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Going Beyond Google: How Fiction Challenges Us to Ask Tough Questions

As a child of the 70s, my Google search engine came in the form of the World Book Encyclopedia. That encyclopedia set, I knew, was a big investment for my family: twenty-two blue, faux-leather volumes with majestic gold lettering, that sat on the bottom shelf of my parents’ clunky, 1970s-style bookcase. The 70s were a clunky time! Macrame. Pottery. Famolare [1] shoes. Clunkety-clunk-clunk. But I didn’t care. These books, sure, were heavy and awkward. They also held answers, secrets, and information.

In this century, the nimble Internet, specifically Google, has done a marvelous job filling World Book’s sturdy, inflexible blue-leatherish wingtips. Whatever information I need to know, I must only pull out my phone and ask Google a question. Et voila! As long as I am willing to sit in that uncomfortable state of wondering for more than .013 seconds, I will receive my answer. Thousands and thousands of answers.

A glimpse into my recent Google search adventures:

  1. what year cyndi lauper time after time
  2. george w george h w friction
  3. buttermilk substitution

No knowledge of alphabetical order necessary! No need even to capitalize proper nouns! Certainly no need to use complete sentences or punctuation! 

But while the speedily-delivered answers to these burning questions seem satisfying, how does the information afforded to me via Google enhance my life? I’m not sure it does.

Was my family’s set of the Word Book Encyclopedia any more satisfying? I think so. Although maybe it satisfied me because I loved anything book-related. Maybe it seemed more objective and factual than the Internet.* Maybe I liked pulling a volume from that clunky bookcase, then lying on my stomach on that scratchy carpet, and thumbing through those shiny pages. 

I was a curious kid, and now I’m a curious adult. I’d bet one thousand Theo chocolate bars [2] you are also a curious person, that you are fascinated by people, that you wonder about the world. I bet when you were a child, you laid belly down on some scratchy carpet to read and learn and explore. I bet you like to eavesdrop at restaurants or on public transportation. I bet you make up stories about strangers. Writers are inherently curious human beings. 

Still, I worry Google has made me lazy. With so many answers so quickly at my fingertips, have my wondering muscles atrophied? Have I become so focused on the questions with quick answers that I have forgotten how to ask deep and beautiful questions. [3]

In September I returned to the classroom as a 7th grade English teacher. (Seventh graders are like puppies  with chaotic hormones and awkward peach-fuzz mustachios. And I love them.) At a recent professional development meeting we heard from Tony Wagner [4], an educator obsessed with how schools and teachers are preparing (or not preparing) students for life after college. Wagner explained that we no longer have a “knowledge economy,” meaning we no longer value someone because she knows a lot of stuff about a lot of stuff. Why? With Google, everyone has access to knowledge. And if everyone can have something, then having that thing is no longer very impressive or valuable. 

Tony Wagner has spent a million hours interviewing dozens of leaders from dozens of companies–from Facebook to Bank of America–and Wagner has garnered some interesting feedback: while graduates of the most prestigious universities once were the most sought after new-hires, companies are now noticing that these graduates simply aren’t working out very well. In general, they aren’t great creative problem solvers. 

I wonder if that’s because too many exceptionally bright graduates of prestigious universities have mastered the art of jumping through hoops. I wonder if these bright students have been so focused on (and gotten too comfortable with) finding right answers that they don’t have the will or the stamina to wrestle with messy questions. I wonder whether too many students lack the willingness to ponder questions that are not going to be on the test (who has time to ponder when pondering is inefficient and potentially unproductive?). I wonder if too many bright students have forgotten that it’s the question that often matters even more than the answer.

It’s not the students’ fault. We just have an education system that values answers more than it values good questions.

But Tony Wagner says we should value the art of asking meaningful questions, the answers to which require that we spend considerable time gnawing, exploring, discussing, grappling, and honing; gerunds that are slow, inefficient and inconvenient; gerunds that require intellectual humility, team work, creativity, curiosity, and stamina. 

It’s overwhelming to consider ways we can overhaul our current education system, our entire speed-loving society. But! Is it possible that in the meantime, our fiction can be of service? Yes. I believe so.

What if it is our job–our duty–to give readers safe places to wonder? To build characters and plunk these characters into unwinnable situations that require them to change, grow, explore, and mature? To write stories that pose questions that get stuck in the readers’ teeth. What if? 

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones makes me ask: if my husband were wrongly accused of a crime and thrown in jail, how would I fill the lonely void? A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, makes me consider how rich and fulfilling a life can be when one is imprisoned in a hotel? Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle presses me to contemplate what the U.S. would look like if September 11th hadn’t happened, if Barack Obama had been a white man, if Lincoln had not believed so passionately in a unified country. Animal Farm, the novel my 7th graders and I are reading and studying, pushes me to wonder why humans are putty in the hands of charismatic propagandists and what this puttyness reveals about human nature.

The books we WU-ers are writing cannot neutralize the influence of our out-of-date educational system or our frenetic, tech-obsessed society. But, I believe, our fiction stimulates our readers’ curiosity. It challenges a willing reader to consider What if…?  To wonder whether another valid point of view might exist. To question our world and explore why it is the way it is. To ponder the status quo.

We know the act of reading fiction increases a reader’s empathy. What if fiction can also encourage intellectual humility? What if our stories build readers’ question-asking muscle mass? 

I think our stories can do that. I know they can.

Think about your Work in Progress. What question or questions do you hope the story asks the reader to consider, either directly or indirectly? Is there a messy, juicy question that has driven you to write this story? What novel have you read recently that inspired you to ask and struggle over big questions?

Thanks for reading, dear WU’ers. Happy Holidays!

* factual from the perspective of the white people collecting, culling, and arranging the information.

Photo compliments of Flickr’s Veronique Debord-Lazaro [5].

About Sarah Callender [6]

Sarah Callender lives in Seattle with her husband, son and daughter. A crummy house-cleaner and terrible at responding to emails in a timely fashion, Sarah chooses instead to focus on her fondness for chocolate and Abe Lincoln. She is working on her third novel while her fab agent pitches the first two to publishers.