I have a confession to make: I love fiction.
No, it's far worse than that: I don't only love fiction, but I take it seriously as a way of discovering and expressing some of the deepest truths that we can get at.
Big deal, you're probably saying, who doesn't know that? (Actually, I hope that that's exactly what you're saying.)
Well, I'm going to let you in on another secret: in the area of the academic world from which I hail, which is philosophy, confessions of the sort that I just made can compromise your stature.
I remember an afternoon in early October more than 20 years ago. I was then a very young assistant professor of philosophy at Barnard College, Columbia University, and I had just published my first novel, The Mind-Body Problem. It had received a surprising amount of attention, by which I mean that the attention had surprised me, as it had most certainly surprised my publisher.
I hadn't planned on writing a novel. After all, I wasn't stupid. I had planned on parceling my Ph.D. dissertation into many little articles, to be published in academic journals, which was what my department wanted from me. But the recent death of my father had churned me up in ways that left me desperately seeking some other means to think out life's confusions, a form that could mix it all up — abstract thinking, with its valiant struggle after clarity, and the mess of life. The novel presented itself to my mind as the perfect vessel to do my mixing. I think I also wanted a way of writing that would churn up readers' emotions, perhaps so that I wouldn't feel quite so alone in the world. I wanted some company.
Anyway, I wrote a novel, and there I was, in the late afternoon of a drizzly autumn day, sitting in the Hungarian Pastry Shop on the corner of 110th Street and Columbus Avenue, not far from my office, being interviewed by a reporter. I had chosen to meet the reporter there, rather than in the philosophy department, because my colleagues had already made it clear to me that they didn't appreciate my extra-philosophical shenanigans. They considered my literary excursion inexcusably extra-philosophical, no matter how much philosophy I had tucked into the novel (a little too much, according to some of the reviewers).
So I was sitting in the Hungarian Pastry Shop with a reporter, and a philosophy graduate student I knew spotted me and sauntered over to chat, and I explained that I couldn't really talk just then. I'm being interviewed, I mumbled. The reporter, who wasn't clued into my abashment, produced a copy of my book with a flourish, its title emblazoned over a nubile nude by Balthus.
"You wrote a book on the mind-body problem?" The graduate student's admiration was self-evident.
The mind-body problem is a standard problem in philosophy, and my giving that name to that particular novel was a witticism of sorts. Philosophy disposes one to a peculiar sense of humor. Or perhaps it's the other way round.
"It's a novel," I said quickly, before the graduate student's esteem for me got out of hand.
"Oh, a novel." His smirk was so self-explanatory that even the reporter got the idea and, amused, wrote the incident into the newspaper account.
I was less amused, and, with the passing of time and many more smirks, I distanced myself more and more from the profession. Sometimes I distanced myself from fiction, too, but never for long.
Because I love fiction. There, I've said it again. I love to read it and I love to write it. I love the way it lifts us out of ourselves and lets us see the world all anew, from points of view that aren't naturally our own. And, by zooming in and out of points of view, there are truths that can be found and expressed that can't easily be found or expressed in any other way.
36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction has as its theme the matter of religion. This, of course, is a serious theme, but that peculiar sense of humor I spoke of must be in evidence since most of the reviews have stressed the novel's comic side, going so far as to call it a romp and a caper. It's teeming with believers and doubters, messianists and atheists, seekers and scorners. In real life, where we're trapped into our own view of the world, it's difficult to get a feel for what the world is like, what it feels like, for those who see things radically differently from us. This difficulty has made problems for folks all through history, and it's making serious problems for us now. Believers don't understand non-believers, to the point of not being able to imagine what the world feels like for the faithless. Non-believers don't understand believers, to the point of not being able to imagine what the world feels like for the faithful.
Impoverished imagination is a sad thing in itself. But when it comes to such fraught questions as those that swirl around religion, failures of imagination can become troublesome to the point of tragic. Fiction, as capacious as imagination itself, gives us another world whenever it gives us a character. Beneath all its pleasures and wonders, fiction whispers to us of our common humanity, and it guides us into an expanded form of experience that encompasses us all.
Sure, fiction is make-believe, but it's important and it's true. Take that, my old friend from the Hungarian Pastry Shop, wherever you are.