I have heard the argument several times that reading fiction is pointless. Why waste valuable time reading stories that aren’t true about people who don’t exist when there are so many excellent true stories? While I do occasionally enjoy the exploits of real people doing real things I generally prefer unreal people doing unreal things, in the same way that I avoid “reality” TV wherever possible.
Fiction is far more versatile. Non-fiction tends to focus on a specific subject, be it history, politics, or relationships. The author adopts a certain point of view and then beats the reader over the head with his (presumably) rational arguments and opinions that support his beliefs. The reader is being lectured at or taught and the book resembles a text book. I would greatly prefer to have the same concepts conveyed within a story. All good stories entertain but, within that entertainment, complex ideas and opinions can be woven, so that the reader learns and thinks without it being quite so heavy handed. In effect the reader gets two stories for the price of one.
I am currently reading “The Narrow Road To The Deep North,” by Richard Flanagan, a novel about the construction of the Thai-Burma railway during World War II. I could learn just as much about this topic by picking up one of the no doubt excellent non-fiction accounts of its creation. However, because this is a novel, it can use a bit of poetic licence to weave the facts of the railway’s construction into a story. It creates characters which, although fictional, are probably based on real people and give the reader a much more emotionally charged ride. Rather than a dry factual account of the railway, we have a much more human story that generates more empathy for the men that were involved. Instead of stating that 2800 Australian POWs died building the railway we find out that Darky Gardiner and Tiny Middleton died making it, fictional characters that have drawn us in and made their struggles a lot more personal.
Fiction is also more speculative, allegorical and subtle than non-fiction. “Animal Farm” is anything but a book about farmyard animals.
Fiction allows the author and reader greater freedom to explore a much broader range of ideas and pose “what if” questions. This is especially important for a fan of science fiction such as myself. I have not had much luck finding non-fictional accounts of possible alternative futures, lichen that allows people to live to be 200 years old or wizards with lightning scars on their forehead.
Of course, at the end of the day, it is a stupid argument anyway as we can have the best of both worlds. There is absolutely no reason to read one while excluding the other. They are both perfectly valid forms of literature and each has its place. Still, wouldn’t this piece have been much more engaging if it had snuck up on you in the middle of a huge rollercoaster of a story full of travelling gypsies?
Dr. F. Bunny