Why does writing matter? I’m tempted to answer that it doesn’t. Oncology matters. Farming matters. Plumbing matters.
On grouchy days, I have the same antagonistic response when writers complain that their profession is hard. Hard like emergency pediatrics? Hard like fire-fighting? Hard like cleaning hotel rooms?
Writing doesn’t matter like that, I feel compelled to say. It’s not hard like that.
Except that I’m lying. There have been times in my life that books have mattered to me at that real fundamental level, times when fiction has felt like a means of survival. By downplaying its import, I’m being socially appropriate, modest, polite, as if it would be unseemly to suggest that this thing my friends and I do—this thing I want so much to be a part of, despite the fact that some days doing it is so freaking hard I’d rather clean hotel rooms—does matter.
I’ve understood that fiction is essentially important as long as I’ve known how to read, but I’ve only recently begun to articulate why. I have devoted my life to fiction (to reading it, to reviewing it, to teaching it, and sometimes even to trying to write it). I, therefore, want to be able to finish the sentence “Fiction is important because ______.”
I found my initial answer to “Why does writing matter?”in Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance. In the pages of that novel, I lived the life of someone completely other than me – a beggar I might have passed on the street and deliberately looked away from. I might have avoided sympathizing with – or even acknowledging – this man’s suffering, feeling his particular hardship had nothing to do with my life. But Mistry immersed me in that life, and through immersion I not only sympathized but I empathized. The character’s suffering became my suffering. That’s what fiction can do: it can teach empathy. More empathy will make the world a better place. Fiction, therefore, matters.
That was my answer for a long time, and when I responded to the “Why fiction?” question, I talked about empathy and social justice and activism and a better world.
There is truth in those answers, but not the whole truth. Social activism is not what kept teen-me up late into the night reading with a flashlight under my blankets. Social justice is not why I spent my grade school years sneakily reading novels all day instead of doing math sheets. “A better world”is not even why, to this day, when I walk into a library I feel like I’m home.
The true reason for my life-long love of books is less political and more intimate.
In the summer issue of Brick Literary Magazine, Michael Helm writes: “We know certain writers by the strangeness of their signatures struck from out of the dark of their particular loneliness.” I love that line, for its beauty, its precision, its clarity, its truth.
Writing sometimes grows out of loneliness, and the very best writing can also be an antidote to that loneliness. The kind of writing that matters most to me strips away façade and convention. It breaks free of social posing. The most effective fiction expresses what it really feels like to be alive in a certain place at a certain time. Fiction thus grants access to the most internal, private lives and lets us know each other in a way that is not available in regular existence. It strives for a kind of naked honesty discouraged in day-to-day interactions.
“Only connect,” advised E.M. Forster, and that true, honest connection, the special way writers come at it, is, for me, today, why writing matters.