As an example of good writing I offer the following short essay by a favorite author, Lee Child. Titled Telling Tales, it is from the New Yorker magazine’s online newsletter and it struck me as a little masterpiece. Its candor is immediately attention-getting and, like all good writing, it is information-dense. There are no boring parts, no unnecessary words. And there is profundity, an insight on the place of fiction in human endeavors, even though I do not necessarily agree with his conclusion. It is grist for thought, and perhaps, if you are so inclined dear reader, for discussion. I love discussion.
The other day I saw my father, who is ninety-two years old, and in very poor health. Physically, he’s a wreck, and mentally he’s not much better. At his peak, he was a capable and intelligent man, by nature rational to the point of coldness. But the other day he was full of childlike fear of the darkness that lay ahead. He’s religious, in an austere way. So I knew what he meant. “Don’t be afraid,” I said. “You’re a good man, and you lived a good life.” In fact, neither thing was true. But what else could I say? I’m sure he said the same to his own father, for the same reasons, and with the same reservations. Don’t we all?
Ten thousand fathers ago, we would have said nothing, because we didn’t yet have language. We didn’t yet have much of anything. A passing U.F.O. would have written us off as a certain dead end. Our contemporary competitors, the Neanderthals, would have got the nod. We were weak and slender, and often sickly, and shabby toolmakers. Then we developed language, and everything changed. We had grammar and syntax, which turned out to be the best tools of all. Now we could plan, and discuss, and theorize, and speculate. We could coördinate ahead of time, with a plan B and a plan C already in place. A coöperative pack of early humans was suddenly the most powerful animal on Earth. So that if the U.F.O. came back today it would have to admit that its first impressions were wrong.
But along the way something extraordinary happened. At first, we prospered by planning and speculating based on what we knew to be true, or could reasonably and responsibly infer to be true. In other words, we lived in a nonfiction world. We still do, in every practical way. My wife might tell me that her phone says it’s going to rain, so I should take my umbrella, and every step of that transaction would be meaningless without the fundamental assumption of truth. Most of life is like that. It’s a great strategy. Ten thousand generations ago, our bones were piled high in hyenas’ dens. Now Voyager has left the solar system. Or not, depending on how you—reasonably and responsibly—interpret the Oort Cloud. These are the things we talk about, and this is how we talk about them.
At some point, though, we invented a parallel option. We invented fiction. We started talking about things that hadn’t happened to people who didn’t exist. Why? Not for entertainment during our leisure time. We were still deep in prehistory. We had no leisure time. Everything was a desperate struggle for survival. We did nothing unless it had a chance of keeping us alive until morning. Fiction evolved for a purpose. Warnings and cautionary tales could be sourced from the grim nonfiction world. A sabre-toothed tiger will kill you. O.K., got it. Fiction pushed the pendulum the other way. It inspired, and empowered, and emboldened. It said, No, actually, there was a guy, a friend of a friend, who came face to face with a sabre-toothed tiger, a huge one, and he turned and outran it, all the way back to the cave, safe as can be. So don’t panic. It doesn’t always turn out bad. Then, perhaps a hundred generations later, the story evolved, and the friend of the friend killed the tiger. The action hero was born. Strength and courage would save us. And it worked. Fiction in its various forms proved just as powerful to our survival as any other factor. Some would say more powerful. Some would name us not Homo sapiens but Pan narrans: the storytelling ape. Would Voyager be leaving the solar system if we hadn’t long ago formalized and mythologized our inchoate desire to wander?
But the bad things would not be happening, either. Every bad thing depends on the same two components as every good thing: people prepared to lie, and other people prepared to believe them. The habit of credulity, bred into us, albeit inspiring and empowering and emboldening, has led to some very bad outcomes throughout what we know of our history. From small things, like a father believing a son, to much larger things, like a billion miserable and terrified dead. All balanced against the good things. Is it fifty-fifty? Or worse than that? And what about babies and bathwater? Could we give up the stunning joy that the good side of storytelling brings in order to erase the appalling horrors of the bad side? Where does the balance lie?
It’s ironic, given my profession, but the more I learn the more I would uninvent fiction.