What Is the Value of Fiction?

Reader Matt left the following interesting question:

What is the value of fiction? I get the feeling that you think reading these books contributes to the memo of being “sincere and eager to improve the universe” and stories like this help in that goal. Wouldn’t that time be better spent reading policy positions about energy, education, social welfare or books on business, technology … ie “harder science/disciplines”.

Now, I have no problem with people reading fiction. But isn’t it essentially just another form of entertainment comparable to tv, movies, comedy clubs.. Maybe I made a connection you weren’t implying, but I’ve always viewed the importance of literature as VASTLY overstated. Its great as a form of entertainment, but I get the feeling people who read fiction a lot think it is somehow “sophisticated” etc…

Who better to answer this question than a literature prof? As we all understand, I consider that there are few pursuits as crucial as reading literature. If I didn’t think that, I would have chosen a different profession. So what is the value of literature and why shouldn’t one just read business books and technology manuals instead?

Literature is the only form of reading that has an aesthetic component (except, probably, criticism of literary works.) When you read a poem or a novel, you don’t encounter a source of information on a subject, you find a work of art. You can have a sublime experience of being touched by beauty and transported by it into a different mode of existence. Here is how Jonathan Mayhew, a scholar of literature, describes this experience:

Yesterday, when I was reading in the coffee shop, I was thinking about what I was doing. The poetry I was reading was by Andrés Sánchez Robayna, a poet from the Canary Islands. I stopped to memorize a few short poems. Occasionally, I thought of ideas I could use in my book, but mostly I was experiencing the poetry as a sacred act of communion with nature. It is a sacred act for the poet, and for me as a reader. This has nothing to do with any particular religion. It is the sacred in its purest form. (Some people need religion to get at the sacred, and others use religion to avoid the sacred. The guy at the table next to me had a Bible and some other religious books that he was studying, but I don’t know which category he fell into.)

Terry Eagleton, another famous literary critic agrees:

Art . . . has a good deal in common with religious belief, even in the most agnostic of environments. Both are symbolic forms; both distil some of the fundamental meanings of a community; both work by sign, ritual and sensuous evocation. Both aim to edify, inspire and console, as well as to confront a depth of human despair and depravity which they can nonetheless redeem by form or grace. Each requires a certain suspension of disbelief, and each links the most intense inwardness to the most unabashedly cosmic of questions. (Figures of Dissent 96-7).

A reader of literature has a very easy access to an entire range of sublime, extremely profound experiences in his or her pocket. I can access what is best in me as a human being by reading literature. How sad, how barren and miserable is an existence devoid of such experiences!

We, the human beings, have messed up a whole lot. Wars, genocide, torture, slavery, oppression. As you think about the course of human history, you almost despair of the human civilization. However, while some people were busy murdering, raping and exploiting, others were contributing to this one area that redeems us all: art. And we don’t have to be artists to contribute. The beauty of art is that we can participate in the only redeeming activity of humanity in the capacity of readers, spectators, and listeners.

I have more to say on the subject but my break is up and I have to go create my masterpiece of literary criticism. 🙂 Feel free to contribute your answers: why do you read fiction? Just because it’s fun? Or do you have other reasons?

 

18 thoughts on “What Is the Value of Fiction?”

  1. I read fiction to get into other people’s head, sometimes the author and sometimes the characters. Imagine just going through a crowd, picking a face, and smelling, seeing, remembering, hoping, feeling like that person! I know no other way in which I can do this and for me it is one of the most amazing and most intimate things in the world.

    By writing fiction instead of biographies, I believe writers can be more honest, and I just want one thing from books: I want to honestly know how other people really feel and think. I even want to know how they imagine that others feel. Any actual event in the book is to me just there to see the reaction of the main characters, I do absolutely not care if all that happens in the entire book is a bag of sand falling over as long as it triggers interesting reactions.

    It feels very different to me than entertainment. Entertainment is distraction, getting away, while good literature feels more like getting closer. Maybe to myself, maybe to others, maybe to the core of what human life actually is.

    Like

  2. I wondered how you were going to answer that question. I knew I wouldn’t be able to… But then you used my words I had forgotten about. Then you say, “another famous critic,” as though I were famous. Which I’m not. But I appreciate your quoting me.

    Like

  3. Perhaps it is a weak explanation, but maybe I read fiction because I can’t imagine NOT reading fiction. Then again I can’t imagine not reading non-fiction either. Both can take something outside yourself and magically make it part of your life, or at least the life you lead while reading. Fiction is cool because it uses imprecise tools, like allusion, metaphor and more, to paradoxically present a more complete picture.

    I like the Eagleton quote and I hope I understand it correctly. In what I think is a related observation, I wonder if some people who hold religion in low regard have the some of the same values as the really strict literal bible believers. In that neither has room in their thought for metaphor, myth or even poetry. It is true (for the fundamentalist) or it is false (for the atheist). In the same way maybe it is difficult to see much use in fiction with that mindset since a metaphor is “just” metaphor and poetry is at best a diversion between planning project management outlines and building highways.

