I don’t understand human behavior. Why do people read and watch fiction books and dramas? It seems like a waste of time.
The question garnered over 50 responsesmost of which were elegant and eloquent explanations of the value of fiction:
To know that a character is like us, and their inner life includes the same cringing that ours does – or, conversely, to know that they are utterly free of our thinking habits – provides an avenue wherein we can compare ourselves to other humans in a way that non-fiction, and documentary film, can not quite do. Non-fictional narrative will always be an approximation of another, real-life person. That person will either be presenting him or her self (and therefore can never be truly open), or is being presented by another (and therefore, like us, incapable of being fully understood from the outside).
Travel broadens the mind. Fiction gives you a chance to see things from a different perspective. It also, both intentionally and inadvertently, reveals a lot about the person and the historical context in which it was created. You can learn quite a bit about a culture by the stories it tells itself, including many things that are harder to get at from any other direction. On top of that, there’s the enjoyment of narrative itself (who doesn’t like a good story?) and the enjoyment of seeing language itself used well and/or used in novel ways. This latter isn’t limited to fiction, of course, but it’s often more on display in fiction, especially since modernism. Fiction also gives us some common frames of reference for discussing real-world problems, especially ethical ones. Fictional characters and the situations in which they find themselves can (and often do) provide a springboard for discussion of real-world problems.
There is a great explanation in Walter Kaufmann’s Critique of Religion and Philosophy. (This is closely paraphrased.) If Napoleon could return from the dead and read any of his biographies his first response would be something like “my secret is safe”. If Natasha Rostov could return from the undead and read War and Peace her first response would be something like “oh god they knew”.
There is a psychic interior present in a well-written novel which is beyond the ken of a library full of psychological case studies.
Escapism–fiction lets us see a life we don’t lead, and imagine what that would be like.
Catharsis–fiction helps us work through painful solutions in our life by seeing what others do in similar circumstances.
Romance–fiction gives us the Cinderella, happily-ever-after fairytale ending, as well as reminding us what that heady, exhilarating feeling of falling in love is like if it has been a while.
Mystery–fiction gives us puzzles to solve and analyze to keep our minds working in different ways.
Psychology–fiction shows us how others’ minds work, what motivates them or shapes their actions every day.
Humor–fiction makes us laugh at the absurdity of life.
Insight–fiction helps us to know ourselves better by giving us characters that we can either relate to, admire, learn to respect or hate outright, and then makes us think about how why we feel the way we do.
That’s just off the top of my head.
[T]he absolutely best experience that fictional reading provides for me, then and now, is the experience of eloquence. Fiction still seems to be the most likely reading experience in which I’ll find my own experiences—particularly my most mysterious and elusive experiences—given clarity, form and voice in words, either in explication or poetry, or pure situational symbolism. This is the pure magic, beyond that of a good tale well told. It’s the pleasure of verbal and emotional mastery perfectly fused. No matter how good or how enjoyable I’ve ever found non-fiction writing to be, it’s never ascended to the heights of eloquence I’ve found in great fiction.
The responses gave me some great answers for the next time someone asks me why I spend so much time readingand writingabout people that “aren’t even real.” But more importantly, this discussion reminded me of why I write fiction, and why fiction is so important.