Why do people read fiction?


“Why do people read fiction?” my father once asked me.  Throughout my career as a teacher, I have been trying to answer this question–for him, for colleagues, for students and myself.  Ten years ago, I had to propose an answer for colleagues with whom I taught Humanities.  Students in this course studied History, Literature, Religion, Philosophy and Art.  I found myself asking, “What’s the big deal about imaginative literature?  What does it bring to the table?”  Eventually, I boiled my answer down to three elements: imagination, empathy and expression.   The study of literature exercises these elements in ways other traditional disciplines do not.  More recently, I have asked my father’s question of students.  For example, they write about what is found in a short story like Nadine Gordimer’s “The Ultimate Safari” that does not appear in news articles about families fleeing Syria.  This exercise grows out of lines from a William Carlos Williams poem: “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.” What can we possibly gain from a fictional story on this topic?  Somewhere in Gordimer’s story we find something of value. Lastly, we also study fiction by writing some. This week, while visiting an Engineering Concepts class, I was reminded of what we do in “English” class.  The engineering students faced a design challenge, and the instructions observed that “this problem has many solutions.”  Students had to build a robot that does not “flip over or fall apart.”  These instructions made me wonder how I help students express themselves in a piece of writing that stays upright and cohesive. That’s what the best fiction writers do.  They imagine worlds and invite readers in–far enough in that we can empathize with the characters, struggle with them, experience their elations and deflations.  As I reflect on my father’s question, I am grateful–for two reasons.  First, he showed me that he didn’t know something and wanted to understand it.  Second, the thing he wanted to understand was my experience–in fact, a core part of my life’s work as an “English” teacher.  His question by the bookshelves in our den has stayed with me all these years, and I still wrestle with it.


Filed under challenge, creative solutions, discovery, empathy

2 responses to “Why do people read fiction?

  1. This is a most thoughtful reflection – i.e., most full of thought and replete with reflection….Having taught English in the deep past, I often wondered what I taught, why I taught, and often how I taught — and above all, if and when anyone was “learning.” (My premise is that teaching and learning have virtually accidental relationships in formal education.)

    Imagination, empathy and expression — wonderful! Three exquisite qualities of mind and heart, as well as literature. They seem to belong in all the arts, perhaps in all living relationships. What an astute insight!

    And a P.S. comment re WmCWms: having been a lover of the red wheelbarrow and the white chickens for decades…lately I’ve thought: perhaps there are indeed no ideas but in things — yet, continuing that notion, there can further be no things but in the next pursuant idea. What that means…I’m still working on. Hoping my imagination sprouts a cluck of an idea….

    Thank you, as always, for such wit, such reflection, such empathy, such wisdom, and reflection – you remain a teacher unlike any, any others I have encountered in my career. I hope your students know that that uniqueness is….unique!

  2. Thank you, Stephen, my mentor, friend and writer’s writer. I use the single word “expression, so it matches the first two single words. (In the parentheses of my mind, however, I am thinking WRITTEN expression. The written word is a wonderfully powerful tool we humans have given ourselves. Whales communicate, they talk, but they don’t write. Right? At least I have not met one that does. As for the next pursuant idea, Shakespeare has taught me a lot about the energies moving one idea towards another. I love the grammatical electricity in his lines, monologues and dialogues.

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