Monday, September 27, 2010

A Reasonably Short, Fairly Impassioned Defense of Reading Fiction

Just about every literary nerd has had this conversation at least once (and I had one recently):

Me: Oh, you're a reader - cool! What do you like to read?
Non-Literary Nerd: Non-fiction, almost exclusively.
Me: You don't like fiction?
NLN: Nope. There's too much to learn about the real world to read stuff that's made up.
Me: Sure, dude.

Hey, to each his/her own, I suppose. But to dismiss fiction for that reason, to me, is silly. Good fiction can teach us as much about the world — and more about what's important about the world — as any non-fiction. David Foster Wallace said that "fiction is about what it means to be a f#!@ing human being," and though fiction-haters would argue that that is counter-intuitive, my belief is that no truer words have ever been uttered.

I think it's pretty clear there is definite and demonstrable value to reading fiction. Of course, there are the obvious reasons: It's fun. It can relieve stress. It can lead to better spelling skills. It can make you sound smarter than that annoying acquaintance who knows everything about everything.

But, as DFW suggested, the real value of fiction is that it can help you learn to empathize with people who are different than you. You often hear writers say that when they finish a book, they "miss the characters." I've only begun really understanding what that means in the last several years, as my favorite novels of the last decade or so are realistic enough that they provide the opportunity for an actual relationship with the characters. And with that relationship comes an understanding of an alternate view of the world than my own. I love that. I love seeing the world through another set of eyes — even though they're fictional. 

And so reading fiction also makes you more tolerant. It helps you see, in a non-contentious setting, different ways of thinking, world-views, philosophies, political theories than your own. You may disagree, but at least you understand. And understanding is ultimately the foundation for tolerance. Wouldn't things be much better with more tolerance, more moderateness? So, not only is fiction about what it means to be human, fiction can save the world!

So, there you have it: A short, but fairly impassioned defense of fiction. But I'm hoping you can help me expand on this idea. How does reading fiction help you interface with the world? Is this just a pie-in-the-sky idea, or do you think DFW was right?


  1. Greg, I couldn't agree more. For a time all I read was non-fiction, chalking up fiction as a "waste of time". I couldn't be more wrong and found a happy medium in the historical fiction genre.

    Now my mindset is that "a good book is good book" without any prejudice.

  2. Amen.

    I find that reading a work of fiction inspires me to read non-fiction so that I can learn more about the theme/period/whatever being discussed in the novel.

  3. Great post and an excellent point. Non-fiction can show us what is and what was but fiction can show us what is, what was, what could be, what we hope will never be and all from a million different view points. DFW couldn't have put it better :)

  4. I couldn't agree more with you. Fantastic post.

  5. great post! reading fiction gives me a view into worlds that are different from my limited circle

  6. Have you watched Yann Martel's interview on Big Think?

    In it, Martel addresses the same notion. He thinks all world leaders should read fiction to be successful in seeing the big picture in the world. Fairly awesome, I think.

  7. I absolutely agree with everything you said. And unless people like the non-literary nerd watch only documentaries (and no regular movies) and same when it comes to television shows, they can't talk!

  8. Excellent post, and yes, this topic comes up frequently for me.

    What amazes me is that people think non-fiction = truth, which is not always the case. There's a slant on non-fiction topics just as on fiction, and sometimes that can be dangerous. After all, we might not question the accuracy of a nonfiction read while with a fictional novel, we intuit any significant irrationality.

    I just stopped reading a memoir that is hugely successful but has two very big factual's enough of a slippery slope to make me question the whole. (If it had been a fiction book, I would have continued...)

    BTW, ditto to the commenter who said the fiction leads to nonfiction research on further topics. So true, and revealing.

    The thing that I always try and remember is that our heads are filled with fiction all the time: the way we interpret things, assume motives, imagine conflicts, and rehearse for potential events. The story we tell ourselves is only one version, and most people can't handle the truth!


  9. @Man - I, too, enjoy historical fiction - especially writers like Jeff Shaara, who use historical figures as their characters. Best of both worlds!

    @Suzanne - Excellent point! Fiction is always excellent context and fodder for further reading.

    @Red - Well said. There is so much more possibility with fiction!

    @Brenna - Thanks! ;)

    @tuffy777 - Thanks! That's the exact idea - a view to worlds that are not our own in the hope of understanding them.

    @Sara C - That is fantastic - I hadn't seen it before. Fairly awesome, indeed. Art can show something from many different angles. Absolutely!

    @Jenny - You're right, the same idea could be applied to TV/movies - though there's definitely less of a connection between you and the characters there. I see your point, though.

    @Amy - Hey, thanks for the thoughtful comment! Very, very good point about the assumption that non-fiction = truth. It's utter nonsense. And the idea of the truth (or the way we're experience the world; filling our heads with fiction) being relative is an interesting one too - probably best covered in a graduate level philosophy course. ;)

  10. So true! I started reading fiction more when I started reading more international authors. It's such a great way to see more of a culture and how people live that you don't get from non-fiction. It really made me think more about local authors too and what a gift they give.

