The Case for Fiction

I'll be up front with you: I'm a fiction apologist. I can appreciate a good non-fiction piece, but I find that the payoff from fiction is greater...and not for the reasons you might assume. It's easy to slip into a simplistic approach to picking your next book, and my goal is to help you rethink what fiction can offer you.

What motivates you to read? In general, I've noticed two types of readers:

1) Those who equate reading with productivity ("Type 1"). We're information consumers. We want to understand the world around us, which is a laudable endeavor. This type of reader is usually drawn to non-fiction. The genre provides a clear-cut way to expand your knowledge base in a specific subject. For the most part, you know what you're going to get, and it's a direct path to get there.
2) Those who read purely for pleasure ("Type 2"). This kind of reader typically prefers fiction. I have heard many readers express an escapist mentality; fiction offers an easily accessible alternate reality far from the mundanity of daily life. The genre possesses an enormous potential to entertain because of its endless imaginative opportunities.

Sure, there is some crossover between genres, and it's certainly rare that someone would read exclusively within one genre their whole life. However, at least among my peers, readers seem pretty struck in their genre trenches. In my opinion, part of the reluctance stems from an either/or mindset: either productivity or pleasure. Either use your time constructively or indulge yourself. We see evidence of this attitude often. In school, we read assigned material, and then people ask us what we're reading "for fun". But why limit ourselves to one or the other when we could have both? When did we start thinking that non-fiction = learning and fiction = fun?

To all of my Type 1 readers who seek productivity --when did we start thinking that non-fiction is automatically a better teacher? My intention is not to discourage you from reading non-fiction. Non-fiction can be brilliant, informative, and creative. But just because fictional pieces aren't overtly information-laden doesn't mean they can't offer both practical and abstract knowledge. Want to understand how love and possession are intertwined? Read Nabokov. Want to appreciate how honesty contributes to justice? Read Steinbeck. Want to recognize how consumerism has stripped us of some of our humanity? Read Vonnegut. Want to refine your perception of Russian history and realize the role of the church in the country's development? Read Dostoevsky. The way this kind of knowledge contributes to the advancement of you as a person might be more obscure, but it is no less important. Quality fiction shows us truths about the human condition. It doesn't claim to directly describe reality, but compared to non-fiction, fiction more aptly equips us with tools like empathy, social skills, mental acuity, etc. to help us navigate that reality.

My suggestion? Don't stop reading non-fiction, but add more fiction to your repertoire. Fiction done well demands effort on the reader's part; it requires an in-depth interaction with the text that is deeply rewarding. If your experience with fiction consists of passive reading and no critical thinking, then the genre won't be personally edifying. This is why fiction can have such serious staying power; it challenges you to react to the text rather than just consume. Such interplay might gratify you and resonate with you, but it's also time consuming and not as feasible if you don't have the ability to read consistently. In that case, read more fictional short stories. I personally recommend checking out George Saunders' work, "best of" collections (like The Best American Short Stories yearly anthology, which dates back to 1986), or the fictional pieces in The New Yorker. Your time investment will be minimal, but you're bound to learn something valuable about the world and your place in it.

To all of my Type 2 readers who seek pleasure--when did we start thinking that fiction is only worthwhile because it gives us an out of body experience? I hope to debunk the fiction escapist theory. Fiction allows us to see the world through millions of different sets of eyes, and having so many perspectives at your disposal can be wildly amusing. But whether we're aware of it or not, fiction grounds us in the world and shows us how to live our lives to a richer degree. The story might whisk us away to another place and time, but the takeaway will affect us in the here and now. Vonnegut isn't my favorite author because he wrote stories with fantastical plots that carry my mind to a faraway land outside of my current situation. He's my favorite author because his writing compels me to think creatively about how his characters' dilemmas are similar to my own. He entertains me, but he also shows me how to be a better person. Just because a character isn't real in the literal sense doesn't mean we can't learn from them. Fiction isn't a door into another world; it's a revolving door into our own.

My suggestion? Let's stop talking about fiction as if it's pleasurable just because it's distracting. Doing so completely dismisses the power of books to transform our physical and mental relationship to the world. We don't read in a bubble, close the book, and walk away unfazed. We hold what we read in our hearts and in our minds, and what happens to the characters also happens to us.

Of course, I don't believe we should see literature in a wholly utilitarian light. If we read only because it serves us well, we won't develop a love for it. And that's exactly why I write to you today. Fiction has awakened my consciousness to social issues, taught me about historic milestones, forced me to confront existential questions, and entertained me all the while. I've learned more from fiction than I've learned from any other outlet, and that's possible for every type of reader with any kind of interest. Truly, you can have your fiction cake and eat it too--productivity and pleasure are not mutually exclusive when it comes to quality literature.