In Defense of Fiction

I asked Amie Gibbons for a guest post after I saw a short thing she’d written indignantly defending fiction: “Don’t tell me fiction is a waste of time. You don’t learn empathy, foster imagination or a sense of wonder, or play pretend in non fiction. Those are the realm of fiction and engage the heart as well as the mind.”. Could you expand on that? I asked her. I don’t know if she’s seen my earlier post on Bibliotherapy, but this is a great defense of fiction: what is it good for? Amie is also newly inducted into this mad world of professional authors as she has just published her first title, so give her a warm welcome in the comments. 

I have a friend who doesn’t read fiction.  No really, he actually said that.  And it’s not like he’s your average dolt who only reads tweets and tabloids and hasn’t cracked a book since high school.  He’s probably the smartest person I know, is getting his masters at Harvard, and he reads all the time, but it’s biographies, textbooks, news, er, whatever other non-fiction stuff there is clogging the shelves.

When he told me he didn’t read fiction, I asked why and he said it was a waste of time, like sitting around watching TV, and he’d prefer spending his time on more worthy pursuits.

Say whaaaaaat?

I didn’t even know how to respond to that.  If it’s a stupid person who doesn’t read at all, I have responses, but an educated person who grew up reading and doesn’t see the point of reading fiction, ummmmmm.

It brought up a question I’d never really thought about, which I probably should’ve considered before now since I write fiction.  Why do you read fiction?

Off the top of my head, I read for entertainment.  It’s fun!  I’ve read non-fiction for school, obviously, and for work as a lawyer, written by people with varying degrees of writing talent, but nobody reads case law for fun (no matter how entertaining Scalia in full sarcastic form is).

Fun and entertainment are all well and good, and those are the primary purposes of reading (and writing) according to me.  But that’s what you could get out of TV and movies.

What makes reading fiction different, special, important, is its ability to stimulate imagination and foster empathy while you’re entertained.

Reading fiction is not like watching TV because it engages the brain far more.  You aren’t just watching a story play out, you’re painting the story in your head as it does.  You’re exercising your brain just as much reading fiction as non-fiction, because you’re using the same reading skills.  So reading fiction, which you would probably prefer to non-fiction since it’s actually fun, builds the skills and brain power you use in the real world, like for reading that non-fiction stuff when it’s required.

It’s the difference between running on a track and running after an actor playing a zombie with a paintball gun.  One sounds a hell of a lot more fun, huh?  And either way, you’re getting your exercise.

But on top of that, even the well-written, entertaining non-fiction doesn’t engage the heart at the same level well-written fiction does.  You learn facts from non-fiction, but you learn empathy, imagination and explore all realms of possibility in fiction, because it engages the heart as well as the mind.

That’s because at its heart, non-fiction is meant to educate.  Its raison d’etre is to convey information.  Fiction, at its heart, is meant to engage.

Engage the part of the mind that deals in facts, yes, but more importantly, it is meant to engage the imagination and the emotions.  You explore new worlds, situations and feelings through fiction.  Speculative fiction takes it a step further because it makes you experience things that don’t exist in our reality.  Your brain learns to take situations and synthesis creative solutions because it’s been doing it for years through reading and trying to put together the pieces to figure out what happens next.

Through reading, you learn to see the world through many different kinds of people’s eyes.  You don’t just read about someone facing down a bad guy and being terrified, you are the person facing him down and feeling that way.  So when you see someone scared in real life, you can understand it even if you haven’t been in that situation yourself.  Because you’ve felt it.

Men who have read my short stories and books have come back saying they had more insight into the female mind, or at least that type of female, and understood some of the crazy things girls had done more, because they were put behind the eyes of a female either doing those things and talking herself out of doing them.

I have learned how men tick through male authors.  I’ve walked the streets of Victorian London and fought vampires in Atlanta.  I’ve had my heart broken by a lover’s betrayal and learned how to grow and recover from it too.

And fiction doesn’t just show you life through others’ eyes, it shows you that you aren’t alone in your feelings, and shows you the possible paths to take to recovery, sometimes when you need it the most.

So don’t tell me fiction is a waste of time. You don’t learn empathy, foster imagination or a sense of wonder, or play pretend in non-fiction. Those are the realm of fiction and engage the heart as well as the mind.

evie jonesYou can find Amie’s debut title here, Evie Jones and the Crazy Exes, and I will tell you that I was a beta reader for her. This is a fun tale, with a deeply sweet heart at the center of it. The plot isn’t about saving the world, but there are few things, I think, more important than risking one’s life in defense of the young and helpless. 