    Regarding what prompted your blog post…

    It seems to me there are multiple unstated assumptions in the excerpt from Reader Matt’s comment. The most glaring is the unstated assumption of what constitutes “time better spent”. I guess the point is if I read about particle physics or theories of education it will somehow more directly improve my life or perhaps the world in general. But improve it in what sense? How does one decide what is well spent time? The only measurable value most people recognize is money (remember I said “measurable”). So, should I only read those topics that increase my income, no matter how miserable it makes me feel? Some rewards simply are not measurable.

    Then there is the implied definition of all entertainment as something frivolous, and that TV, Movies and comedy are throwaway activities. But why stop there? What about painting, sculpture and any architecture beyond the pure engineering of holding a structure over our heads? Or even the idea of pure research in science and math, since I think you could argue that more objectively identifiable results could be delivered by applying all those brilliant brains to specific goals.

    Are all life activities a profit /loss statement after which one determines if it furthers some gain?

    But then again I may be overly defensive because I enjoy spending hours reading novels.

    Like

      1. Zeppo… clearly your P/L is suffering so you have to resort to this drivel that something besides money matters… geesh …

        Now that I am 100% clear that I was being sarcastic about the above, there are a few points I want to make.

        The original line from Clarissa’s post that I intended to comment on was
        “I really identified with the American senator, Mr. Gotobed. And, believe it or not, it wasn’t his wonderful last name that endeared him to me. The American is so earnest, sincere and eager to improve the universe that he reminded me of me. ”

        Upon reading it further I realize I don’t THINK Clarissa was saying that reading the fiction book helped her to improve the universe (or get a better understanding on how to do so), but that is the context in which my initial question/objection came about.

        I certainly have no issue with reading literature, but my contention was that making the world a better place would greatly be accelerated by reading non-fiction works (which could include religious, philosophical, and moral arguments, books etc.). And the standard by which I mean making the world a better place is NOT money (at least not personal wealth). I think if you can become more informed on past political movements or social/charitable efforts that really were effective and helped thousands of people rise out of lives of poverty (whether in America or in 3rd world countries), then you have improved the world IMMEASURABLY more than if you just used knowledge to increase your P/L. The same can go for creating businesses or technology that effects the financial, economic lives of yourself and the community then more TANGIBLE good is done for the “universe”.

        Zeppo, I definitely agree that your personal life, satisfaction etc. may be increased by reading fiction books, just like my life was increased last night by seeing the best comedy show of my life 🙂 Clearly I could have been reading about campaign finance reform instead of laughing my head off… but one can only be so boring 🙂 I guess my point is that your love of fiction literature is close to tantamount to my love for comedy clubs. Which is fine. But neither does much to make the universe a better place, especially for others. That is my point and I feel I may have not completely conveyed that in my original commetn 🙂 Currious for further thoughts!

        Like

        1. “I certainly have no issue with reading literature, but my contention was that making the world a better place would greatly be accelerated by reading non-fiction works (which could include religious, philosophical, and moral arguments, books etc.). And the standard by which I mean making the world a better place is NOT money (at least not personal wealth). I think if you can become more informed on past political movements or social/charitable efforts that really were effective and helped thousands of people rise out of lives of poverty (whether in America or in 3rd world countries), then you have improved the world IMMEASURABLY more than if you just used knowledge to increase your P/L. ”

          – “Save yourself. And thousands will be saved by your side.” Serafim Sarovsky.

          “Clearly I could have been reading about campaign finance reform instead of laughing my head off… but one can only be so boring I guess my point is that your love of fiction literature is close to tantamount to my love for comedy clubs. Which is fine. But neither does much to make the universe a better place, especially for others. ”

          – The most horrible people in the world are the ones who want to improve the life of others without the request of those others. I was born in a Communist paradise, so believe me, I should know.

          “I definitely agree that your personal life, satisfaction etc. may be increased by reading fiction books, just like my life was increased last night by seeing the best comedy show of my life ”

          – Comedy clubs do not develop you personally, aesthetically, intellectually or spiritually.

          Like

      2. “- The most horrible people in the world are the ones who want to improve the life of others without the request of those others. I was born in a Communist paradise, so believe me, I should know. Not trying to be overly dramatic.. ”

        The most Horrible people in the world? Ouch. I guess my hope is to partially create products/systems that help people see opportunities that they truly want but haven’t been equipped to take advantage of. Or I could go become a corporate shill making $1 million plus in a decade or so.. I don’t think the former makes me worse.. but i do get your perspective that imposing on other people can be negative, at least in a communist type way.

        Ok.. I am out for the day .. but with my flurry of comments (and with most of them contesting your view often) I just want to be clear I am not trolling.. I appreciate your insights.. which is why this is one of only two blogs I will comment on.

        Like

      3. Matt, well you said you were curious for further thought…once I get going on a topic I can be pretty irritating. but here goes…

        “but my contention was that making the world a better place would greatly be accelerated by reading non-fiction works.”

        But what are you using to measure what is making the world better? Obviously starving people would be better served with food than with a poem. But why is it an all or nothing? It appears you feel anything that doesn’t produce some material improvement is relegated to nothing more than an inoffensive background.

