October 8, 2010 | Categories: The Literary Doctor, The Value of Fiction | Tags: caregivers, compassion, doctors, empathy, fiction, illness, literary fiction, literature and medicine, meaning of illness, narrative medicine, patients
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One of my colleagues recently told me he doesn’t read fiction because he doesn’t see the point in wasting time on something that isn’t real and doesn’t matter. He learns more from non-fiction, he said.
The awarding of the 2010 Nobel Prize in literature yesterday to Mario Vargas Llosa of Peru for ten million Swedish Kronors—or, in our increasingly worthless American currency, 1.5 million dollars—is a powerful reminder that fiction, for society in general and for our little niche of narrative medicine in particular, does indeed matter.
To those who believe the reading of fiction to be of no practical value, like viewing an action movie or a cops-and-robbers TV show, we need look no further than Mr. Vargas Llosa’s oeuvre for rebuttal. In his youth a prototypical Latin American leftist, Vargas Llosa later became a powerful advocate of free-market capitalism and liberal democracy. His fiction concerns itself with the dehumanizing effects of autocracy and the virtues of individual empowerment. Born in 1936, he came of age in the 1950s, a period during which Peru suffered greatly from a corrupt dictatorship. His personal experience with tyranny and his enormous compassion for victims of statist oppression led him to become a controversial and vocal supporter of the American-led liberation of Iraq and the effort to depose Saddam Hussein. He was awarded the Nobel, in the words of the Swedish Academy, “for his cartography of the structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt and defeat.”
So what does the literary success of an apostate Marxist have to do with a blog on literature and medicine?
Well, everything. Because, in the words of Vargas Llosa himself, as reported today by Emily Parker in the Opinion section of The Wall Street Journal, “Through writing, one can change history…Nothing better protects a human being against the stupidity of prejudice, racism, religious or political sectarianism, and exclusivist nationalism than this truth that invariably appears in great literature: that men and women of all nations and places are essentially equal.”
And so it is with literary fiction and medicine. Through stories, one can change lives. The meaning of illness is revealed and the suffering of others deeply and personally experienced. Reading, reflecting on, and discussing great fiction increases the empathy of caregivers (Anyone out there whose doctor seems cold and unemotional?) and helps patients understand the universal question: Why? Why me? What does my illness mean?
The answer is different for each that asks, but the journey (of understanding illness) is not—just as citizens in a free society share in common their quest for liberty, though their expression of it is individually unique.
For those who take the time to enjoy it, literary fiction, whether dealing with matters of tyranny and liberty, as do the novels of Nobel Prize winner Mario Varga Llosa, or in dealing with human illness, as does this blog and the field of narrative medicine, is transformative.
Sorry, my doctor’s lounge companion, but fiction matters.