This week I began the memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi, about a devoted teacher in Iran who began teaching a small group of female students once a week for two years to read and discuss a variety forbidden Western classics. This particular passage, a mantra Nafisi drilled into her students, stood out:
“do not, under any circumstances, belittle a work of fiction by trying to turn it into a carbon copy of real life; what we search for in fiction is not so much reality but the epiphany of truth.”
This injunction verbalizes, for me, the essence of an argument I have engaged in several times over the years about the purpose of fiction, and I appreciate the way Nafisi has distilled my thoughts so eloquently.
I agree that it would be impossible to put life on the page…and not only impossible, but rather tedious, if you think about it. I can’t help but think that in order for a work of fiction to be of worth, it does not need to be entirely actual (as is evidenced by my writing of fantasy) in order to be honest. Fiction can put a microscope on life and humanity by sharpening, emphasizing, and turning reality on its side, to bring truth to a head. I have found “epiphanies” of resonance in a variety of fictitious places, characters, and situations not because the writing looked exactly like real life, but because it pulled truth out of engaging, if sometimes unlikely places.