  11. Just because it's fiction doesn't mean it's "made up." I liked this post partly because I agreed with you and partly because it made me think about why some people either don't like fiction or don't think they like fiction.

    Like most things, a few bad experiences can create a lifetime impression. Not all works of fiction are great, but there are thousands of books out there that are worth the time it takes to read them.

  12. I am the opposite of what you describe and perhaps just as inappropriately biased that direction. I rarely read non-fiction. The thing I tend to hear is a slight variation on what you hear: "I don't want to read about things that didn't happen."

  13. I totally agree! And historical fiction, when done right, can give the reader a sense of the culture and/or country they're reading about. It can also make history more accessible...because some of those non-fiction history books are BORING.

  14. I agree with you completely. What I like about fiction is that it gives you a chance to 'try out' different things that you wouldn't be able to do in real life. The other thing is that, by reading classic books, one can learn just as much about history as they can from a non-fiction book. Sure history is history, but classics can articulate the prevalent attitudes during that era in a more interesting way that non-fiction books.

    That being said, I love a good non-fiction book about history/mythology :)

  15. My entire blog is about how I use fiction (and books in general) as a means of dealing with the world and personal issues. So yeah, it does help.

  16. Great post. It always boggles my mind when people write off fiction.

  17. Word.

    I can't help but feel that people who don't enjoy fiction are actually desperately attempting to not have to engage with the 'real world', they don't want to see anything outside their own mind and views and hate when those things are challenged by all the wondrously life changing and openminded-making things that lurk between the covers of an imagined story.

    This post has bought to my attention that if a person admits that they don't like fiction I automatically decide that there is something wrong with them. Is that wrong?

  18. As a fiction nut, this of course hits me where I live (and as a professional trumpeter of literature's merits, where I work), but I do think it's worth thinking about this particular rejoinder, which I've heard probably 629364192634 times.

    I've sort of come to this conclusion: fiction readers locate humanity in "imagination," however one might define that. Non-fiction people tend to locate humanity in the workings of humankind: wars, inventions, explorations, trials, and triumphs.

    Both have their compensations and their lacuna.

    Fiction has very little to teach us about famine, for example. Non-fiction has very little to teach us about longing.

    I sometime think of this has the Hamlet/Napoleon problem. Literature people tend to find Hamlet, and his spectacular imaginative aeires, more interesting than Napoleon's military ones. Non-fiction people tend to be interested in the logistics and circumstances that allowed a Napoleon to happen.

    This isn't unilaterally applicable, but it often maps relatively well. The larger point is that we needn't privilege one over the other, even as we might choose one for ourselves over the other.

  19. Although I mostly read non-fiction, I find that a well written novel keeps me balanced. I love getting lost in the pages of a good story.

  20. In my view, it's all about intimacy (I say in the most masculine way that a man can use that word, which is to say not very much). I think writers of non-fiction rarely dare to guess at the innermost thoughts that motivate the particular character they are trying to present. And all non-fiction seems to have a particular slant or message to which the characters are forced to adjust, including autobiography, which is often the worst offender. Fiction, in contrast, is absolutely free to CREATE true characters from the ground up, including those innermost thoughts that cause them to act. As such, the reader feels a more intimate connection with a fictionalized character, and the fictionalized story (if well done) comes to be a more true account of the humanity that we all share than any other.

  21. I absolutely think DFW was right. When I read, I experience different cultures, points of view, beliefs. And every time I connect with a novel -- with a character, a line of text, a relationship -- I learn something else about myself. I think my fiction collection says more about me than any other collection I have.

    Great post! So much to think about.

  22. As a middle school English teacher I am confronted by this question by my students all the time. I wish I had more time to give them as eloquent a reply as you provide.

  23. Sometimes when I'm confronted by a situation I know I've read about, I amuse myself with the WWJD (what would Jesus do?) format and substitute the name of the fictional character. I do this alarmingly often with Pearl Tull from Anne Tyler's Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant.

  24. One of the best defenders of the novel was Jane Austen,particularly in her posthumous book Northanger Abbey:

    Yes, novels; for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel–writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding — joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust.

    Alas! If the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? I cannot approve of it. Let us leave it to the reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body. Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried. From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers...."
    “I am no novel–reader — I seldom look into novels — Do not imagine that I often read novels — It is really very well for a novel.” Such is the common cant. “And what are youreading, Miss — ?” “Oh! It is only a novel!” replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. “It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda”; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best–chosen language."
    “Oh! No, I only mean what I have read about. It always puts me in mind of the country that Emily and her father travelled through, in The Mysteries of Udolpho. But you never read novels, I dare say?”

