How to Read a Story

There was a discussion some time ago about pornography. About how it twists young men's expectations from and understanding of sex. Some say it is responsible for sexual violence and some say it is not. I think there are good arguments on both sides. But I also think there is something deeper here that we can and should talk about.

I think mistaking pornography for sex is much like mistaking exploding cars in an action movie for traffic. One is fiction and one is real. One is intended to evoke excitement and the other is... well... it is life. One is deliberately extravagant and the other is necessarily mundane.

Watching cars blow up in mid-air in a movie is exciting, but only a fool would think that such a spectacle would be worth experiencing on an actual highway.

When someone expects sex to be like porn, what is really at display is an inability to process fiction. This isn't surprising, since our education systems do not really go deep into that territory. We don't really teach fiction as anything more than entertainment. At best, fiction is fun, and at worst it is a waste of time.

However, the power that fiction exercises on our everyday lives is not something that can be easily ignored. Storytellers are some of the highest paid people on the planet. Great stories bring nations close to each other, becoming international gossip fuel in the process. Stories bring communities together, sometimes for great causes.

And the most important part is that stories last. Fiction often outlives people, nations, entire civilisations. So we solve this problem by dividing fiction into two categories. One category is low fiction - tales of the day that will be easily forgotten. The other category is timeless fiction - epics, fables, mythologies.

This latter category goes into the making of religion, nationalism, and culture. Scholars of this category (such as theologians and mythologists) never tire of telling us that there is something special about these stories. Something unique, something that cannot be found in other stories.

Truth is, there isn't. They're just old and have the advantage of having been told many more times. A Harry Potter, given time, can absolutely become a culture-defining framework like a Ramayana. All it takes is time. And this is the aspect of fiction we don't talk about enough.

Forget talking about it, we actually perpetuate ideas which are the exact opposite of this truth. We say stories are just entertainment. Clearly, those who say stories are "nobody's truth" have never seen a “Red Wedding reaction” video on YouTube. Stories are always somebody's truth. And when we raise a society which doesn't accept that all stories are somebody's truth, we create a world where old stories grow into monsters. A world where, because they don't know what stories are, people begin killing in the name of old stories.