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.
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.
You 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.