Reading & Writing Center
Why read fiction?
by Michael Sato
Fiction is writing made up by the author, rather than writing that is intended to reflect truth or reality. These works may have elements of truth, be based on the author’s life, or seem realistic, but the important thing is that they are not intended to be truthful accounts. When reading fiction, the reader does not expect that everything described really happened as it was described or really happened at all.
When we read nonfiction, it is often with a clear purpose in mind. For example, if we want to understand how to fix a car, invest in the stock market, or pass a biology exam, we turn to non-fiction to gain the knowledge we need to do those things. But why would anyone read fiction? After all, since fiction is by definition a work of imagination, all made up, it cannot be relied on as a source of accurate facts and information that we can apply to some use. Looked at this way, it’s understandable that one might regard reading fiction as a waste of effort and time.
For many readers, however, the most important reward of reading fiction is not in its application, but in the experience of reading itself. For them, reading fiction is a different kind of activity from reading nonfiction. Like listening to music or playing a sport, reading fiction is an activity enjoyable in itself—an enjoyable exertion of the imagination. Readers of fiction might also point out that anyway we’d be mistaken to believe that fiction, because it is not factual, doesn’t teach us anything useful or important. In fact, it’s often said that reading fiction makes us wiser about what may be the most important topic of all: ourselves.
This might be because, not too mysteriously, the topic of virtually all works of fiction is human beings (or sometimes, metaphors for them). Since human beings are creatures that do things, it makes sense that the form of most fiction is narrative. Narrative describes events, the things that people do. As readers, we encounter narrative most often in two forms: the story and the novel. The underlying structure of stories and novels is actually quite similar; the most important distinction between them is length, of course, a novel being longer than a story. Novels can be quite long, sometimes a thousand pages or more. On the other hand, stories can be surprisingly short. The well-known American writer Earnest Hemingway once wrote a story in just six words:
For sale: baby shoes, never worn.
Read the story again. Once more. These six words look like words that might appear in the classified section of a newspaper, don’t they?. But what story do these words tell? Before you try to answer this question, go back up once more and let your eyes wander over those words for three minutes, just to see what comes to your mind. Then, when three minutes are over, get a paper and pencil to jot down your observations in a list.
One thing you might notice as you read this story over is that most of what happened, whatever it was, is not actually written. In fact, most of the story emerges in our imaginations, piece by piece, according to how we respond to the implications of what is written. For example, although there are no characters in these six words, someone had to write the “for sale” ad, because it didn’t appear out of nowhere in its fictional world. And, whoever wrote the “for sale” ad had some reason to do so. What might that reason have been? A lot of stories—and longer novels, too—work this way. Some of the events are written down, and some of them emerge in our own imagination as we read and ask questions about what is written.
The question of the reason for someone’s writing the ad in Hemingway’s story points to another important characteristic of most fiction. Someone in the story behind this ad had a problem and, I think, some kind of struggle. As much as fiction is about people, it is more specifically about people with problems. Moreover, a work of fiction very often focuses on a person with problem that is not easy to solve, a problem that requires a struggle. This, by the way, brings us to an interesting philosophical question. Does fiction mirror real life in this way? Is life, basically, a sequence of problems? Or is it more the case that fiction takes this form because human beings reveal more about their true nature when they engaged in a struggle? Or, are problems simply more interesting to read about than their absence? Even though fiction is made up, it sometimes prompts us to wonder about our own real lives in ways we otherwise wouldn’t.
Now, take a few minutes to write out the events behind these six words as you imagine them. As you write, you will feel your own imagination at work, collaborating with Hemingway’s. Do the events of the story focus on a man or a woman? Does the story have just one character, two, or more? Where does it take place? When? All the work your imagination is doing as you consider these questions is part of the work—and the pleasure—or reading fiction.
Finished? If so, at least two important observations can be made about whatever you wrote. First, it is nearly certain that what you wrote, which is an expression of what you read, has never been written before. That is because how you imagine Hemingway’s story depends partly on who you happen to be. Since every person is different, everyone reads differently. No matter how completely a story is written, no two people who read it will understand it in exactly the same way. These differences explain why so many readers also enjoy talking about fiction with others.
It is equally important to consider that what you wrote depends in some way on how many times you read Hemingway’s six words before writing. In fact, how you imagine a story will always be deeply affected by how many times you read it. Of course, this could be said of many things besides stories. Think of a song that you like a lot. How many times have you listened to it? Or, to put this question another way, why, even though you like the song, have you bothered to listen to it more than once? I’ve noticed that I don’t hear a song the same way each time I listen to it. I hear, each time I listen to it, a little bit more of the song. I’ll notice an instrument I hadn’t noticed before, or part of the song’s lyrics will suddenly make more sense to me. I wouldn’t say that I understand a song more accurately each time I listen to it, but I could say that I understand it more deeply. A work of fiction is the same. I enjoy a good story more intensely the more times I read it, and in some important sense, I imagine it better too.
How, by the way, does Hemingway’s story end? Are these six words themselves the ending? If so, it doesn’t look to me like a very happy ending, at least, not at first. Some stories end happily, but many do not. Then again, someone in this particular story had a reason to write that ad, and decided to do it.
This page was created by Michael Sato.