Strangers to Fiction

At a recent party a reasonably intelligent and educated woman remarked to the group that she does not read novels.  Certainly, she is not the first person I’ve met who can make this claim. My best friend does not read the novels I write. I do not take this personally, because she also makes no bones about never reading novels at all; yet she is a voracious reader of self-help, psychology, and spirituality books.  As a novelist and a lifelong avid reader of fiction, I find it unfathomable that these readers are strangers to fiction. The statement “I don’t read novels,'” always astounds me into silence, unable to argue for the benefits of reading stories about people and events that never actually existed in “real life.”

If I were to open my mouth in defense of the novel, what could I say? I believe there is as much to be gained from reading novels as there is from reading biographies, history , science, and other works of non-fiction.  First, immersion in fiction develops the virtues of empathy and compassion through the creation of fully rounded, multi-dimensional human beings unlike the reader but with whom he identifies. Oversimplifications of complex political, social, and international events are not so easy to make anymore; demonization of those different from us is not a knee-jerk reaction. Second, fiction also enriches our understanding of history, psychology, science, or any other field of knowledge. Great novels are fleshed out with details in all these fields, adding verisimilitude to the plot. Therefore, through reading novels we are also reading every other kind of non-fiction work–self-help, psychology, history, or spirituality book.  We see how other human beings have struggled and dealt with conflict. We see how personality flaws have destroyed them or the sources from which they have drawn strength to overcome adversity. Third, all of this is accomplished through an artful integration of information, characterization, and plot.  Clearly, plot reigns over the other elements of fiction, for the pleasure from reading novels derives in large measure from the story–the ancient art of storytelling, of myth-making, in which a people enshrines its origins, values, and beliefs. To teach, don’t preach; tell a story.

So, how can I really say more about the purpose of literature than Horace, the 1st century BC Roman poet, who said that the purpose of art is “to delight and to instruct”?  In those oft-quoted words, Horace says it all.

I read novels and I write novels for enjoyment and to learn something in the process.

The value of literature went unquestioned in a time when a liberal arts education guaranteed entry into a white-collar position.  Literature included both works of great fiction and works of great discourse, that is, so-called non-fiction. Courses that required heavy reading in philosophy, history, political science, economics, and literature were believed, and rightly so, to equip the individual to develop logical thinking and reasoned argument. To reflect upon what is read, to analyze a writer’s thesis, and to summarize the content of the argument did produce other great thinkers in its train.  Needless to say, higher education in the United States today heavily emphasizes preparation for specific occupational goals.  Earning a degree reading novels may appear frivolous in the current environment. The hell with the prevailing mood! I have enjoyed reading novels all my life and I hope to die in my bed reading a racy novel; my heart starts palpitating too rapidly; the bubble bursts in my brain and I expire.

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3 responses to this post.

  1. I can’t imagine a life without novels. There are so many aspects of life that novels introduced me to and made me curious about, that I never had any likelihood of experiencing myself. They gave me a way of understanding people very unlike myself, even if it was at second hand. We can know only a very few people deeply, in real life, but novels can give us useful insights into those and even into the ones we meet more casually.

    Reply

    • Thanks for pointing out one of the best reasons to read novels. Nothing can compare to novels for widening the circle of the people we possibly can meet in real life and broadening what we can experience in one lifetime.

      Reply

  2. So get what you are saying. I am surrounded by people who say, oh I read a lot of books, and when you ask, it’s mostly stuff like “Who Moved my Cheese?” Unfathomable to me!

    Reply

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