My friend George Morley believes that a good novel works as a map or a handbook to help you through life — this was à propos science fiction which, she maintains, fails as literature because it doesn't perform that function. Instrumental thinking about fiction can easily get reductive (vide Thomas Rymer on Othello: "First, this may be a caution to all maidens of quality how, without their parents’ consent, they run away with blackamoors. Secondly, this may be a warning to all good wives that they look well to their linen. Thirdly, this may be a lesson to husbands, that before their jealousy be tragical, the proofs may be mathematical"). And aren't there other functions a novel can perform? For example, SF can offer a way of criticizing our social arrangements, or asking questions about human nature.
But with all those caveats I kind of agree with George, and I thought of her while reading Richard Ford's Canada. Every so often the narrator, Dell Parsons, distils some lesson from his unhappy youth and, while there's no reason you should rely on Dell, it feels worth hanging on to:
"Still, it's something any person needs to do – to recognize the feeling when something around you isn't good, when there are threats – to remember that you've felt this sensation before, and that it means you're out on some empty expanse all by yourself and you're exposed, and caution needs to be exerted."
And right at the end:
"What I know is, you have a better chance in life – of surviving it – if you tolerate loss well; manage not to be a cynic through it all; to subordinate, as Ruskin implied, to keep proportion, to connect the unequal things into a whole that preserves the good, even if admittedly good is often not simple to find. We try, as my sister said. We try. All of us. We try."
Never hard enough, though, right?