On Saturday, June 1, the final day of BookExpo America, rock-star fantasy and children’s author Neil Gaiman spoke to an adoring crowd of 500 on the topic “Why Fiction Is Dangerous.” At least, that was how the event was billed, but it seems to have been a throwaway title Gaiman gave BEA and then considered briefly beforehand. Instead, he focused mostly on discussing the two books he has coming out this year: The Ocean at the End of the Lane, an adult title starring a child narrator, and Fortunately, the Milk, a children’s title starring an adult narrator. Yes, Gaiman does twist things around.
His explanation of how these books came about shows why he’s so popular: he’s a master storyteller with an uncanny ability to find anecdotes that are sometimes funny but always affecting and revealing. For instance, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which aims to show “what it was to see the world as it was when I was seven,” was inspired partly by a farm on his childhood lane that was listed in the Domesday Book and partly by his learning that a South African lodging with his family had stolen their car and committed suicide at the end of that same lane.
I really did want to learn why fiction is dangerous, though, and while I am sure fans got their time’s worth from the event, I had to content myself with a few drops of wisdom. Fiction is dangerous, Gaiman explained, because “it lets you into others’ heads, it gives you empathy, and it shows you that the world doesn’t have to be like the one you live in.” That imaginative leap into other minds and other worlds is surely the reason many of us read fiction.
But as I considered the wonderful works presented at Day of Dialog’s fiction panel, “Getting (Re)Acquainted with the Best Voices in Fiction Today,” it occurred to me that fiction is dangerous not because it shows us that the world could be different but instead tears down our illusions about the world as it is—which can be painful and pretty scary, since we use those illusions for protection. The small-town folks in Alan Gurganus’s Local Souls who need heroes and suffer fates we think are typically reserved for kings, how Amy Tan played out the inspiration behind The Valley of Amazement—a photograph suggesting to her that her grandmother might have been a courtesan—all are evidence that fiction is dangerous because it’s so good at making the real world up close, personal, and very, very unsettling.