Fiction is Mightier than Fact


by L. Neil Smith

I’m primarily a novelist.

I’ve spent my whole professional life, so far, attempting to create stories that will entertain my readers and at the same time advance the cause of individual liberty. And yet if I had a dime for every person who ever told me — usually in a snooty, supercilious tone –”I don’t read fiction”, I wouldn’t worry over my semiannual royalty statements.

I confess that I don’t understand people like that. Happily, they appear to be in the minority. The fact remains that it’s vastly easier to convey — and to absorb — important truths concerning history and human nature (and yes, untruths, as well) through Biblical parables, Sufi stories, Br’er Rabbit yarns, and even Bugs Bunny cartoons, than it is through straightforward, undisguised preachment, which nobody (including those snooty, supercilous types) seems to enjoy. Throughout our adult lives, we continue to learn vital lessons from the literary efforts, among others, of William Shakespeare, Robert A. Heinlein, Ayn Rand, Rex Stout, Robert Anton Wilson, Colin Wilson, and F. Paul Wilson.

That’s a lot of Wilsons.

There’s no deep, dark mystery to the process. The writer invites us, his readers, to accompany him and his characters on an adventure of some kind. Along the way, if he has done his job well enough, we come to identify with his characters, as we witness their tragedies and misfortunes, sympathize with their hopes and fears, fight their battles with them, and finally celebrate their triumphs. Compared to that, non-fiction is simply a lecture, and all too often, a boring one.

Fiction changes lives. I’m a completely different person than I would have been if I had never read Tunnel in the Sky or Atlas Shrugged. Fiction is capable of changing the course of history. The story goes that when Abraham Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the powerful anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, he remarked, “So you’re the little lady who started the Civil War.” But, like George Washington and the cherry tree, the story is almost certainly fiction, itself.

Fiction, unlike fact, can be anything we want it to be, tailored for whatever occasion we wish. It can also blow up in an author’s face. Although he later denied it, author Brian Garfield was horrified when his novel Death Wish — intended as a cautionary tale against vigilantism — became a Charles Bronson action-adventure movie that, more than any other, gave rise to the present armed self-defense movement.

With a little help from Clint Eastwood.

Fiction can alter the outlook of society, but not always for the better. Walt Disney was a political conservative who never meant to encourage the cause of anti-hunting when he made an animated film of Felix Salten’s Bambi, a Life in the Woods, yet Paul McCartney says that seeing Bambi’s mother killed turned him into an animal rights militant.

It has a name: it’s called the “Bambi Effect”. Yet it’s neither inevitable, nor irrevocable. It works because you can write or draw or animate any damn thing you want, including talking animals. Bambi’s mother could have risen up to heaven on the wings of a snow-white dove, or come back as a hunter-seeking vampire doe. As a little kid, I hated that scene, too, but my dad was a deer hunter, I’d eaten and enjoyed venison, I understood that the herd must be culled, and even at that age I could catch and clean my own trout. Much later in my life I would write the novel Pallas, meant in part to counter the Bambi Effect.

But I have digressed.

As I said, I am a novelist, which means I’m a professional liar. I make up long, complex, internally consistent lies, set them down on paper, and — if everything works out right — people pay me money for them.

Along with that comes a professional obligation — my noblesse oblige, if you will — to keep my readers interested, employing sex, violence, suspense, horrible puns, whatever it takes, while on another level I attempt to persuade them to my point of view. My personal obligation is to use what genius I possess for good instead of evil — understanding that not everyone will share my definition of those qualities.

When people ask me how we will get from here — the police state America has become — to a society based on peace, freedom, progress, and prosperity, I tell them I’ve been on that road already for 30 years.

Wanna come along?

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5 responses to “Fiction is Mightier than Fact

  1. Of course, I absolutely agree with this.

  2. I do too.

    Also, Carthage must be destroyed.

  3. FREEComicsManga

    There are some interesting points in time in this article but I don�t know if I see all of them center to heart. There is some validity but I will take hold opinion until I look into it further. Good article , thanks and we want more! Added to FeedBurner as well

  4. This is excellent. Libertarians need to start focusing on the cultural front.

  5. The Bambi example suggests a need for more fiction that carries a libertarian message without big flashing THIS IS A LIBERTARIAN MESSAGE signs. Who writes that these days?

    (“Ah, now we see the libertarian message inherent in the plot. Come and see the libertarian message inherent in the plot! Help, help, I’m being propagandized!”)