Smith, Zadie. “Fascinated to presume: In defense of fiction.” The New York Review of Books 24 (2019).
A really wonderful philosophical reflection by Zadie Smith on the reasons for writing and reading fiction and for an engagement with and inclusion of the diversity of human experience.
A few extracts that I found particularly helpful. I would also apply these ideas to non-fiction as well.
[…] a book can try to modify your behavior, but it has no way of knowing for sure that it has. In front of a book you are still free. Between reader and book, there is only the continual risk of wrongness, word by word, sentence by sentence. The Internet does not get to decide. Nor does the writer. Only the reader decides. So decide.
The old—and never especially helpful—adage write what you know has morphed into something more like a threat: Stay in your lane. This principle permits the category of fiction, but really only to the extent that we acknowledge and confess that personal experience is inviolate and nontransferable. It concedes that personal experience may be displayed, very carefully, to the unlike-us, to the stranger, even to the enemy—but insists it can never truly be shared by them. This rule also pertains in the opposite direction: the experience of the unlike-us can never be co-opted, ventriloquized, or otherwise “stolen” by us. (As the philosopher Anthony Appiah has noted, these ideas of cultural ownership share some DNA with the late-capitalist concept of brand integrity.) Only those who are like us are like us. Only those who are like us can understand us—or should even try. Which entire philosophical edifice depends on visibility and legibility, that is, on the sense that we can be certain of who is and isn’t “like us” simply by looking at them and/or listening to what they have to say.
Fiction was suspicious of any theory of the self that appeared to be largely founded on what can be seen with the human eye, that is, those parts of our selves that are material, manifest, and clearly visible in a crowd. Fiction—at least the kind that was any good—was full of doubt, self-doubt above all. It had grave doubts about the nature of the self.