What’s the Use of Stories…

“What’s the use of stories that aren’t even true?”

That’s the terrible question asked by Haroun of his father, Rashid Kalifah the storyteller in the novel Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie.

This terrible question and a blog post by a writer of novels for young adults made me think about why we read and teach fiction. What is the use of stories? Why do we read fiction?

The blog post was by by Sarah Dessen over on LiveJournal. She wrote about her newest novel Along for the Ride and Dessen asked about Common Sense Media and the age ratings for this book on the Barnes and Noble website. The rating seemed to fracture the story into its component parts: sexual content, drugs, consumerism, language. There was no sense of how these events were perceived by the characters in the novel.  In a comment to this post I wrote:

I tell my students that there a lot of books on the shelves in my room that require a certain level of maturity to read. If they are uncomfortable with a book, they can put it back, but only they know where that line is.
Kids need to read about others making decisions and the consequences of those decisions. Auden [the main character] does not seem to be happy about the hook up on the beach, and this is not mentioned in the enumeration of “mature” content. Breaking the book into component parts negates the arc of the story and they reactions of the characters to the very circumstances that CommonSense is counting.
And to this, you just can not say, whatever…

Fiction allows us to experience, in the safety of our imaginations, the difficult, troubling, challenging aspects of life.  Emerging adolescents need a safe imaginary place to think through their own responses to events or experiences. Our children will be asked to make decisions about sex, drinking, drugs, and language at some point in their lives, and I can bet you that we as parents will not be there to make the decision for them.


The strength of fiction is the truth that it tells.  Sure there are memoirs – The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls terrifies because as a story, it is real. Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea inspires because it is real. But would I have the strength of either of these two people? I don’t know. But I can put myself in the shoes of a fictional protagonist. It feels true and it can be my truth if I need it to be.

What’s the Use?

One of Rushdie’s characters in Haroun distills the problem, opportunity, and responsibility of an author. Iff the Water Genie tells Haroun:

A person may choose what he cannot see,’ he said, as if explaining something very obvious to a very foolish individual. ‘A person may mention a bird’s name even if the creature is not present and correct: crow, quail, hummingbird, bulbul, mynah, parrot, kite. A person may even select a flying creature of his own invention, for example winged horse, flying turtle, airborne whale, space serpent or aeromouse. To give a thing a name, a label, a handle; to rescue it from anonymity, to pluck it out of the Place of Namelessness, in short to identify it — well, that’s a way of bringing the said thing into being.

To give a thing a name,–  to rescue it from anonymity — to pluck it out of the Place of Namelessness, to bringing the said thing into being. In short – to create.  That’s the point of writing and reading stories – at least that’s what I think.

The picture of the Hoopoe Bird is by kaibara87

The hoopoe is an important mentor and guide in Haroun and the Sea of Stories.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Paul C says:

    The power of story will never die because they arise out of human experience, out of yours and mine. A good storyteller helps to bring disparate souls together, to connect for a brief moment before they go their separate ways.

    1. Kate Tabor says:

      There is such power in story. In the novel Haroun’s father is a storyteller by trade, and he is hired by the local politicos to speak at their rallies because everyone knows that politicos always lie, even though they say they are telling the truth, but everyone also knows that Rashid is telling “just a story” so they know that he is telling the truth.

      There is a great story about why we tell stories – and the final thought is that we tell stories to keep body and soul together.

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