Novel reading

Today I have a couple of questions: first of all, have you ever heard somebody say that they only read nonfiction, that they don’t read novels because they aren’t true?  That they want to learn about the world and therefore read only nonfiction?

Then, what would you say in response?

I remember hearing somebody say this a while back, and she said it with a dismissive sniff, as though she couldn’t be bothered with fiction and doesn’t understand why anybody else could be.  But the person wasn’t talking directly to me and so I didn’t give any response.  But I’ve thought about her claim now and then.

I suppose if somebody isn’t in the habit of reading novels, then any argument anybody gives them isn’t going to change their mind — it seems like a habit you have or you don’t.  But I have a hard time imagining being a regular reader (which I think this person was) and not reading novels.  I understand reading mostly nonfiction and only a few novels now and then, but to never read a novel?  And then to think that you don’t learn anything from novels?  It kind of boggles my mind.

But then again, if your goal is to learn about the world, perhaps nonfiction is the way to go?  Does anybody out there read novels in order to learn about the world, instead of reading them to enjoy it and learning something along the way?

21 Comments

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21 responses to “Novel reading

  1. There are lots of possibilities here. Perhaps the person has only been exposed to shallow novels that are all about plot and have no depth. If that’s so I wouldn’t blame them for not wanting to read novels. Perhaps they don’t have the emotional energy or inclination to care about people that don’t exist. If that’s so, reading novels would not be much fun. Perhaps they don’t know how to extract the deeper meanings in good novels. Perhaps they are not language-oriented and so fine writing is lost on them. Perhaps they are not interested in human nature, or perhaps they are so familiar with it that they don’t need novels to tell them what they already know.

    And let’s not forget that non-fiction can be crafted into a story as well, which of course involves real people and real events. This can be very compelling.

  2. SFP

    I saw a thread on this same topic at theperfectworld.us earlier this week. It seemed that most of the people who read nonfiction never got beyond the chicklit display tables at the bookstores and felt justified in dismissing all fiction.

    My mother always maintained that she didn’t want to waste her time reading something that was made up. She watched 3-and-a-half hours of soap operas every afternoon, though, and one of her favorite papers was the National Enquirer. It’s awfully easy to get a story fix without ever cracking the pages of a novel.

  3. I have read many novels that contain more truth than some of the biographies or political books that I’ve read. Novels teach us about life and then it’s up to us to apply what we learn.

  4. I think such reasoning stems from a narrow-minded, limited perception of knowledge and the intellect. (Hope that’s not too harsh but really.) If it’s a matter of taste, what one enjoys or because one’s particular interests are best suited to non-fiction that’s reasonable, but to avoid imaginative work because one wishes to “learn something”? I can’t take anyone who says that with a straight face seriously. *shrugs*

    It’s like the memoir craze. People want to read about “real lives” because that’s more “authentic” when of course it’s entirely possible, if not probable for a novel like Middlesex by Eugenides (for example) to present a more truthful account of gender issues, that resonates, than an “autobiographical” account from a so-so writer.

  5. Steve

    I read a lot of non-fiction, but I have no plans to write off fiction. You can learn from both. Novelists usually either know a subject, setting, time period, or place OR do research. Read a novel set in 19th century London and you learn plenty about the culture, the social structure, transportation, eating habits, etc. (You can also “hear” a character’s thought processes better than any biographer would be willing to presume!)

    Maybe nonfiction is more straight-forward, or easier to stay with in short doses (which may be why I enjoy it more), but fiction calls me back several times a year.

  6. I would say that history, science and autobiography are all beholden to the laws of narrative. Each discipline tells the best version of the story of ‘truth’ and ‘reality’ that it can. Doesn’t mean to say they’re not every bit as dependent on the possibilities and the limitations of language and causality as your cheapest chick-lit. After all, look how the stories of science and medicine have changed over the centuries!

  7. I’m the one who’s always saying, “I don’t believe anything I read except fiction.” That being said, I still read quite a lot of nonfiction (skeptical eyes wide open). Of course, I’m saying this after having just seen the Mythical Creatures exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History, where there are nonfiction works from the 16th century on display that portray encyclopedic entries for creatures that never existed (fascinating stuff).

  8. I know someone who is married to an English teacher, yet he will only read NF. He is quite conservative on most issues, and I try not to get into conversations with him that are more than say–about the weather. He has told me that he thinks with NF/Fiction–it is a matter of truth/lies. I hate to say, though, that NF isn’t necessarily the truth–just one person’s perception of the “truth”. As for learning–I can learn things from fiction just as well as from NF. I think if the author is good and they do their research there can be all sorts of historical facts in a novel that will pique my curiosity to want to learn more. I think it is sort of narrow mindedness as well to make such a broad sweeping generalization like this, but sometimes it’s best to let the person think whatever they want (at least in the case of the person I know–I won’t waste my time arguing about it as they will never change their mind–they are the sort of person that is ‘always right’).