 

44 Comments

Filed under WRITING: LIFE

44 responses to “In Defense of Fiction

  1. Reading fiction is not like watching TV because it engages the brain far more.

    Yes but no. They’re different yes, but it’s only in ‘modality’ (psychology learning term), and people learn/enjoy in different ways.

  2. Laura M

    Welcome, Aime! Glad to see another lawyer around here.

  3. Pingback: Defending fiction | Cedar Writes

  4. Well said.

    There is some non-fiction that I read for enjoyment, but those choices are mostly related to my field of study from when I was in school or related to my profession. I prefer reading fiction because I usually just want to be entertained.

  5. amiegibbons15

    Reblogged this on amiecus curiae and commented:
    My post over at the Mad Genius Club!

  6. amiegibbons15

    Oh yeah, I did read that post on Bibliotherapy, just had to go back to refresh my memory 🙂

  7. Uncle Lar

    There is a technique taught to and used by working teams in both the corporate and government worlds called brainstorming. It’s a method for forcing the team to generate new ideas for solving whatever problem they’ve been assigned to deal with. The way it works, anyone can throw an idea out and anyone else can run with it. The only rule is no criticism at that point. That comes later in the process. Goal is to get as many ideas on the table as possible in the shortest time, and to share them so they can get added to, often made better through the collaboration of the rest of the team.
    Fiction is a lot like that. The team is every writer out there, so you certainly get a wealth of new ideas. And since writers do typically read other writers works you get a lot of intentional and unconscious collaboration. I’ve always found it fascinating how two completely separate individual writers will come up with very similar concepts in their works at the same time.

    • Alpheus

      The one problem I have with “no criticism” in brainstorming, however, is that sometimes ideas can come when you criticize the current idea; of course, sometimes the opposite happens, and you discover that the “stupid” idea turns out to be pretty good after all…

  8. Anachronda

    I recall, when I was in 8th or 9th grade, being preached at from the pulpit about the evils of fiction and how I should spend my time doing more meaningful stuff than reading it; I don’t recall whether this was the same sermon in which I was warned about the evils of Dungeons and Dragons or whether that was a different sermon.

    Wanting to be a good person, I tried really hard for while, but in the end I just couldn’t lay off the sci-fi crack pipe.

    Because, apparently, I am not the sort of person who is capable of being good.

  9. morrigan508

    I know the feeling. I had an individual that I was working closely with, that because of the situation rank had almost no meaning. She was an SES something… third or fourth in charge of a Nuclear shipyard with 13K people, 6 drydocks and generally has at least 1 nuclear Aircraft Carrier, 2 Ohio Class Ballistic Missile Subs, and at least 1 Fast Attack sub… I don’t know where her MBA came from, it may have been Notre Dame. When presented with an article (3 pages) that supported our position, She told me “I DON’T Read. If you can’t sum it up in a paragraph, I can’t be bothered”. This was not a dumb person… I was left speechless, looking at her with my mouth opening and closing like a netted bass. I just didn’t know what to say.

    • Reality Observer

      With that much on her plate, she is absolutely correct.

      Sorry, but you only get the big picture in positions like that, and the broad strokes are frequently more than you can keep up with. It is a very rare circumstance where you need to delve into even a single page of the “fiddly bits.”

      It is hard to understand when those “fiddly bits” are the important things at your level, and what you need to focus on – but very, very real.

  10. Having just finished another Pratchett, I obviously like to read fiction. Yet when it comes to the claim that what makes fiction different from non-fiction is the ability to simulate imagination and foster empathy while entertained, I strongly disagree.

    Want to visit a mathematician working out odd quirks in number theory, maybe even creating a neural network with beads and match boxes? Read essays by Martin Gardner. Want to brave the cold dark of the long Antarctic night? Read Byrd’s Alone. Want to ride in a life raft alongside a World War I flying ace? Read Eddie Rickenbacker’s autobiography. Want to watch lots drawn to determine who will kill their fellow soldiers, for they have sworn never to surrender and the Romans are close to breeching your citadel? Read Josephus. Want to hear a chemist recite a chemical name to the tune of The Irish Washerwoman, and hear a receptionist say “You know it in the original Gaelic?” Read Asimov. I’ve read (and written) my share of dry non-fiction, but there’s also quite a bit of good stuff out there.

