4 reasons why you should read fiction
...even if it hurts
At the end of last year, I came across this tweet.
Because I am a book person, I clicked on the tweet.
It’s by a renowned Twitter thread creator (more on them in the future) and in this case, he doesn’t disappoint. He creates a thread of all the threads — covering recommended books, podcasts, and travel experiences from his followers.
Out of a list of 100 books, I could only quickly identify 5 or 6 as fiction. (I won’t get into female writers or minorities or even new vs old).
The fiction list included one by Ocean Vuong, another by Cormac McCarthy, The Three-Body Problem, an Andy Weir book, and one by a writer named Matt Haig plus Notes from the Underground.
I’ve seen other lists like this. I’ve also heard of tech people and entrepreneurs talk about how fiction is a waste of time.
As a male that reads mostly fiction, I am in the minority.
There are lots of reasons why this is probably so — class, race, and a lack of imagination. Men still read fewer books though male fiction writers still get a lot, if not most of the attention.
But why should people read more fiction?
I’ve thought about that question for the past few weeks after seeing that tweet and list from Dickie. These are the reasons I’ve come up with.
Even though I’ve studied English literature at a higher level than the average person (I have a Master’s), I’ve never really given much thought to why people do or don’t read.
Generally, I’m not that concerned about it — I suggest reading any type of book is better than not reading one at all. In fact, we are all reading much more than we used to—driven by text messaging, social media, and emails, etc. So I’m not worried about an illiterate society.
But for people that like books, and actively want to appear wiser (like a Twitter Threadboi), why should they consider fiction?
1. Fiction improves the imagination
Fiction often contains rich descriptions and lyrical language, which can open up new avenues of thought for readers.
Think about figurative language, vivid descriptions, and complex story arcs. This can evoke powerful images in the mind of the reader, as well as spark ideas that can be applied to new and creative projects. This is different than stories on the screen. In a book, you have to consciously make the scenic choices; in a movie or show — that choice has already been made for you.
Fiction can also help to create a more vivid imagination by exploring a range of experiences and ideas that may be outside of readers' direct experiences.
Reading fiction is more active than passive.
In my own life, I’ve been described as someone with *too* many ideas. I’m not sure that’s a good thing, but fiction has to play a part.
2. Fiction creates better emotional intelligence
By connecting to the characters in a story, readers can better understand the emotions and feelings of others. This helps to increase readers’ emotional intelligence.
Fiction books especially provide conflicted motivations and more gray area than an advice-oriented business book. History books can recount, but aren’t as good at describing the moment of decision-making — fiction books can set up stakes in ways those books cannot. Everything becomes more nuanced.
From the Harvard Business Review:
…Reading fiction predicts increased social acuity and a sharper ability to comprehend other people’s motivations. Reading nonfiction might certainly be valuable for collecting knowledge, it does little to develop EQ, a far more elusive goal.
3. Improved Writing Skills
Reading fiction, with its unique structure, teaches readers the art of writing by example. Fiction exposes readers to a variety of writing styles and techniques. This can help readers understand how to craft their own stories in an effective and interesting way.
That’s especially true for description, but it’s debatable if you’re writing for motivation and persuasion. However many top copywriters recommend reading fiction, if not to expand the pallete of word choices. Even though art isn’t advertising, the words can still bring inspiration.
4. Fiction can be fun 🥳
It’s remarkable that fiction isn’t really considered fun anymore, but more like work. This isn’t necessarily true of course, but when you pit video games against books they quickly get dwarfed.
Frankly, that book number is surprising to me, but not as much when you consider how many different types of books there are compared to the number of movies that we typically see.
That book number is slightly misleading (to me at least) because a lot more books are published each year than blockbuster movies, making it harder to break out as a book.
This is hard to believe that there was a place and time when getting a hot new literary fiction book, whether it be Barbara Kingsolver, John Updike, Zadie Smith, Tom Wolfe, or Jonathan Franzen was a badge of honor, like watching a HBO show today. Book of the month clubs were popular things and a sign of status.
Is fiction fun though? 😏
I still haven’t answered that question. I’m kind of dancing around it, by providing data about how other types of media are fun, too. Fiction is more work — much harder than turning on Abbot Elementary or Big Bang Theory.
But the pandemic has turned books around, BookTok is a thing — adding yet another type of status to social media.
For a certain type of person, books are fun. And before video games or VHS tapes or cable or whatever, I’m not sure people read more books. They were in the bowling leagues, and the softball team, perfecting their woodwork or embroidery.
Or hell, maybe young men were working more.
IS FICTION FUN THOUGH?!?!? 🤪
Fiction is consuming.
It’s not your regular fun.
Some books I tear through quickly, like Ohio by Stephen Markley, which I just finished. Still took me a few days though.
When fiction really clicks, it takes over your life. You find moments you didn’t know you had just to see what happens next.
But these highs are fleeting. Not every novel turns out that way. Some days are harder than others to see what happens next. I’ve given up on more books than I have movies, knowing that the time commitment to finish a book is more than finishing a movie or even a TV show.
That said, when one really hits — like Ohio, like Crossroads, like On Beauty, like Station Eleven, like Mouth to Mouth — it really hits. It takes over your world and your mindset. It changes the way you think and you can’t really think about anything else.
The highs are much higher, the lows are more dangerous and frustrating. If you don’t have a book club, or a friend who read the book before, it’s a lonelier experience.
And that’s hard. With video games, you can play against randos or comment on a stream. With a movie or TV show, you usually watch with a significant other or a trusted friend.
Novels don’t work like that.
Fiction isn’t fun.
It hurts. It’s riskier. It’s more dangerous.
Not everyone is up for that.
One more thing:
That tweet about women reading more fiction continued fromwith this:
The Three-Body Problem.
I don’t have hard proof. All of my evidence is circumstantial. But all the tech bros who seem to hate fiction, will read The Three Body Problem.
If you’ve noticed this phenomenon, please let me know.
More Things to Read
Links from above + more
The list of books I read in 2022, most of them fiction.
Has gaming defeated Hollywood? At The Ocelot
Popular BookTok titles. At Barnes and Noble.
The rise of men not in the labor force. At NY Post.
Colleen Hoover had 6 of the 10 bestselling books of the year, selling more than 14.5 million copies in 2022. At LitHub.
I’m working on this a few days earlier because I’m taking my kids to Harry Potter World at Universal Studios in Orlando.
Topics I’m exploring.
What’s next for the creator economy
Writing as thinking
Life (not) as a narrative