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Can Reading Fiction Make You a Better Human?

Updated: Dec 4, 2023

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Why do you read fiction since none of it is real? It’s one of the first questions many prolific readers hear. It is, on its face, quite a closed-minded question, and one which can be hard to respond to, because the answer is hard to quantify. I liken it to people who asked me why I studied philosophy when it was never going to land me a job.

As a reader, I feel pity for people who ask this. As a writer, I get slightly vexed. After all, writing fiction is not easy and I (until this moment) only write contemporary fiction. Don’t get me started on writers who write science fiction/fantasy and who must ‘world build’ as part of their craft. Historical fiction writers spend months, even years, researching their various eras. As for me, I undertook extensive political research to write my upcoming novel, Banksia Close. I even signed up with 4chan and lurked on various dark web discussion threads to get some of my dialogue right (you can’t unsee that shit).

Writers often go to such extremes to deliver something unique to their readers, because readers of fiction have such an expectation. They are, often, intensely introspective, layered humans who like to be pushed, to understand the broader world, and how it relates to them personally. In fact, readers of fiction embody many of the traits that fortune 500 companies prize when they recruit new candidates. Some companies even hold workshops for employees.

It is interesting to note that people who see little point in fiction don’t often think twice about watching a scripted series or even rave about movies that are, to their ignorance, based on books. A friend of mine who often rolls his eyes at how I bury my head in my paperbacks, can’t stop banging on about how brilliant Ozark is. He doesn’t get my tacit bemusement when I roll my own eyes right back at him.

Have you looked at the top 10 Netflix categories lately? A large majority of the time, it’s all fiction. Stranger Things. Peaky Blinders. Squid Game. Riverdale. I could go on. None of it happened, but we watch it – usually to escape the drudgery of ‘the real’. Books are no different, or are they? Ask any reader who has watched an adaption, and it will be rare that they will state that the film/TV versions were better. Books are simply more immersive, detailed, and personal than television. One could make the case that they absolutely are a better mode of entertainment. In the end, however, fiction is fiction. Don’t ask readers why they read it when the entire globe sits down to watch it.

Indeed, the idea of spending more than a couple of hours on a narrative that is not true, or is unlikely to teach a tangible skill, seems to be a massive waste of time for some. After all, many of us are only motivated to undertake an activity for a set purpose that is quantifiable for ourselves or involves some sort of gain. If you want to lose weight, you exercise and eat less. If you want to change jobs, you do a course or upskill. Want to be a better parent? Buy parenting books. Want to relax? Get a glass of wine and watch Netflix. It really makes one wonder why we read children the fanciful stories that we do whilst limiting screen time, since many of us, as adults, place little value on the activity of reading for ourselves in favour of screen time. Setting a better example might be a good start. In the end, unless you have been shown the value behind fiction, or have made the effort to discover that value for yourself, you remain doomed to continue questioning its worthiness. For those of us in the fiction camp, the question of why we expend so much time on such stories can be hard to decipher and explain. As it turns out, we don’t need to. Science and research can do that for us.

The Harvard Business Review (yes business review), recently released an article about the benefits of fiction for such skills as critical thinking, empathy building, generosity, kindness, rational judgement, creative problem solving, self-awareness, and social awareness (among others). Reading fiction is, ultimately, about building stronger emotional intelligence (or EQ). One could argue that stronger EQ is paramount to any kind of life success. As for the skill and knowledge that one can retain from reading non-fiction, its application is likely to be more efficient and physically tangible if it is also coming from an emotionally evolved place. Reading fiction is, in short, a liberal arts degree that never ends, and costs very little. It can even be free if you’re near a library or have an e-reader (for public domain works – which many classics are). As for any kind of tangible recognition of intellectual growth, the benefits of reading fiction can, and have, been measured.

This study, undertaken by The University of Toronto and published in the Creativity Research Journal, determined that test subjects who read fiction had significantly higher levels of cognitive openness than their non-fiction/essay reading

counterparts. Reading fiction, especially literary fiction, requires a consistent ability to alter perception and flexibly bend the mind around the story, rather than simply reading to find an answer. Indeed, the behaviour and conclusions of characters in fiction can challenge and surprise you, all whilst requiring you to shift your thinking, often in uncomfortable ways. Ever read Lolita? Enough said.

The truth is that our ‘real lives’ do not afford enough opportunity to empathise and experience the perspectives of others. Life is busy and chaotic, but it is nonetheless streamlined to our own perspectives and experience. The friends we have, the relationships, the careers, and the kids; all of it is localised and narrow. When this becomes the extent of our daily existence, we really don’t need more insular material to further permeate it. Non-fiction, whilst it certainly has a place, is often undertaken with our insular lives in mind. It may assist with refining our inner worlds or goals, but it is rarely capable of transforming our relationships with the wider world. Fiction greatly improves theory of mind. Theory of mind itself goes towards an ability to comprehend and understand those different from ourselves. Such an ability is not only invaluable to localised prospects of work and family but is also crucial to our understanding of the wider

Lolita is considered to be one of the most contentious works of fiction in history.
Lolita is considered to be one of the most contentious works of fiction in history.

world, news, sociodemographic factors, human behaviour, and personal affliction. When you are a reader of fiction, the world simply looks different, as does your place within it. Your inner world becomes less of a bubble and more of a lens.

Bibliotherapists know this all too well. Bibliotherapy is a discipline in psychology, wherein the treating physician will prescribe books to patients. Study into the area indicates that reading fiction can be as useful as pharmaceuticals in treating people with a variety of mental afflictions. An ability for a person to enter a story that is not their own, considering the various perspectives and outcomes of others, can be mentally transformative, and even healing. When discussed in group settings, where a patient can hear the insights of others on the same story, and how their perspectives differed, they can come to recognise the concept of fluidity in thinking. Thought shift, and a gradual broadening of thinking processes and perspective can often transform a person’s inner perception. Most prolific readers have a few books in their library that they will insist changed their lives. From reader to reader, those books will rarely be the same. The experience is intensely personal and nuanced. In the end, however, you are more likely to have such an experience with fiction.

Reading fiction makes you more successful, more evolved, and certainly more emotionally intelligent. It might even make you happier. You don’t need to be a prolific bibliophile to get the benefits. A few well-placed books over the course of a life will likely do the trick, but it’s a trick you should pull out of your hat. There is simply no excuse for not curling up on the couch with a glass of wine and coming to learn the true pleasure that can come from a great narrative – especially when it might improve your own.

As for a response to the infuriating question that started this article, tell them to google it like everything else. There is no shortage of research to answer the question, and that research is non-fiction, so there should be no hurdle in reading it.



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