Today I went out with my roommate to a local diner for breakfast, and she made a comment that basic, simple food could be so good. I replied that it was good because it fulfilled a need. Giving your body what it needs to live and be healthy is the basis of good food–everything else is secondary.
I like cooking, and I do use spices when I cook. But the spices are to enhance the experience, and don’t work as a substitute for providing proteins, fats, carbohydrates, minerals, and vitamins. If the food isn’t nourishing, then there is nothing you can add to it that will transform it into good food.
I tend to make food analogies with fiction a lot, probably because I enjoy both writing and cooking and both were self-taught. I don’t use recipes, and I don’t follow formulas. I just take the stuff I like and throw it all in a pot. Sometimes this works, and sometimes I quietly scrape my experiment into the trash and order a pizza.
Today’s analogy is this: Good fiction should fulfill a need. It is enjoyable because it is good for you, and the spices, garnishes, presentation and so on add something to the experience only if the basic needs are met first.
So what is the basic, core function of fiction? That’s not an easy question to answer. Like food, it has a number of different parts to it, that do different things. A short and imprecise answer might be that it allows the reader to vicariously experience events that–if they were real instead of made up–would result in positive mental and emotional growth.
This, of course, covers a very broad class of experiences, from winning a battle to surviving a cataclysm to meeting and wooing a partner. But I think it’s a good litmus test for fiction–“If I had been in the situation that these characters were in, and I behaved as they did, would I feel good about myself?”
This does not mean that every story must have a happy ending, for arbitrarily defined values of “happy”. Sometimes the guy does not end with the girl, and sometimes the monster eats the hero. Some games don’t have victory conditions. The point is that the reader is able to do the right thing, despite the costs, because at the end of the story the costs aren’t real.
If the story is a good one, though, doing the right thing is real, or real enough.
Some fiction strikes me as all sizzle and no steak. The presentation may be exquisite, the seasoning perfect, but there’s nothing there to feed the soul. The author is so focused on how the story is told that she or he forgets to put the story in.
This is Joe. This is what happened to Joe. This is what Joe did. This is what happened as a result of what Joe did. This is Joe now.
That’s the story. And at the end of the story the reader should want to be like Joe. When bad things happen to the reader a good story can act as a surrogate life experience. Remembering how Mowgli faced down Shere Khan can help a man deal with his own fears–even when he knows perfectly well that The Jungle Book never happened.
In genre fiction in particular I think it’s easy to get overcome with the spices and forget the meat and potatoes. One describes a Science Fiction story in terms of the peculiarities of the setting or some new invented technology, because those things are unique to the story.
Those things can be enjoyable, and provide food for thought long after the story is finished. They are what make a story different, but that’s not what makes a story good. What makes a story good is the example it gives us of eternal virtues–courage, compassion, ingenuity, prudence, fortitude–no matter where or when the story is set.