    There are no strong boundaries here. I read fiction for entertainment and non-fiction for information, but often I’ve learned something from fiction, and been entertained by non-fiction. When that happens, I count it as getting more than my money’s worth.

  11. I can only imagine what the friend who doesn’t read fiction is like – as a human, mate, father – and what I imagine is someone very one-track, limited to the people he has known personally for a length of time, of flat affect.

    Or someone of such self-confidence that he is a shining light to the world of what a fully-developed star person should be.

    In between, a person without much imagination – or empathy.

    Movies rarely do a good job of making you know another person or character’s life. Just their actions. A good actor does a lot, but a good book infinitely more.

  12. Bob

    I met a couple people like that.After some talk I concluded that their minds just didn’t work that way, so I can’t really judge them.

    The telling thing for me is whether they also refrain from watching television shows or movies, which tells me whether theyre really not fiction receptive or if they’re just reading averse

    • TRX

      I have a couple of friends who don’t read fiction. They’ll pick a technical manual down to bits, but all their fiction comes from the TV. They both claim they “don’t watch TV”, but this apparently means “they don’t schedule a specific time to watch a specific show” since the Toob is always running nearby and they’re always up on the latest TV trivia.

      Neither of them do much on the internet either. They’ll search for answers to specific questions when needed, but they don’t use it in any interactive fashion.

  13. clint02554

    By some strange synchronicity beyond my comprehension, David Farland’s Million Dollar Outline hit the top of my TBR pile this morning (after I finished Wee Free Men and a cozy mystery involving crossword puzzles).

    The whole first section (which is all I’ve read so far) addresses exactly this question — what is a well-told story good for? Why do we seek it out?

    My paraphrase of his answer: It’s emotional exercise, taking us up a mountain of increasing stress (safely experienced second-hand) until we reach a satisfying, relieving conclusion. This both takes us out of our real lives for a time, and on our return leaves us better able to handle the stresses in our own lives.

  14. When I was around 18 or 19 I stopped reading fiction myself, and I loved fiction. I was one of those readers that read roughly 200-300 novels a year and had done so since I was in grade two. But I thought I was done reading for ‘pleasure’.

    Pleasure in quotes because it was no longer a pleasure; it was insults and lectures wrapped up in pretty words. I started asking if everyone involved in the publication of books somehow hated me, and I did personalize it in that way. If someone who looked like me, (tall, blonde, strong, blue-eyed) was in a book inevitably that person would be a jackass of the highest order, also stupid, also weak, also cowardly, also easily defeated. And stupid, did I mention stupid?

    Or if a character was a conservative? They would believe nothing like what I believe but would ascribe to a liberal’s nastiest misinterpretation of conservative thought. If a woman and a man had a disagreement the woman was going to be proven right (usually in the most obvious and reality warping of ways) and the man was going to acknowledge that she was right, apologize to her for disagreeing with her, and then change his entire personality to suit her (this is an obvious exaggeration but it has more than a kernel of truth). This sequence is unspeakably rare in real life but in fiction? Almost a cliché.

    I was tired of it and felt it was better to just drift away from reading fiction as if it was Cod-Liver oil, something that might be good for you but who cares? Gross.

    Instead I found some Baen books that weren’t outright insulting, and because I was in the bookstore anyway I found other writers that weren’t outright insulting (though it always shocks me how discerning I have to be to not be rolling my eyes halfway through a new writer).

    But I had an advantage of reading very quickly, and having become sensitive and aware of that nonsense so I was able to be discerning but if you were an average reader? One who read between ten and twenty books a year? I think in the back of your mind you’d feel like something was wrong and yet not know exactly what it was and just drift away.

    That also comes from the books and the ways books were taught in school. If a teacher (almost always a woman) actually deigned to pick a book the boys in her class might actually like she would often pick the most dumbed down book she could find not realizing that the action packed books that boys actually like have a lot more depth than she can understand. Essentially the book choice is a kind of condescension which bleeds into the teaching of the book and which the boys then pick up on. Then the boys associate the book with the negative connotation that the teacher thinks you’re an idiot compared to the girls.

    Now, I’ve been told by teachers who are currently in the system that while that was a problem (nice to have it acknowledged, I’ve met many women who went through the same system at the same time as I did who categorically deny that the problem existed), they have changed certain things around and that it is not as big a problem as it was. Which may be true, but if it is I have to ask one question: Why are boys still not reading? I’d say content is still an issue but I have hopes that Indie might be able to present enough options that in time we can remove that as an impediment.