    “Why not?”

    “Because they are not clever enough for you — gentlemen read better books.”

    “The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid. I have read all Mrs. Radcliffe’s works, and most of them with great pleasure. The Mysteries of Udolpho, when I had once begun it, I could not lay down again; I remember finishing it in two days — my hair standing on end the whole time.”

  25. Hey everyone, sorry I got so far behind in responding personally to comments - but here you go!

    @Amy - That's a good point, nothing expands your world like reading someone writing from a totally different set of cultural norms than yours!

    @JaneGS - Yeah, fiction isn't always totally, um, fictional. But it's not the reader's job necessarily to figure out what's real, or to assume that fiction is strictly autobiographical. It always have elements of each!

    @Thomas - Yep, definitely a similar argument. I do read non-fiction, but not nearly as frequently as fiction - and non-fiction books always take me forever!

    @Trisha - Booya!

    @softdrink - Indeed, non-fiction history can be rather dull. That's why authors like David McCullough and Stephen Ambrose caught on so quickly - they write INTERESTING history, even if it's not always their own work! ;)

    @thefriande - Good point about "trying out" different things - in other words, as writing fiction certainly takes imagination, so does reading fiction! And you're absolutely right about reading classic - which provide historical context just with their style and story.

  26. @Amy - Whoa, really? Count me as a new follower!

    @reviewsbylola - Yeah, as you'll see in my reply to The Reading Ape below - to each his own, but writing off one or the other as inferior is silly.

    @mummazappa - Haha...Yeah, that may be wrong - but I agree: There is something wrong with someone who doesn't enjoy fiction! ;) (Mostly kidding...)

    @TheReadingApe - Well, at the extreme risk to my self-confidence of wading into an intellectual debate with you, I would say that my point was to in no way argue that fiction or non-fiction is superior - or as you put it, to privilege one over another. That is exactly what those non-fiction nuts are doing when they dismiss fiction so simply as "not real." I think you make a fascinating point about locating humanity in imagination vs workings of humankind. Though, I'd say fiction can also do the latter, as well. So does fiction have more range to teach us about the world? I'd say yeah.

    @Trish - Good to hear - wish more non-fiction readers were like you!

    @Patrick - You hear in every college history class that history is written by the victors (to the victors go the spoils - which includes the history) - so yeah, if we're just talking that type of non-fiction (others, like autobiography and political treatises, are too obviously slanted), then there is most certainly an author message or bias or agenda. When reading fiction, you're not on-guard for such, so yes, as you point out wonderfully, fiction has the freedom to create (and read, empathize with, learn about/from) true characters who don't come with the biases and connotations (both my own or the author's) real historical figures might.

  27. @Erin - Great point about learning about yourself by reading fiction - and writing it, too!

    @Olivia - Ah, thanks. Feel free to use anything and everything here, though you'll probably want to leave the curse word out of DFW's quote. ;)

    @lady T - Thanks for posting that! Love this part: "Let us leave it to the reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans." Cheers!

  28. Hey Greg - I agree totally. One of my favorite things about reading fiction is to look at a situation from a different viewpoint. I love it when my opinions are challenged.

  29. When I started my book group more than ten years ago it had a goal of relating the book to our own lives. That is what I think fiction does - it enables you to reflect on yourself and your own life, illuminate into the corners and perhaps grow a little. As well as to escape, because a little escapism can be a good thing.

    Great post.

  30. Gonna link this up for my September favorites post. Nicely said, and I think this goes also for those who don't read at all.. and look at us "nerds" with such confusion! lol

  31. Greg, I have to absolutely agree with you on the mix of fiction and non-fiction in everyone's life. I have a large non-fiction section in my library of books, but it doesn't mean that I've read them all; most of theme are just reference books and are very interesting. However I do enjoy reading about people's lives; and that's a type of non-fiction that I find fun.
    Fiction in itself it so much fun and enjoyable I zip through books as fast as I can each year. Good fiction is as good as a holiday... bad fiction is as like a migraine.

  32. "There's too much to learn about the real world to read stuff that's made up"

    So what do your fiction-disparaging lovers of the 'real world' make of modern physics I wonder? All those non-fiction books telling them their perception of 'real' is fundamentally flawed?

    It seems to me that while non-fiction simply tells us how others see the world, fiction encourages us to reflect on how we see it. The dubious concept of 'reality' simply does not enter the equation. Whether it is vampires and gormless girls, or Napoleonic pigs, or a little Prince on a very small planet, fiction can send our minds on epic, challenging journeys in ways that non-fiction never can. Perhaps your fiction critics are just frightened of that.

    Back in the 1930s the Universe was described by the noted physicist James Jeans as "more like a great thought than a machine". The 'stuff that's made up' is no less a part of that thought than the stuff our material senses perceive. And as it can help each of us find our own pathway, is arguably more important.