dominate other people; Wallace shows how well-constructed words can enslave one person to another person’s ideas, no matter how irrational those ideas may be. Are we real people, or simply linguistic constructs, characters in someone’s novel? Is there a difference between the two, really? This is the question that Wallace’s protagonist, Lenore Beadsman, must ask herself. As the readers of her story, we are forced to ask ourselves the same question, forcing us to learn more about ourselves in a way we would never dare to outside of the constructs of a fictional story.
George Orwell’s 1984, the ultimate dystopian masterpiece, is a story that has radically changed the way we think about society. Yes, words like “newspeak” and “groupthink” have become part of our lexicon, but more importantly, what Orwell’s terrifying vision gave us was a terrible awareness of humanity’s own ability to crush itself.
Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes shows us that under the wrong conditions, knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Through an experimental scientific procedure, the developmentally disabled Charlie Gordon is transformed from a cheerful, kind bakery worker into a cunning, self-absorbed “genius,” and the result of this personality shift is gut-wrenching pain and isolation. In a society so driven by the pursuit of knowledge and interpersonal connections, Keyes makes us reconsider notions that we previously thought of as unspoken truths.
Questions. Plot. Characters. Morals. Story. Style. All of these things are tools within the writer’s cabinet, used—often subconsciously—to craft his or her statement about the world, and to reach the minds of others. We write for ourselves, yes, but more importantly, we write so that our voices will be heard by those who desire (or can learn from) our message.
That is the role of the fiction writer.