    To tackle the original point; my dad is a very bright man but was never a reader of fiction and I don’t think the fiction of his time was as overtly insulting as the fiction of mine, but it never sang to him. Does he have an imagination that doesn’t allow him to ‘see’ the stories unfold in front of him? I don’t think he lacks that, more that he has other interests and that’s totally fine. Though if he looked down his nose at people who read fiction it would be totally fair to mock him for it. And it would also be totally fair for non-fiction readers to mock the fiction readers who look down their noses at them for not reading fiction.

    Last thing; at its highest level Math is Art and Imagination so if someone reads Math textbooks for fun (first, odd) they may simply be enjoying it at that level. Even if they can’t replicate the art they can still see and enjoy the art in the math. It’s not for me (though I’ve read a bunch of physics books for fun) but I love that there’s something for them.

  15. When I was around 18 or 19 I stopped reading fiction myself, and I loved fiction. I was one of those readers that read roughly 200-300 novels a year and had done so since I was in grade two. But I thought I was done reading for ‘pleasure’.

    Pleasure in quotes because it was no longer a pleasure; it was insults and lectures wrapped up in pretty words. I started asking if everyone involved in the publication of books somehow hated me, and I did personalize it in that way. If someone who looked like me, (tall, blonde, strong, blue-eyed) was in a book inevitably that person would be a jackass of the highest order, also stupid, also weak, also cowardly, also easily defeated. And stupid, did I mention stupid?

    Or if a character was a conservative? They would believe nothing like what I believe but would ascribe to a liberal’s nastiest misinterpretation of conservative thought. If a woman and a man had a disagreement the woman was going to be proven right (usually in the most obvious and reality warping of ways) and the man was going to acknowledge that she was right, apologize to her for disagreeing with her, and then change his entire personality to suit her (this is an obvious exaggeration but it has more than a kernel of truth). This sequence is unspeakably rare in real life but in fiction? Almost a cliché.

    I was tired of it and felt it was better to just drift away from reading fiction as if it was Cod-Liver oil, something that might be good for you but who cares? Gross.

    Instead I found some Baen books that weren’t outright insulting, and because I was in the bookstore anyway I found other writers that weren’t outright insulting (though it always shocks me how discerning I have to be to not be rolling my eyes halfway through a new writer).

    But I had an advantage of reading very quickly, and having become sensitive and aware of that nonsense so I was able to be discerning but if you were an average reader? One who read between ten and twenty books a year? I think in the back of your mind you’d feel like something was wrong and yet not know exactly what it was and just drift away.

    That also comes from the books and the ways books were taught in school. If a teacher (almost always a woman) actually deigned to pick a book the boys in her class might actually like she would often pick the most dumbed down book she could find not realizing that the action packed books that boys like actually have a lot more depth than she can understand. Essentially the book choice is a kind of condescension which bleeds into the teaching of the book and which the boys then pick up on. Then the boys associate the book with the negative connotation that the teacher thinks you’re an idiot compared to the girls.

    Now, I’ve been told by teachers who are currently in the system that while that was a problem (nice to have it acknowledged, I’ve met many women who went through the same system at the same time as I did who categorically deny that the problem existed), they have changed certain things around and that it is not as big a problem as it was. Which may be true, but if it is I have to ask one question: Why are boys still not reading?

    To tackle the original point; my dad is a very bright man but was never a reader of fiction and I don’t think the fiction of his time was as overtly insulting as the fiction of mine, but it never sang to him. Does he have an imagination that doesn’t allow him to ‘see’ the stories unfold in front of him? I don’t think he lacks that, more that he has other interests and that’s totally fine. Though if he looked down his nose at people who read fiction it would be totally fair to mock him for it. And it would also be totally fair for non-fiction readers to mock the fiction readers who look down their noses at them for not reading fiction.

    Last thing; at its highest level Math is Art and Imagination so if someone reads Math textbooks for fun (first, odd) they may simply be enjoying it at that level. Even if they can’t replicate the art they can still see and enjoy the art in the math. It’s not for me (though I’ve read a bunch of physics books for fun) but I love that there’s something for them.

    • amiegibbons15

      See, I blame school systems for installing a hatred of reading in children that they carry into adulthood. I don’t even mean a hatred of fiction, but of reading in general. They turn it into an unpleasant chore by picking crap that are “classics” or “of literary significance,” which definitely leans one way, that are either boring or leave a bad taste in the reader’s mouth. Put books like Animorphs in elementary school classes and Ender’s Game and the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy in high school and see how many kids learn to love reading.

