Realistic fiction is a powerful paradox: a made-up story used to convey truth. I should qualify my statement by adding an adjective: good realistic fiction offers truth through imagination. And great realistic fiction goes one better: by providing testament to a genuine way of life or situation or condition through an imagined story, great realistic fiction makes us witnesses to the lurking waste and potential glory of all human endeavor. Of course there is a place for nonfiction in the exposition of truth but it is the beauty and completeness of fiction - where every observation, feeling, landscape, and thought can be made, held safe, shared, and never reneged or denied or embellished beyond its first creation - that allows the full exploration and demonstration of what it means to be human, and that gives both proof and challenge to just how far we can go.
Two books, one just released and one just released in its motion picture version, demonstrate the power of great realistic fiction. "Hold Love Strong" by Matthew Aaron Goodman tells the story of Abraham Singleton, born of a thirteen-year old girl and a long-gone father and raised in a Queens' project in an extended family of single mothers, struggling men and boys, and insidious hopelessness: "What chance do I have?" he asks, witness to yet another bout of violence, arrests, and shot-down dreams. Goodman answers his narrator's question through a story that is compelling, genuine, frightening, and soulful: when those of us outside such neighborhoods recognize ourselves as the same - hearts and minds -- as the ones inside. The communication of the story of Abraham is the connection that binds reader to author, and reader to created character and reader to life outside of her own experience; it is a story that can be told in nonfiction (as in Ron Suskind's wonderful "A Hope in the Unseen") but it is the method of fiction communication - un-restrained by facts and yet fully developed by Truth - that allows us to connect to the story, heart and mind.
"Push" by Sapphire, just released as the movie "Precious", also involves the story of a girl made a mother when she is still a child but for Precious there is no support or love from her family, and not even a glimmer of safety or security. It is only when she lucks into an alternative school and meets up with a fiercely observant and protective teacher that Precious's life begins to have something like hope. It is no accident that the hopes of Precious become manifest when she learns to read and write and she begins to do both, voraciously. It is through reading and writing that Precious finds her own life and her own voice: she is made witness to the lives of others and finds within their lives a testament to her own struggles and a flashpoint for her own power to change. We, in turn, are made witness to the life of Precious - and the real lives of abused, ignored, and unprotected children. How will we use that testament, what flashpoint will that become for us?
As witnesses we come to see what makes the difference between waste and glory, between misfortune and opportunity, between sinking and flying. The difference can be the luck of a good parent or a good teacher or a good friend; it can be a social welfare system that works or a neighbor who cares or a doctor who notices; it can be a support group or a safe home or a secure job. The difference always comes down to a connection between one person and another person that allows a bridge of support, respect, and security. And what medium is better than a book to illustrate the importance of connection, as a book itself makes a bridge between one person and another, one world and another. We read a book and we recognize ourselves in others; we empathize, we care, and we grow; we understand our own desires and needs and we reach out to understand others. That is why "Precious" matters, that is why "Hold Love Strong" is more than just a title: because the truths offered by great realistic fiction are the foundation of what it means to be human, and when we are called to witness these truths - not so self-evident after all - the effort and the tenacity of our engagement (as a direct corollary to the greatness of the book) leads to an experience that sustains, uplifts, and affirms. Great good comes from reading great books.