A couple months ago, I came across an article from a semi-popular Christian blogger whom I generally respect in which she was explaining why she no longer read fiction. While she enjoyed some fiction, as she explained it, nonfiction was simply more applicable to real life because it actually had information on real life, and for that and other reasons related to the lack of morality in a lot of modern fiction, she had simply stopped reading fiction.
The idea that non-fiction is inherently better than fiction is hardly an idea that I’ve encountered several times, sometimes by bloggers writing on the internet, and sometimes by other people in my life who don’t understand why I devote as much time to fiction as I do. Often it’s presented like it was in the article before:
Why read stories about untrue things when instead you could read stories about life how it actually is?
Within Christian circles, it can sometimes be set as a matter of holiness. What’s the value in reading a fantasy novel about mythical creatures and ungodly magic , when instead you could be reading a theological work that would be bettering your spiritual life? But the arguments aren’t always articulated. Sometimes, people may not raise any verbal objections to fiction—but they show with their actions and reading choices that they simply have no use for fiction in their life because of these reasons.
In this article, I’d like to defend fictional works against the charge that they are less real, less useful, or less transformative than non-fictional works like biography, history, or theology. While many may read fiction just for enjoyment and without any thought to these categories, the best fiction is the kind that is both enjoyable and useful. And so, without any further ado, let’s examine the value of fiction.
1. Fiction is as Real as Non-Fiction
This point may seem to be hard-sell at first. After all, given that non-fiction is about the world as it actually is, how could fiction be just as real under these categories? To be sure, if we’re defining ‘real’ as giving us propositional truths about the world that we live in, fiction can’t win in that race. However, this prompts the question about what is truly real.
Many today believe that the physical world is the most real world that we have. However, this is a rather novel development in the scope of human history. While they have disagreed about the nature of the spiritual world, most philosophers and theologians before the 1600’s tended to believe that there was a spiritual world that was more real than the physical world that we live in. In other words, there are eternal concepts such as justice, goodness, or beauty that are more real than the individual cases we often see of them on the earth.
This is what led Aristotle, a Greek philosopher living over 2,000 years ago, to argue that literature (or poetry, as it was known back then) was closer to reality than the world we lived in. In his Poetics, he argued that
“Poetry is more philosophical and more significant than history, for poetry is more concerned with the universal, and history more with the individual.”
(Poetics, section 9) In other words, while history is limited to telling the facts as they actually happened, literature has more freedom to address deeper universal truths. Given that these universal truths are more ‘real’ than the physical world, for Aristotle, this meant that literature was more real and thus more valuable than history.
Now, I don’t think that there is much value in starting a war about whether or not literature or history (or any other field) is more valuable as all fields have their place. However, when we consider biblical teachings about the spiritual world, I think that most Christians should be able to agree with the fact that reality extends beyond the circumstances of this current one. Given this, when it is done well, fiction can be as real as non-fiction.
2. Fiction is as Useful as Non-Fiction
Sometimes when people object to fiction, they object to it on the matter of its usefulness. “Biographies tell me about real people and theology tells me about who God is,” they might say, “so what does fiction offer me?”
Now, to a certain extent, when we’re asking whether or not fiction is useful, we’re kind of missing the purpose of fiction. As I’ve written before, fiction is supposed to teach and to delight. If we’re only focusing on the didactic nature of fiction, we’re really missing the value of enjoyment and thus really missing what good literature is supposed to be, and so I want to be careful that in defending this point, I don’t downgrade literature into something that should just be useful. The purpose of fiction goes beyond that. With all that understood, however, I do think that you can provide a defense for fiction on the standard of usefulness alone.
Sir Philip Sidney was a poet writing in the sixteenth century who sought to defend his practice of poetry against similar accusations. In his “Apology for Poetry,” Sidney argued that, as much as the philosopher (or, in our case, theologian) may teach us what virtue is, it often has trouble moving us to virtuous action. Poetry (or literature), on the other hand, does move us to virtuous action through use of example. If you think about it, how many times in your past have you been moved to act virtuously just because you learned that it was the right thing to do versus being moved to virtuous action because you saw someone else doing the same thing? Having examples to look at of virtuous action is important. And that’s one of the main reasons that fiction can be useful.
While you often won’t find carefully-reasoned arguments in fiction for virtue, you will find examples of it. And often, it is these examples that are necessary to stir us to action. After all, just think about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. One book was arguably as effective at showing the depravity of slavery as hundreds of pamphlets and sermons were. Why? Because it engaged the imagination. As humans, we aren’t just beings made up of pure-reason. We have emotions and an imagination as well. And often it is these things that need to be won over in order for us to view something differently or act in a more righteous way.
Fiction therefore is as useful as non-fiction because it gives us tangible examples of different truths in action. To be more direct: it is able to engage parts of our being that non-fiction cannot by engaging the imagination. Through its use of positive and negative examples—characters who do what is right and are rewarded and characters who do what is wrong who are punished—fiction is able to practically stir us to virtuous action in a way that non-fiction often struggles to do. Because fiction can therefore often be just as practical and necessary in terms of stirring us to virtuous action, fiction can be as useful as non-fiction.
3. Fiction is as Transformative as Non-Fiction
Finally, fiction can be as spiritually transformative as non-fiction can be. This is more an extension of the last point than anything else, but I wanted to focus a bit more on how this actually ends up playing out in real life by providing some more practical examples of this.
It is often the experience of readers that literature changes them. My literature professor at college has talked about how the novels of Charles Dickens have helped him through some difficult times. Another blogger, here, talks about how reading the great works of literature helped to lead to his salvation. And this has been applicable in my own life as well.
- Crime and Punishment taught me the dangers of viewing yourself as higher than everyone else and taking on a Saviour-complex.
- Speaker for the Dead taught me the healing power of the truth, even when the truth is hard to accept.
- Emma taught me the dangers of thinking that you know better than others about how they should live their lives.
- Sword in the Stars taught me the destructiveness of legalism.
- Words of Radiance taught me the importance of standing up against injustice in all cases—even on behalf of those who may have wronged you—simply because it is right.
These are all truths that I could have learned from a non-fictional work, and some of which I had previously learned through such means. But they are all truths that were impressed upon me a lot more because I saw it lived out via example. And in that way, through reading fiction, we can see its transformative nature.
Given all this, we can see the fiction is as real, useful, and transformative as non-fiction. Many have used these arguments to argue that because of this, fiction is actually better than non-fiction, but I would dispute this claim. Both fiction and non-fiction serve valuable purposes: one engages the rational side of human beings; the other engages the imaginative side. The goal is to hold both of them in tandem instead of subordinating one to the other. For myself, I find that about half the books I read are fiction while the other half are non-fiction. And I wouldn’t give up either for the sake of the other.
So, the next time someone asks you why you’re reading fiction instead of non-fiction, hopefully this article will have given you some different possible ways that you can answer them. When you think about it, when Jesus came to earth, he didn’t just speak in sermons. He spoke in parables (stories) as well, holding them both in tandem and thus engaging both man’s intellect and his emotions and imagination. Fiction and non-fiction are both worthwhile pursuits. And so we should seek to read them both, instead of subordinating one to the other.