Can fiction change the world?

Ray Bradbury once said that he wasn’t trying to predict the future; he was trying to prevent it.
Everyone accepts that nonfiction books can be very influential, but does fiction ever change the world? Well, I think it can—by changing awareness or attitudes. Usually, when it happens, that was the author’s intent. I believe Charles Dickens hoped to improve the lot of London’s poor by presenting their plight to the readers of his Victorian tales—such familiar works as Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin was clearly intended to influence attitudes towards slavery during the period leading up to the American Civil War. It’s generally credited with having some impact. (It was the best-selling novel of the 19th Century, although it’s now often derided for its sentimentality and its stereotypes.) Other influences were not intentional: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories have probably influenced the development of forensic science, although Doyle had no such intention.

Even if a book doesn’t change the world, it may still change someone’s life. Most writers of fiction are working from a desire to entertain – or, in a mundane sense, to sell books to readers. Readers simply won’t buy books if they aren’t entertained by them. Writers may also be driven by an urge to create, the need to respond to their innate desire to tell a story. But what makes a book entertaining? What makes a story a good story? I think ultimately it is the human element. The writer takes a character and puts him or her in a situation, and then proceeds to describe the consequences of what the character does. The up-shot may not be earthshaking, but it must at least ring true. For any given person reading that story, the truth it contains may resonate in a special way – a meaningful or a helpful way. That may not be why writers write, or why readers read; it’s just an inescapable byproduct of the whole activity. And once in a while a work of fiction may just capture the mind of a generation and take it somewhere it otherwise would not have gone.

Well, maybe that’s going a little far. But I don’t think fiction writers should be put down for engaging in a “trivial” activity. I don’t think they should sell themselves short. After all, you just never know.

What do you think? Ever want to change the world? Can you think of a fiction work that has done that? Is there one that has changed you?

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13 Comments

  1. I don’t know if fiction can change the world, but it can certainly broaden one’s world. By reading books set in faraway lands, we gain new understanding of other cultures. I think of how much Rohinton Mistry’s books have taught me about India and its caste system or how much Khaled Hosseini has taught me about Afghanistan. And as humans we behave better when we’re more culturally aware. So in effect, maybe fiction CAN change the world.

    Reply
    • Great point, Carrie. I’ve been taken places, both in space and in time. I’m thinking of H.G. Wells and Kipling. Wells was definitely hoping to make social points with his works.

      Reply
  2. G M Barlean

     /  September 26, 2014

    The Jungle is the most obvious one to me. But I would also think To Kill a Mocking Bird should have helped with diversity issues… for those who like to read and think, anyway.

    Reply
  3. I answered your post’s title with a resounding “yes!” even before I read it. I write because I feel compelled and because I want to tell a good story, but also because I want to effect change. Even if it’s only a small shift in one individual’s consciousness… As a reader, I agree with Carrie that fiction can lead us into other worlds we may never have occasion to visit. For me, rather than recalling a specific title that instigated a specific change, I feel as if every novel I have read subtly redirected my thoughts and rewired my brain, in effect making me the person I am.

    Reply
    • Wow. Yeah, I see what you mean, Audrey. Many things I’ve read – fiction and nonfiction – have influenced me. I think maybe some of the fiction has stuck particularly strongly because it was stories about people. You can identify with people. The message becomes more personal that way.

      Reply
  4. I would like to thank the forgotten sci-fi writer of a book, I have also long since forgotten the title of, who conveyed a scene of an alien world of feline persuasion who enslaved humans with justification that included the fact that humans could not be fully alive because they had no tails with which to convey the full range of expressions. I read it at a time I was looking for some substance to flesh out my then adolescent mind. In one fell swoop this scene in this culturally insignificant book conveyed profoundly and succinctly what would have otherwise taken me years of navigating the linguistic headwinds of social science to understand.

    I think stories generally have a much greater didactic impact than non fiction partly because they are visual and partly because they convey emotional content. So much of our sensory faculties are geared to what we see and how we feel that stories can profoundly affect both what we value – and what we let fade to the background. The recognition that these predilection of ours to the visually and emotively familiar also belies a subtext of the distortion rendered by our senses. If we fully recognize the limitations of this perceptive lens, we can also understand how to fashion a corrective lens that enables us to peer deeper into the formerly unknown – the same way a telescope probes the sky – and that is what I find most exhilarating and transformative of all. I appreciate everyone trying to convey, whether intentional or not, more clarity to this wonder. I write in a style I call non-fiction hyperbole for this same reason: because I am excited by the prospect of uncovering what this simultaneously delicate and thunderous fabric of space-time and energy is saying to and through us and this experience grows richer through the sharing of what I find.

    Reply
    • I agree about the sensory and emotional aspects of fiction giving that form greater power to influence us. I also agree about the limitations of our senses. Our brains do a marvelous job of convincing us that what we perceive is real. I’m glad you’re out there shaking things up. Thanks for stopping by.

      Reply
  5. I think story telling has always been used not only to “explain” the world and how to behave in it, but also as a means of changing, or at least improving, it. Even many of our favorite nursery rhymes originally were veiled commentaries on the government and ruling classes.

    I may be stretching things by referring to a TV series here, but it’s one that also generates countless books for fans—Star Trek. Many a scientist and engineer that I’ve seen interviewed was inspired by the shows, movies, and stories to make those gadgets a reality.

    Reply
    • Ooh, yeah. Another great example. Star Trek has been incredibly influential. I’d like some examples of nursery rhymes. I’m thinking about fairy tales, though. There are a lot with rags-to-riches themes. Those were surely told among the lower classes with the unspoken idea that “I’m just as good as the prince or princess.”

      Reply
      • The nursery rhymes with reportedly hidden meanings that come to mind are “Sing a Song of Sixpence” and “Jack and Jill.” Whether these meanings are true is probably “not provable” these days, but I certainly could see there being a grain of truth to it.

  6. I’ve never wanted my writing to change the world but I do aim in touching people. A sense of meaningfulness is what drives me to write.
    This was a most interesting post! 🙂

    Reply

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