With that said, there's a going debate about whether fiction should play a functional role in our lives, and whether it does. Here are five arguments I've noticed in the past two months or so:
1. Fiction can change our norms.
Jonathan Gottschall, at the Boston Globe, argues that fiction is good for you in that a good yarn shows us (or tricks us) into understanding other people, making us more broad-minded and empathetic:
This research consistently shows that fiction does mold us. The more deeply we are cast under a story’s spell, the more potent its influence. In fact, fiction seems to be more effective at changing beliefs than nonfiction, which is designed to persuade through argument and evidence. Studies show that when we read nonfiction, we read with our shields up. We are critical and skeptical. But when we are absorbed in a story, we drop our intellectual guard. We are moved emotionally, and this seems to make us rubbery and easy to shape.
2. Fiction emboldens people to stand by their norms.
A related argument is that as novelists occupy a somewhat distanced and privileged place in society--distanced from power, and therefore privileged to speak freely to it--they have an unusual capacity to articulate norms which might be widely held, but have been suppressed by pragmatism, alienation, anxiety, etc. In his 1978 history of the populist movement in America, for example, the historian Lawrence Goodwyn--who admires the populists for their high degree of "personal political self-respect"--suggests that novelists kept the flame alive even after the movement itself lost steam:
It is interesting to observe that one group of Americans, the nation's leading novelists, have consistently resisted both the language of genteel apologia and the language of celebration that combine to inform the mainstream academic view of the American past. The contrast between the sanguine, culturally confined literature of American history and the brooding chronicle of endurance and tragedy that characterizes the nation's best fiction is an interesting contemporary phenomenon...While a number of American novelists, from Melville to Faulkner, are admired throughout the world, no American historian has remotely achieved similar standing.
3. Fiction reinforces the norms we already have.
Will Wilkinson, at the Big Think, is skeptical of Gottschall's suggestion that fiction makes us more broad-minded (or indeed that it should be expected to be a salubrious influence). If there's a 'liberal bias' in fiction, he suggests, it comes from self-selection--the empathetic kind of people who write resonant fiction tend to skew liberal, too. But in any case, insofar as fiction affects us, it may be because the writers are preaching to the choir:
I think it’s undeniably true that story is a powerful instrument of norm inculcation. The question is whether there is something inherent in the nature of stories that lend them a morally progressive bias. If fiction is equally capable of promoting and reinforcing “good” and “bad” moralities, then it would seem to be a neutral force. If “Modern Family” is making Americans more sympathetic to gay folk, and it is, that’s because it's amplifying and accelerating an already existing push for progressive social change. Stories radically out of sync with the status quo morality will not find purchase in our story-loving minds; we reject these with disgust, like rancid pieces of meat.
4. Fiction reveals our norms to others.
Thomas de Waal, writing in Foreign Policy, suggests that if you want to understand the countries of the former Soviet Union, you have to go back to Gogol, Chekhov, and Dostoevsky:
Most of the former Soviet countries emerged from two centuries of Russian-dominated autocracy, an autocracy that just happened to have produced some of the greatest literature the world has ever seen. Some have argued that the one helped produce the other, that the rigors of tsarist-era censorship, the aridity of public service, and the educated classes' hunger for intellectual nourishment all helped stimulate great writing. Pushkin and Tolstoy, Gogol, Chekhov, and Dostoyevsky were more than just cultural commentators -- they were public celebrities and the key moral and intellectual voices of their age. They were idolized because they described the predicament readers found themselves in -- and still do.
5. Fiction informs individuals, some of whom hold influence.
In John Lewis Gaddis's recent biography of George F. Kennan, he explains that Kennan had a lifelong love for Russian literature, particularly Chekhov. Kennan's readings of literature informed his view of the Russian psyche, which in turn was fundamental to the argument for containment that Kennan laid out in his "long telegram" and elsewhere--an argument that, of course, had a profound influence on American foreign policy with regard to the Soviet Union. Here's Gaddis tracing Kennan's thinking circa 1946:
It was clear, then, that the fears and suspicions so prevalent in Moscow related not to to the Truman administration's policies but "to the character of the Soviet regime itself." They would not be dispelled by "fatuous gestures of appeasement," which could only lead "to the capitulation of the United States as a great power in the world and as the guardian of its own security." There was, however, no reason to despair: Americans should see the situation instead "as a narrow and stony defile through which we must pass before we can emerge into more promising vistas."
That promise resided in the Russian national character, more deeply rooted even than the Stalinist state or the ideology that animated it, yet visible in Russian literature.