  9. For a long time I didn’t read much fiction, but I blame that on the fact that I was getting a grad degree in history which severely limited my “fun” reading. However, I wholeheartedly agree with litlove and others: history is also subject to narrativity. The questions we ask, the evidence used, the form the “story” takes–despite best efforts at objectivity, the end result is always spiced by subjectivity (some more so than others). That said, I’m quite enjoying getting back into fiction and the “truth” that one can find in a well-crafted novel or short story (or poem). Perhaps people feel that fiction appeals more to “emotional” truths and thus isn’t as verifiable as the “facts” they believe can be found in non-fiction? I love reading both…

  10. marina

    My fiance reads mostly NF, though occasionally he’ll crack open a fiction book I suggest. I think the matter isn’t one of subjectivity/objectivity or truth/lies, but just that a fictional novel is an art form that some people don’t understand or appreciate. Just as I know that I don’t really like Renaissance-era paintings or very modern, dissonant music (ie I might be exposed to these types of art and think ‘oh that’s kinda cool’, but I don’t really “get it”), some people don’t really “get” fiction. Perhaps if I took an art class, I might come to understand and love these old paintings, and perhaps a person can also grow to love fiction if he studies it or is exposed to something that resonates. Since people are all different and the ways we appreciate art and beauty are different, I think this is ok.

  11. In the last few years, I’ve met three university graduates of varying ages who have told me they do not read books. Books! They dropped this boom into our conversation, much in the same way as someone would say, “I don’t eat strawberries. I’m allergic”. Sure, I’ve met people who only read non-fiction, and yes, often with that wrinkling-the-nose look that says fiction is superficial, but to meet an “educated” person who doesn’t read any books, was a shock.

    Ignorance stems not from silliness or stupidity, but from ignoring the obvious.

  12. Quite right, marina. I think we’re all being a little hard on the non-fiction lovers. Let’s be honest–we don’t read Jane Eyre to learn about the lives of 19th century Yorkshire governesses. We read it because the emotions and the writing give us pleasure. Pleasure is a personal thing and if a person gets more pleasure from learning about the real world (which I hope we all acknowledge exists), what’s wrong with that? It’s not a competition.

  13. One viable complaint about fiction and novels in particular, voiced by my husband, is being disappointed by the ending. He really gets into the buildup and plot and character development, then is let down by how the writer chooses to resolve everything. I have this complaint, too, but not as frequently. I guess one can chalk that up to the limitations of conventional plot devices, and whether the writer wants to give the reader (or him/herself) the satisfaction of a happy ending, a downer ending, or an ambiguous ending. But never having written a novel, I can’t say that I understand the dynamics of building something as intricate as a novel and then what to do with it. Am I making sense? My grey matter is not functioning well today. Race brain.

  14. Catching up on the blog reading I’ve missed in the last month of holiday – sorry to hear you have not been well, and hope you begin to feel better soon.

    I’ve not heard the “won’t read novels” option, but was stunned once to hear a friend say she refused to read books from the library because they’d been handled by other people and you never knew where they might have been. I have to admit I was somewhat appalled. Seems like a similarly kneejerk reaction.

  15. Pleasure is a personal thing and if a person gets more pleasure from learning about the real world (which I hope we all acknowledge exists), what’s wrong with that? It’s not a competition.

    Absolutely nothing. That is why it should be couched in those terms, rather than others that mark it as a kind of “virtue”. (I’m only interested in ‘truth’! *sniff*)

  16. Hey, just because they can’t understand “us” doesn’t mean we can’t try to understand “them.”
    *sniff*

  17. John

    Hi Dorothy. I think this is a really good question. Hope you don’t mind if I answer with a link to my blog where I make a comparison between fiction and music. Does it matter if it’s true? http://johnmiedema.wordpress.com/2007/04/27/fiction-isnt-real-is-music-real-does-it-matter/

  18. I am learning [from my reading-partner] to read novels to learn more about the non-fictional aspects of life. We live in a very “literal” society, where people are more concerned with the FACT of Jesus walking on water, than they are in what the story MEANS.
    My reading partner always says that fiction is truer than non-fiction, and more and more I am finding that it is so.

  19. You are right about the literal society — at least many among us feel that way. I like your religious examples.

  20. I actually read both fiction and non-fiction (travel books being my favourite) and have always felt that you can learn from both. My father once described fiction as ‘rubbish’ to me and thus plummeted rather in my estimation. It’s an attitude I just can’t comprehend. *Never* to have read a good novel… it’s just bizarre.

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