        “I guess my point is that your love of fiction literature is close to tantamount to my love for comedy clubs. Which is fine. But neither does much to make the universe a better place, especially for others.”

        Although I have only been to a few, my main problem with comedy clubs is that the people aren’t all the funny. BUT I thing I deviate some from Clarissa in that I think comedy can develop you “personally, aesthetically, intellectually or spiritually”. Comedy is like, and sometimes IS fiction, and assigning worth is tricky business.

        And what about comedy that veers to social commentary? I remember some Richard Pryor bits that I felt were positively transformational. And where does Mark Twain fall in these assignations? (I always wanted to use that word) He is America’s foremost humorist and who writes on all sorts of topic, fiction and otherwise so on which side of the worthiness fence does he fall?. It seems must be relegated to the same level as serial romance novels or Twilight fan fiction.

        Now that I think about it more, we might just look at the world in very different ways. I think we all feel different things in the world are better than others and part of life is learning to make those determinations, and some of the fun in life is debating why the other guy is wrong. But I can find something value in most any area if it is done with some creative inspiration, and that is what I really dig, I don’t read fiction because it is fiction, I read books because they “speak to me”, fiction or non-fiction.

        Years ago I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and while I’ve forgotten most of it, and maybe misremember this, but as I recall he goes on about finding “Quality” in all things. So it is not the category or form of the item that gives it quality but rather “Quality” we search for in anything.

        And in this discussion I say creative inspiration can imbue fiction, comedy, history, anthropology or whatever and if it has “Quality” it is worthy of consideration and should be read, watched and appreciated.

        Ok, I’m done.

        Like

        1. “BUT I thing I deviate some from Clarissa in that I think comedy can develop you “personally, aesthetically, intellectually or spiritually”. Comedy is like, and sometimes IS fiction, and assigning worth is tricky business.”

          – We probably go to different comedy clubs, eh? 🙂 But I wouldn’t mind visiting the ones you do.

          Like

  4. I had this feeling most strongly with Marechera’s Black Sunlight. The whole book is quite literally paranoid and schizoid. It is extremely hard to follow and very compact. There’s a Joycean element, whereby some textual sequences effuse meaning in more than one direction. I had to read it about eight times before I got the sense of it, and even then, you end up with a weird, disjointed schizoid feeling, where you don’t know if your perceptions are mostly your own or mostly derived from the author’s input.

    Like

  5. I read fiction because it is the single most enjoyable activity there is. Within that single activity is the breadth of humankind told in stories on every imaginable topic. It’s more than escapism; it’s discovery, of self, of others, of the human state.

    I was delighted yesterday when my son told me he was going to do a Literature Bac at school. His teachers told him he has an Arts/language brain, not a scientific one, but to do this Bac he’ll have to read. He is not an enthusiastic reader, but I’m hoping that he’ll become one through his studies. Why will he read? Because he has to, which is one way to start. I have been trying to find ways to enthuse him about reading for years. The quotes above would leave him cold. What he enjoys is a cracking good yarn (don’t we all?!) with interesting ideas/philosophy that can be discussed.

    The secret of ‘why read’ is to find the reason that appeals to the (potential) reader, that hits the ‘on’ button.

    Like

  6. О чем я тут собрался напевать?
    Про что моя последняя страница?
    Трех лучших я хочу короновать…
    Трем главным я желаю поклониться…
    Какие бы настали холода,
    Когда б не наши три великих чувства:
    Любви, во-первых,
    Во-вторых, стыда,
    И в-третьих, наслажденья от искусства!
    Безумие – страдать из-за принцесс,
    Которые вас нежно убивают…
    А все ж любовь – божественный процесс,
    Сладчайший, и напрасным не бывает!
    Одни лишь негодяи никогда
    Сполна не отдаются этим чувствам –
    Любви, во-первых,
    Во-вторых, стыда,
    И в-третьих, восхищения искусством!
    Краснеть умеет только человек!
    Не будь стыда и совести в помине,
    Тогда бы покраснели воды рекЗа нас, убитых нами же самими..
    Но выстоят земные города,
    Благодаря волшебным этим чувствам –
    Любви, во-первых,
    Во-вторых, стыда
    И в-третьих, очищения искусством…

    http://nepokiny.narod.ru/nepokiday.htm

    Have you watched the movie Георгий Полонский – Не покидай… киноповесть-сказка ? I saw it on YouTube and really loved the actress playing Оттилию (the tyrant’s wife).

    Like

  7. Personally I read fiction as a bit of an escape. I just finished book three of The Secret Circle today and I enjoyed it (by all that is holy don’t watch the show).

    With that in mind I have a bit of a side question.

    Why are there people who insist that one form of fiction (usually the one they are into) is high art while other forms are low brow swill?

    For example book readers thinking tv/movies makes you dumb. Or book readers thinking video games are worthless. (I’m not trying to pick on book readers, I’m one myself. I think its just the result of the fact that book reading has been around for an extremely long time while tv/movies have barely been around a century and video games even less than that.)

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.