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08 December 2012

To Fiction or Not to Fiction

"If the eyes are the windows to the soul then fiction helps us interpret what we see there"

 I have several friends who work.  They take the time to read in their free time, though not exclusively. Some of these friends love to read fiction. What I don't understand and my friends either, is why they have had to defend their choice of books. In other words, they have been told that fiction is a waste of time, it is escapist and does not contribute to mind, society or family. That's an interesting point of view and I am not making it up.  In one case it was a colleague/friend and in another it was a close relative. My friends read for professional purposes; so they do not neglect one for the other, nevertheless, they have been told  that reading fiction is wasteful and jejune. Moreover there is the implied slight to house wives that they have the time to read fiction, but not working women.  As if housewives sat all day doing their nails, but that essay is for another blog.  So how to reply to the Non-Fiction Union?

I read fiction and non fiction. I read almost every genre except for romance because the writing is often too predictable. To me the magic of fiction is that fiction gives the opportunity to take all these non fiction theories, ideas or studies to their logical and sometimes crazy conclusions. That goes for all non fiction topics; law, every branch of science, politics, history, archaeology, etc...

Have you read 'Brave New World', 'Fahrenheit 451', '1984', 'Never Let me Go'? All fiction about the future. Terrifying and some of the stuff in those books has already become true. But fiction does not have to be depressing either. Fiction teaches us about ourselves by mirroring our inner selves. Non-fiction can describe action, reaction and consequences. Non-fiction can try to interpret from observation, situations like a war or a legal process but non-fiction cannot venture inside the heart. Fiction puts soul back into science.

A book like 'The Secret Garden' about children and for children is lovely in that it shows children in vulnerable positions.  To overcome this vulnerability it validates children's strength, independence... power. The book talks to children about fears that they experience even if these fears are not part of their individual realities. The fear of abandonment, death, rejection, illness and otherness are addressed. A child may live in a comfortable home with loving parents and still have these fears. People who champion non fiction forget that most of our lives are in fact lived inside our own heads. Perhaps I could go the way of philosophy and argue that the lives we think we lead are fiction.  Good fictional literature addresses  these fears in a safe, cathartic environment, or not, depends on the point of the book... I mean 'The Silence of the Lambs' is fantastic but not the kind of fear I had ever entertained.

Fiction also entertains. Entertainment is important for our mental and physical health.  In the end of ends, one person who does not enjoy reading fiction does not negate the value of fiction for others. I do not enjoy golf. I have tried it and came away with many intense headaches. Gazing into the blinding distance in the sun for several hours is not my kind of activity, but others are welcome to enjoy it. Many husbands who do not read, do play golf for many hours each weekend, instead of spending time with their loving wives...

If the eyes are the windows to the soul then fiction helps us interpret what we see there. Charles Dickens changed the attitudes of an entire society about poverty and children in particular. He did not like what he saw in the eyes of the workhouse children.  His works of fiction reshaped attitudes and planted the seeds of social conscience that grew along side the industrial revolution and expanded in the 20th and 21st centuries. Religion did not accomplish this and scientific books recording the plight of the poor, of which there were many in the same years, did not accomplish this either. Imagination and creativity spoke to the hearts and minds of people.

Before there were enough literate people to give books the direct power they now have there were oral stories. Many of these were indeed fiction. Someone made them up to explain, defend or entertain and then passed them on to a new generation to retell. The human mind developed the ability to exists in different worlds (some call it imaginary) even if these different worlds were in the next valley over. Some of these modern worlds include the office, the supermarket, the nursery and the in law's home. Other worlds include Middle Earth and Pemberly, or heaven save me, the world of 'Never Let Me Go', so close to our own I can almost touch it and it is not a pleasant experience. To exist in different worlds is to expand the mind. Non fiction does this as well, but not in the same direction and not to the same depth. Non fiction draws a picture, fiction gives it color, depth and emotion.  


  1. I know what you mean, it seems to be the people who 'don't read' or 'don't have time' that read non fiction and look down their nose at fiction. Funnily enough if the laptop had not eaten my blog last week it would have been about biographies and my puzzlement at their popularity, luckily I have a back up called a brain and it might appear this week!

  2. Biographies have some value. One of the best that I have read is the biography of Virginia Woolf by her nephew, Quentin Bell. I also enjoyed a biography of Tolkien. If you don't like biographies, though, you might like a series called 'Conversations' and these are interviews(but not quite) with famous writers such as Isaac Asimov; one of my favorite writers and, of course, intelligent and interesting. This book let me make up my own mind about him as opposed to reading a biography. He spoke eloquently about the value of fiction...