top of page
  • Writer's pictureKate Armstrong

Why Fiction Isn't Frivolous


Woman sitting in front of a window on a snowy day with a book, a mug, and cozy socks.

I try to keep my blog from turning into a “dear diary” situation, but this month’s post is as much for me as anyone else. And here’s the thesis: when the world is dark and scary, reading fiction isn’t frivolous, it’s vital. In fact, reading fiction may matter more in times of turmoil than it does in times of relative peace.[1]


Which, by extension, means that writing fiction matters.


That’s not just my opinion. To prep for this post and to address my own niggling guilt that sinking into a novel isn’t as worthy as reading the news, reading nonfiction books on timely subjects, or actively participating in public discussions and advocacy efforts, I dug into the research on the merits of reading fiction.


As an editor and an avid reader of romance, I’m well aware of the stigma surrounding romance novels. But a similar stigma extends to other popular subgenres of fiction, even inside the reading community. Literary fiction, the classics, the heavily intellectual books? Pretty much everyone can agree that they matter. But the consensus falls apart when it comes to subgenres and markets like women’s fiction, book club fiction, fantasy, and romance.


Outside of the reading community, controversy abounds over the idea that the arts—creative writing among them—not only have merit but are vital to a successful society. The concept that literature has value is now mixed up with the backlash against humanities, liberal arts, fine arts education, and anything else that lacks a direct link to the creation of wealth. This backlash has caused even us literature lovers to occasionally question the merits of reading and writing fiction.


But fiction isn’t frivolous, and here’s why:[2]


Reading fiction makes us empathetic, critical thinkers. Reading nonfiction plays an important role in teaching us about the world and the people in it, but fiction is unique in that it places us directly into other people’s shoes. Research using functional MRIs has demonstrated that when we read novels, our brains are tricked into seeing the world from the protagonist’s point of view. We’re not considering their experiences and decisions from an outsider’s perspective; we’re experiencing the protagonist’s life and choices as if we are living them. I’m going to let Christine Seifert, author of “The Case for Reading Fiction,” make a few points better than I can:


  1. “Reading fiction predicts increased social acuity and a sharper ability to comprehend other people’s motivation.”

  2. “Reading literature requires us to slow down, take in volumes of information, and then change our minds as we read … There’s no easy answer in literature; instead, there’s only perspective-taking.”[3]


Rosemary Marshall, writing in the British Journal of General Practice adds, “by allowing us to recognize similarities between ourselves and what is ‘other,’ reading fiction has been found to ameliorate prejudiced perceptions.”[4]


So, in a nation and world starkly divided by political, religious, ethnic, and other differences, reading fiction allows us to see the world through someone else’s eyes and consider things thoughtfully and with nuance … it would be hard to argue that’s not valuable.


Furthermore, reading fiction fosters joy. I didn’t go quite as far into the research about joy (or the literature on the differences between happiness and joy … this is a blog post, after all, not a thesis), but here are the highlights:

     

  1. Joy is contagious.

  2. Experiencing joy renews us, allowing us to continue contending with tough situations, issues, and conversations.


That sense of well-being you get from slowing down and reading a good book (and I mean a book that you define as good, not necessarily a book society deems “good literature”) positively impacts the people around you and renews your ability to fight hard fights.[5] Because finding purpose and forging social relationships also lead to joy, your reading-centric recharge may be the first step on a path to joy that makes you a resilient, positive force in the world. And if you’re the author writing fiction and teaching readers how to see the world through someone else’s eyes? Your work is critical, not frivolous.

 


[1] I’m lucky to have a talented inner circle willing to edit my blog posts for me. My husband, Matt, Jaime Watson of Baker Street Revisions, and my brother, Sam, a Philosophy PhD, all took a crack at this one. My brother added this: “I’m reminded of a great quotation by Ursula K. Le Guin, herself paraphrasing Tolkien: ‘Yes, he said, fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisoned by the enemy, don’t we consider it his duty to escape? The moneylenders, the knownothings, the authoritarians have us all in prison; if we value the freedom of the mind and soul, if we’re partisans of liberty, then it’s our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can.’”

 

[2] Sam also left this in a comment, and though it falls outside the scope of this post, it’s too good to leave out entirely: “One might object that even your arguments are in some sense wrongheaded in precisely the same way the noted objections against humanities writ large are. Namely, they think fiction has to be justified in reference to some other good at all (in this case, empathy and fostering joy). We might say rather fiction – i.e. story-telling – is a good in itself. Story-telling is part of what it is to be human. To ask ‘why should we?’ is as misplaced a question as ‘why should we think?’ or ‘why should we spend time with others?’ There may be other, additional reasons to do these things, but we may rightly think that if someone is asking these questions in good faith, then something’s gone wrong – the self-evident answer ought to be ‘how could we not?’.”

 

[3] Christine Seifert, “The Case for Reading Fiction,” Harvard Business Review, March 6, 2020, https://hbr.org/2020/03/the-case-for-reading-fiction.

 

[4] Rosemary Marshall, “Reading Fiction: the Benefits are Numerous,” British Journal of General Practice 70 (691): 79, https://doi.org/10.3399/bjgp20X707945. See also Claudia Hammond, “Does Reading Fiction Make Us Better People?” BBC, February 24, 2022, https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20190523-does-reading-fiction-make-us-better-people; Mark Nevins, “Why Leaders Should Read Fiction,” Forbes, September 2, 2021, https://www.forbes.com/sites/hillennevins/2021/09/02/why-leaders-should-read-fiction/?sh=3aee148a4g91. Note that Nevins makes a distinction between “good fiction” and “page-turners,” and Christine Seifert points out that the original research on the benefits of fiction (first published in Science magazine in 2013) was conducted only with literary fiction. Other articles, however, do not distinguish between subgenres of fiction and reach the same conclusions about its value.

 

[5] Stephanie Collier, “How Can You Find Joy (or at Least Peace) During Difficult Times?” Harvard Health Publishing, October 17, 2022, https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/how-can-you-find-joy-or-at-least-peace-during-difficult-times-202210062826; Jessica Cerretani, “The Contagion of Happiness,” Harvard Medicine (Summer 2011), https://magazine.hms.harvard.edu/articles/contagion-happiness.

44 views2 comments
bottom of page