Eric Clapton has a song called "Change the World", and it speaks to the desire many people have to make this kind of difference in the world. Writers have that desire as well, but often people think that the only kind of writing that really can change the world (if it is possible at all) is non-fiction. The argument is that only non-fiction can have this kind of influence because only non-fiction is "true ." As a writer of fiction I think we need to take a closer look at that idea.
First of all, is it really accurate to say that only non-fiction is "true "? To say something is true does not necessarily mean that everything actually happened as described. It can also mean that it conveys a truth about life. Non-fiction can sometimes not be true because it conveys a person’s misguided philosophy. Hitler’s Mein Kampf was non-fiction, but it was a long way from being true .
Fiction, on the other hand, while describing events that might not have occurred exactly in the way described, can help the world to see great truths. Jesus' parables were fictional stories. But his Parable of the Good Samaritan has changed the way many people think about foreigners, and about being a neighbor to each other. Who knows how much influence it has had as Christians have related to people of other cultures? Similarly, the Parable of the Prodigal Son has inspired people to show forgiveness in their real life, and forgiveness is a powerful weapon in getting past conflict.
Of course, one can never be sure how much a writing has changed the world, because we do not know what would have happened had it not been written. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (admittedly not exactly great fiction) is given credit for changing the way people felt about slavery. Abraham Lincoln reputedly referred to her as "the little woman who started this big war." But we really do not know what would have happened had she not written the book. How much influence did books like Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn and later Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, or the play Raisin in the Sun have on relationships between the dominant white culture and Americans of African descent? How much influence have books like Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, the fictional movie Apocalypse Now or the fictional TV show MASH had on American attitudes toward war? Certainly we still have wars, but recent ones have met strong resistance, and would that have happened as much without such a backdrop of fiction that questions war? President Obama and others are seeking to move the country toward less dependency on nuclear armaments, and would that movement be as strong if people had not seen fictional movies like Dr. Strangelove, The Day After, or Planet of the Apes; or read books like Nevil Shute’s On the Beach or even Dr. Seuss’ children’s story The Butter Battle Book? On a different front, Communism largely fell apart by the time of the Reagan administration, but would it have been fought so successfully if it had not been for fictional works like George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm?
I hope the world never has to find out what difference it would make to be without fictional truth.
Part of the problem with fiction as a conveyor of truth today is that there is so much escapist fiction out there, many people seem to think that the terms "escapist" and “fiction” automatically go together. I am a fiction writer who believes that we need to change that perception. Certainly it is rather audacious to believe that your fiction can change the world, but where would the world be without audacious people? Could my book Searching for Eden change the way people in the United States think about the lands of Iran and Iraq? Could it and its sequel The Fellowship of The Fish (out in June) help shift the tide more toward Obama’s efforts toward nuclear disarmament? Could my book The Shard Fence show the power of faith in fighting a world of drugs and violence, whether in a Brazilian favela or a major US city?
Maybe my fiction, like the works of many will only be read by a handful of people. If that is the way it is to be, so be it. But even then, maybe one of those will be influenced just a little to make the world around them a little more humane. Such is the way it is for at least this one audacious writer of fiction.