I became aware of the way fiction influences people in college. When I started becoming aware that the white world of tv and novels I’d been reading were only a small slice of the reality pie. That authors as diverse as Toni Morrison and Barry Hughart could transport me to places I never knew existed.
Then I married a Japanese man and had children. And then the concern about how United States media portrayed minorities (or didn’t portray them) became up close and personal.
What I heard/read/supposed was one of the most important factors contributing to children who are “different” (culturally, linguistically, ethnically, ability) in growing up with a positive self-image was seeing positive versions of themselves.
When you see a Japanese-American doctor or firefighter or author or slam poet, that means you can picture yourself there (if you’re Japanese-American). If all you see are white slam poets, then how would you know you could do that, too? How would YOUR PARENTS or your neighbors know that Japanese-Americans can be slam poets, too? And if they don’t know that, can you become a slam poet while enduring surprised expressions, platitudes, and ignorant comments when you voice your desire?
Fiction is Dangerous. There are studies about how our very brain chemistry changes when we read stories, almost chemically forcing us to undergo emotions from the story as if we are enduring it ourselves.
And so, apparently, can fiction influence our moral beliefs.
“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.”
Just take a look at some of the hoopla surrounding BBC’s Downton Abbey and think about the number of people invested in watching, thinking, talking, and ruminating about that show and the morals/decisions of the characters within. The story of Downton Abbey acts as a glue binding diverse groups of people together to focus on common ideas about love and family.
How CAN’T that be influential? A large part of my self-identity is defined by being both a reader and a writer, and so I wonder sometimes, if I am living up to my responsibility in telling stories.