The non-fiction about fiction
G. K. Chesterton: Looking back on a worldly and wasted life, I realize that I have especially sinned in neglecting to read novels.
That’s an interesting comment from a man who penned some great fiction, including creating the priestly detective, Father Brown.
I cannot—will not—compare myself with Chesterton, but as one who has worked in journalism and public relations all my career, I am well versed in the non-fiction field. I have covered major stories from air crashes, to Royal Tours, to the return of Vietnam POW’s and (peripherally) the US moon landings. I know non-fiction. I understand that writing it is critical for the knowledge and understanding of people today, despite the naysayers who prefer to stick their heads in the sand, ostrich-like.
But I have learned to love and appreciate good fiction. The great writers have used stories as a teaching tool as much as an entertainment vehicle. The essence of their work is to show human beings in settings that test their internal drivers as well as their external circumstances. Well written stories offer hope even in the worst situations; they provide well rounded protagonists who show character flaws in the midst of their struggles. Good fiction also provides the most evil antagonists with good attributes and show that, from the evil-doers perspective—his or her actions are internally justified.
Let me give an example. In my second thriller, The Lucifer Scroll, I introduce a thoroughly despicable and power-mad killer as the main protagonist. From his ‘religious’ perspective, ordering his followers to massacre people is justified because his intention is to bring what he believes is a better form of leadership to society. After a hard day ‘at the office’ doing sacrifices and the like, he relaxes by sitting at the piano and playing some jazz. He epitomizes the authoritarian who has no problem with believing the ends justify the means, no matter what moral or judicial laws are destroyed. But hey, jazz is cool! Little things, but I think it brings a dash of reality to the table as readers assess this character. We all know someone like this in our workplaces or in our political landscape.
It’s the same with protagonists. One of my main heroes is a workaholic who pushes people away. He doesn’t allow people inside the armour plate that envelops his psyche. He ranges from pride in his work mixed with depression and insecurity. He struggles with his insecurities but he has a determination to do his best; he too likes music, but only as a consumer. And, in contrast with the antagonist in question, he prefers classical. In short, just like all of us he has his ups and downs, his good points and his bad.
All this applies whether you are reading modern fiction, historical fiction, thrillers, westerns, romances, science fiction, fantasy, mysteries or avant garde literature. Well written stories in any of those genres will have the same impact. Bottom line, it will make you a better, more well founded person.
To me, reading fiction is important to my understanding of people and why and how they do the things they do. In fact, researchers in the United States and Britain have shown that fiction contributes incredibly to the reader’s growth as a human. Here are some of their findings:
1. Reading fiction helps develop empathy. Living through a character’s situation vicariously, stirs empathy for the characters and those impacted by the story’s plot line. Developing that trait is then easily extended to real life.
2. Reading fiction develops vocabulary. All of us have a general vocabulary for everyday use. Fiction exposes us to new words, their meaning, their implications and their usage. We then incorporate those words into our own vocabulary.
3. Reading fiction helps relieve stress. Nothing is better to relieve stress in a doctor’s office, for example, than reading a good story while you wait. Your own worries and needs diminish as you get caught up in the story.
4. Reading fiction is a ‘reality simulator’. Pilots learn to fly their planes in times of crisis by training in a simulator. They learn about all kinds of scenarios and how to handle them. Same with reading fiction. We see how the characters deal with their situations and we adapt that for our own all too real lives.
5. Reading fiction keeps us mentally sharp. New worlds, new images, new techniques, new knowledge can be absorbed through fiction. You can read a step-by-step DIY non-fiction of course, but fiction can make learning fun as well as keeping our minds sharp.
There are many other benefits to reading fiction in addition to these.
All in all, reading fiction is nothing more than a technological update from the times our ancestors sat around fires at night and listened to the bards tell tales of great derring-do. We learn about heroes to emulate as our forebears did. Tales of goodness and courage stimulate us now as they did then. Our society was built on the skeleton of story-telling. Jesus spends much of his teaching time telling his followers stories—we call them parables—that taught them how to relate to others and to help strangers and outcasts (remember the good Samaritan?),
My Welsh ancestry tells tales of bards going from village to village, earning their living by singing and telling stories. Such stories related the history, showed how justice should be applied, how people should treat others, and nurtured a bond that pulled people together, linking them with both the past and the future.
I write fiction now. I read fiction all the time. I am richer for it.
As the old cereal ad said: “Try it, you’ll like it!”
Great post, Barrie! Good points all thru.
Interesting you should open with G.K. Chesterton’s quote. “Father Brown” is one of my favourite tv shows. You’ve inspired me to try reading one of the stories instead.