Why Read Fiction?

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Ask Ginni, our resident Literary Lady, anything you want to know about reading and relationships! She’ll comb the books and wrack her brains to help you out with your page-turning problems, your wordy woes, and your novel nuisances. Fire away, Bookworms!

Dear Literary Lady,

I read lot of nonfiction, but when friends recommend novels I always balk at reading them. I don’t understand the point of fiction. Why spend the time and energy to read something that’s made up?

–FrictionWithFiction, Baltimore, MD

Dear FrictionWithFiction,

The recently departed Nadine Gordimer, a Nobel Prize winner in literature and apartheid activist, once said “the facts are always less than what happened.”

Gordimer wrote fiction, but it certainly wasn’t fake. It was fiction fraught with the moral and racial issues of apartheid, issues that were experientially true for multitudes of South Africans. As Gordimer describes it, “nothing factual that I write or say will be as truthful as my fiction.”

Vietnam veteran and novelist Tim O’Brien echoes a similar sentiment: “That’s what fiction is for. It’s for getting at the truth when the truth isn’t sufficient for the truth.” If you asked what it was like to fight in the Vietnam War, the facts would’ve been insufficient as a response. You’d get back some data—a division number, a platoon assignment, where they marched, under what orders, who got injured, who died—and nothing more. All that information is true, but it’s just not true enough.

Facts are limited, both in scope and in kind. In terms of scope, the truth is limited to one incident, one time, one place, and to specific people. In this way, facts can be exclusive and episodic. Facts say, this particular event did not happen to you. You may have had similar events occur, but that belongs somewhere over there.

Moreover, certain kinds of facts simply do not exist. What are the facts on fear? Loneliness? Grief? Heartbreak? Degradation? What are the facts on losing your loved ones? Hating your superiors? The facts on what it’s like to be a soldier, a mother, or a teenage girl?

Fiction has none of these limitations. Fiction can speak universally, saying “this more or less happened or is happening to a lot of people.” It is inclusive, rather than exclusive. It says, this story happened to nobody and yet it happened to everybody.

Fiction can show you all kinds of truths that the facts can’t. It can make you empathize with experiences that the facts can’t. Dear Reader, this is what it’s like to go to war. This is what it’s like to fall in love. This is what it’s like to be married for twenty years.

That is not to say that there isn’t great nonfiction out there.  There absolutely is, and these books do a wonderful job of bringing historical facts to life and invoking emotional responses. They’ll instill in you a wonderful empathy for a historical figure and those around him. But your empathy will always be tied to specific events and specific people in history. To understand a time, place, and people more universally, to comprehend what was true for everyone yet happened to no one, try reading some fiction. It’ll be worth your while.

Love and paperbacks,

Literary Lady

Have a question for the Literary Lady? Put it in the comments!

  • Maxwell Berins

    Dear Literary Lady,

    I am an avid reader, but I share FrictionWithFiction’s wariness of fiction to a degree. I read to learn, not to escape. When I was a kid we had World Book Encyclopedias that I devoured! But for some reason, I can seldom read fiction. Maybe I take after my mother, maybe I just don’t know where to start! I know there’s a lot of great historical fiction, for example, where the author does extensive research on the subject and fills his/her book with facts the reader can glean from. Same with crime novels, etc. If you were to ask me what I most like to read, I wouldn’t be able to answer you because my interests are so broad! I read everything from travel memoirs, history, biographies, science, true accounts of tragic hardships (i.e., “Miracle in the Andes” by Nando Parrado and “In the Heart of the Sea” by Nathaniel Filbrick) — I even have books on the history of profanity!

    I AM a book nerd, but when it comes to fiction I don’t know where to start! I see fiction’s potential, but I don’t know what to look for. Can you help me?

  • Great points. Facts can only give the who, what, where, when, and sometimes how and why. They can’t share how events affected people, changed them, and made them feel. Nonfiction, unless written in story style, can’t simulate for us a situation that will help us experience empathy or how we would react in such a situation.

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