Why Do We Write Fiction? by Patricia Finney
Yes, I know Terry Pratchett got here first but I can’t find the relevant quote from his Witches Abroad.
I mean seriously. Why? Why do we sit down for many many many hours, busily writing long extended lies which we then lovingly edit, rewrite, re-edit, rewrite (repeat). Then we send them to people who might publish them or go through the IT hell and brutal hard work of self-publishing or hide them in a computer file. In these elaborate lies, people who don’t exist, talk and do things they never did, do things that are impossible (Harry Potter, I’m looking at you, boy), live in worlds that don’t exist (Narnia, Middle Earth) and interact with scary beings who don’t exist (Neil Gaiman, bless him…)
It’s just so weird. What’s more there’s an enormous industry devoted to profiting from the popularity of these lies. People who do it successfully are revered and respected and asked their opinions on salads and cats and philosophy. No, I’m not talking about non-fiction which at least makes sense. I’m talking about f***ing fiction.
People in the past deeply disapproved of the stuff. Puritans in the 16th century purely hated the theatre of Marlowe and Shakespeare – it was full of wicked lies and made servants and apprentices rebellious and wasted their time. In 17th century England they succeeded in closing down the theatres (and public baths).
In the 18th century, divines worried about the appalling influence of horror novels like The Castle of Otranto or The Monk on the delicate sensibilities of young gentlewomen who were borrowing them from the circulating libraries and inhaling them in their bedrooms! Alone!
In the 19th century crusty journalists worried about the vastly popular penny dreadfuls which were exciting young delivery boys and clerks with shocking tales of cowboys and Indians and crime. Detective novels were particularly dangerous.
In the 20th century we had a new fiction scare almost every other decade, starting with movies which would send you mad, radio soap opera, comic books, TV, arcade games, video nasties, better computer games, ebooks, the internet…
This has happened ever since printing gave story memes a new way to reproduce asexually and mechanically. I suspect something similar was happening earlier, but not so visibly to the clergy who naturally disapproved because story memes compete directly with their pet religious memes. Ballads reproduced themselves in alehouses, as catchy ones infected everybody. Hero tales and legends went from mouth to mouth with occasional detours into written books which were then read aloud to large audiences.
Before the advent of printing, the only way for a story meme to reproduce was by travelling through a human brain. Your average story meme could go from a mother or grandmother to children, a teacher to his pupils, even a preacher on occasion. If we’ve heard a good story, we just naturally want to share it, don’t we? Hm. Cunning.
Now a human brain is the place where story memes mate with each other – it’s sexual reproduction but much more promiscuous and more like bacteria. Story memes float around in all our brains and in some of them they mix and mingle and swap bits and produce wonderful mutations. Then they have to get out into the culture sphere to infect more human brains. Stories have always been able to do this but now they’re having an orgy because all our brains are so full of stories and they can play on the internet as well.
Before printing there wasn’t so clear a line between fiction and non-fiction. It was hard to tell the difference very often. Nobody hesitated to put bits in that sounded likely (saints tales were treated as fact but had distinctly legendlike bits) and it was hard to verify anything. The fantasy bits decorated the core of fact and made it better (and more infectious.)
Look at Le Morte d’Arthur, wonderful Welsh and French legends about a possibly real man who may have defended Britain against the invading Anglo-Saxons around 535 AD. Going back as far as the first written story, The Epic of Gilgamesh – who was probably a real king of the city of Ur – there’s the core of fact and the elaborate wrapping of fantasy.
So I think printing was the start of pure fiction. The story memes could now be reproduced by mechanical means which drastically reduced their mutation rate. It was worth writing something because people could buy it and read it instead of having to wait until somebody told it to them.
I’m thinking some time in the 16th century, when the popular knight-tales morphed into the amazing romp of Cervantes’ Don Quixote, when Holinshed’s Chronicles exploded into Shakespeare’s plays. I’m prejudiced in favour of that century though – what do you think?
So why did Cervantes write Don Quixote, why did Shakespeare write A Midsummer Night’s Dream or The Tempest?
This is where I get a bit mystical. The reasons why people consume fiction are different from the reasons why people write fiction.
Judging completely subjectively by my own experience, I think I/we write fiction because it’s the only way to get an excited, noisy story meme out of our heads. We sneeze them out on to paper and then assist them to spread by arranging for as many copies as possible to get out into the culture sphere. We hope to cause a massive bloom of our own story meme, attain the blessed state of bestsellerdom.
So I suspect story memes are parasitic and writers are the ones who are most susceptible to the parasite, and obey the parasite most faithfully. All the poor writers get out of it is a hit of dopamine and serotonin and maybe some money. Certainly a story that wants to be written is an unmitigated nuisance, taking up much-needed space in the brain, until it’s safely written.
Then the writer leans back, sighs and enjoys the unoccupied brainspace – until the next story turns up and swings aboard.
Well that’s my theory anyway.
Yes, I have just finished a book, thank you for asking. It’s under my pen name of PF Chisholm, 9th in the Sir Robert Carey series, A Suspicion of Silver, coming out in November 2018.
Please do visit my website at www.patriciafinney.com and sign up for my email list, another way story memes breed. Then find me at the Patricia Finney Author Page on Facebook and at https://thecra.co.uk/find-an-author/finney-patricia/