      Then again, those literary people would never make any sales because the only time people read their crap is when they’re forced to in schools 🙂

  16. When the local SF supply started drying up, there was Tom Clancy for a while, and by then my reading started to drop off. I thought it was time issues, until I got an e-reader and my reading greatly increased. Print size had a huge impact, and I didn’t realize it.

    Yet, other than the Baen Free Library, most of my reading was the old stuff. I think the first public domain book I downloaded was The Canterville Ghost which is a great spoof, then I found authors like G.K Chesterton. But the modern stuff? Other than Baen, there are very few. Such is the effect of the “right sort” of SF in publishing.

    Unfortunately, despite from having teachers cool with books like Childhood’s End, and Alas, Babylon, most “official” reading can be summed up as “In a lit class, dark and dreary.” Nobody wanted to read it much. I’m convinced this is what turns people off on reading for entertainment, so much so that we introduced the library to the kids at an early age and I made a promise: I’ll buy you whatever book you want. After the official reading was done, it was on to the good stuff. Unfortunately, they are a rarity among their friends, who see reading as something that must be done.

    FWIW, the only time I encountered condescending treacle was from sources outside the school system. It didn’t fly. At all.

  17. TRX

    In several places I went to elementary school, teachers assigned reading as punishment. That, or copying pages out of the dictionary.

    Pretty good way to create an aversion to reading, there…

    • Reality Observer

      Had that happen to me once. The teacher, though, was rather foolish; she failed to specify what dictionary, and it was a homework assignment.

      So… I went home, pulled out my Mom’s Taber’s (one of the standard medical dictionaries), and did the three pages. I don’t recall exactly which ones, at this remove, but I do remember they had words with quite a bit to do with various female afflictions.

      Never happened again, at least to me.

  18. Arwen

    I read to escape. Occasionally, I read to escape from me and be someone else for a while.

  19. Terrific explanation of the benefits of fiction. Just pulled down your second story… Really enjoyed the first.
    Looking forward to lots more!

  20. mrsizer

    I prefer reading to TV/movies because audio/video must unfold in real-time. I read MUCH faster than that. I hate audio books, podcasts, vlogs, etc… because they are such a huge waste of time. Let me read it.

    That said, I do watch quite a bit of TV now that I can watch an entire series without week long breaks between episodes (and this is a great time of year on Netflix).

    • I can’t do audio books because it’s like being drowned in molasses – I can read so much faster, and skim over the boring bits (I’d picked a bad book last time I tried audio).

      • Alpheus

        My family had a long trip a couple of weeks ago (about 5 hours one way); we listened to “The Rolling Stones” by Robert Heinlein for good chunks of that trip. It was great, and the kids (oldest is 10) really liked it!

        I thought it was a good introduction to Heinlein. The two conditions that I think made it work, though, was being held captive in a vehicle for a long time, and having chosen a good book with a good narrator. Even so, there were times we couldn’t listen to the book, because the kids were a little too impatient for such things…

        • Laura M

          Our children finally got my husband and me to read the Harry Dresden books. We were in the car for 11 hours today coming home from up north, and the ninth Dresden book took us a long, long way.

          I’m liking audiobooks generally for my commute to and from work.

  21. Alpheus

    This doesn’t just apply to fiction, but certain non-fiction as well. I was once chided for learning a computer language called Haskell while under-employed, because I didn’t expect to be able to use Haskell in the workplace.

    There are a couple of problems with such chiding, however: first, while weird, there are the rare employers that use Haskell, and there are also more that look favorably on branching out and learning new things, to expand your horizons. Second, while I don’t necessarily expect to use Haskell (or some of the other languages I’ve learned, or wish to learn) to make money, it’s always worthwhile to learn something that stretches your mind, and helps you see problems in a new light. I appreciate Haskell for its mathematical purity, and the interesting syntax; it’s almost executable physics! I’m not likely to use Haskell seriously, though, because it’s a little too rigid for my taste.

    I don’t regret the time I’ve spent on Haskell, though, for a third reason as well: sometimes you need to just do something because it’s there, and it might even be fun. Even if Haskell didn’t expand my horizons as much as I think it did, I certainly enjoyed what I tried to do with it!

    (And fourthly, exploring Haskell also introduced me to Common Lisp, which has even more potential for expanding my horizons…and a slightly higher chance of using it in employment…)