For and Against: Should we read more fiction?

Two of our writers go head to head on the subject of reading fiction.

AGAINST – What a waste of time 

[Brad Johnson | Deputy Editor]

When anyone offers me or tells me about this amazing book they are reading, my first reaction is to head in the opposite direction because I can guarantee although my eyes look like I care, I really don’t. Fiction in the form of books is the biggest waste of time ever, fact.

I can sum it very simply. I have my problems therefore I do not need to know about other people’s made up problems in often unrealistic situations. I have been told by many people that fiction will make me more creative, the problem is that in the time I could be being creative I’d be stuck reading some pointless story. Don’t get me wrong, I love a non-fiction book where I can actually gain some intellectual content for my brain, but fiction is just a drain on my time and mere existence.

One thing I can tolerate is books made into films because then I can get the jist of someone else’s unrealistic problems and be done with it in two hours max! I know what you are thinking though, “you can’t get a grasp for the true story in film form”, don’t care . . . if someone is willing to spend £50 million or more to make it into a two hour bite size chunk then I’ll go for that thank you!

hp

Even Harry Potter World is based on the films, granted they’ll have some book box set in the gift shop and charge you obscene amounts to line JK Rowlings pockets even more but the core interest is on the films. Also, since when has a child magician been character building? I’d be bloody over the moon if I could do magic but I can’t so reading Harry Potters make me think that the real world is crap and on the whole underwhelming . . . thanks fiction for that!

So if you ever ask me why I don’t like literary fiction, then here are just a few reasons why I really don’t need it! Also, just read and watch the news, the stories you hear around the world these days are just a crazy as any fiction, plus its real so actually will affect our lives . . . although we can all relate to Of Mice and Men, how many of us have tended the rabbits since we read that? Exactly, bloody fiction . . . just no.

FOR – In defense of fiction: The fantasy and the escape 

[Kat Clements | Contributing Writer]

When I was asked to write this article, I was flabbergasted. How could anyone – anyone at all – not value fiction? How could anybody argue that we don’t need books?

narnia

I’ve always been a bookworm, and I’m proud of it. When I was six years old I was given a box set of The Chronicles of Narnia and I’ve never looked back. Fiction – usually fantasy, SF, crime & humour – has been a vital element of my life. Whenever I needed to escape my own life – which was, and is, often – I reached for a book so I could live someone else’s. When my parents wanted to punish me as a child, they’d take away my books – at least until my collection grew so large they couldn’t. To quote Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird – “Until I feared to lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.”

Imagine, for a moment, a device that allowed you to swap minds with someone else. You could take over someone’s body, live their life, see what they saw and feel what they felt. You can really experience someone else’s outlook on life – know their mind and soul as well as your own. You can, as Atticus Finch says in To Kill A Mockingbird, “climb inside someone’s skin and walk around in it”. This is what fiction does.

Terry Pratchett, in his book The Science of Discworld, calls humans “Pans narrans, the Storytelling Ape”. He talks a lot about schemas – the “frameworks” or scripts by which we understand the world. We use stories to understand the world around us – to predict what will happen next. It’s a fundamental part of how we see the world. From our very earliest days we tell each other stories, as a way to communicate emotions, feelings, desires and dreams. Without stories – from the nursery tales told to children to sophisticated novels – we can’t fully appreciate or explore the world around us.

The ancient Greeks understood this. In his book “the Symposium”, Plato tells a story about the beginning of the world, when humans were created. He tells us that there were originally a race of eight-limbed creatures, some of which were male, some were female, and some hermaphrodites. But the gods became angry, and split them apart into two beings each. Each being was a human – male and female, from the hermaphrodites, and male or female from the others. They were scattered to the ends of the earth, but always searched to be reunited – and that’s why people fall in love with people of the same gender or the opposite gender, because to begin with they were one being. Plato was one of the greatest philosophers of ancient Greece, and he proposed his theories as stories because he knew that that was how people would learn them best. One of his most famous texts, Gorgias, is written as a script of a dialogue between Socrates, another philosopher, and Plato’s characters Gorgias, Polus, and Callicles.

The Greeks aren’t the only people to understand the power of storytelling. The art of parables and allegories is an ancient one. In the New Testament, Jesus tells parables – like the parable of the prodigal son. A farmer has two sons, one of whom is tired of waiting for his inheritance and demands to be given the money in his father’s will now. His father, heartbroken, gives it to him and he runs away to the city, spending all the money in days. Utterly broke, he ends up working as a swineherd (pigs were “unclean” to the Jewish audience for this parable) and eventually comes crawling back to his father, utterly unrecognisable. His father welcomes him with open arms, gives him a clean robe and the best place at the table, and orders the best food they have to be brought. His brother, who stayed at home working, is furious; why is his wayward brother being rewarded for his stupidity? Because, says the father, he was lost and is found; and Jesus tells this story to illustrate the depths of God’s love, the way he will forgive anyone who comes to him, and how happy God is to see a sinner saved. Jesus tells this story because it’s a way to help people understand what he is saying.

Parables and allegory are one thing – surely that’s not the same as fiction? Well, no. But fiction is important because it carries a message.

frank

Maybe you remember Frankenstein – probably you remember some B-movie hammy acting. The book, by Mary Shelley, tells the story of a scientist who – in the words of Jurassic Park – was so caught up in seeing if he could, he didn’t stop to think whether he should. It’s a cautionary tale relevant today (in the wake of disasters like Fukushima), forcing us to consider our own hubris (pride and arrogance, playing God).

Another book that I recommend to everyone – try and keep up – is Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo. It’s a social chronicle of life during the French Revolution, telling the story of the poor of Paris, forgotten by the rich and privileged; and yet, on the small scale, it’s a searing portrait of Valjean’s redemption, and a beautiful record of the evolution of his soul from thief to martyr, delivering an object lesson in love, selflessness, and virtue. But the book is shot through with social commentary – much like the novels of Charles Dickens, who campaigned tirelessly for better living conditions in London, using his books to raise awareness of the shocking suffering of the Victorian poor. Dickens’ books revealed to the upper classes the depths of the misery that the working class suffered, and played a key role in changing that society.

marvel

Now to the modern era – and to comics. Yup, that’s fiction too – and it’s just as important. Marvel’s new series Ms Marvel, which you might have heard about, features a Muslim-American superhero, 16-year-old Kamala Khan. She doesn’t wear the bikini or heels that have become de rigeur for female superheroes; instead, she wears a practical tunic and trousers, with no impractical cleavage on show, and as well as battling bad guys she struggles with her identity as a child of immigrant parents. This is a paradigm shift in comics, and it matters because there are thousands of young women who have the same problems as Kamala – and the news that a superhero can be like them can make a huge difference. Same goes for Marvel’s much publicised LGBT characters, like Hulkling and Wiccan, who shared a kiss on the cover of Young Avengers. Fiction is a mirror of life, but it can also change things.

So to sum up – why do we need fiction? It makes our world a better place. It shares the stories of the forgotten and downtrodden. It gives us a framework with which to understand the world. It conveys to us ideas we could not understand otherwise. It is an escape, a doorway to a better life. It allows us to work through issues we would not be able to engage with outside of that medium. It makes our days better. It adds magic and colour to our dull, drab mundanity. And it helps us save the world – whether that means being inspired by Tony Stark to work on clean energy, remembering the warnings of Frankenstein and being cautious in our embrace of technology, or recalling Valjean’s selflessness and being inspired to do something kind for someone else.
The opinions expressed here are the writers’ own and are not endorsed by Trident Media or Hertfordshire Students’ Union. Let us know what you think about fiction @TridentMediaUK!

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For and Against: Should we read more fiction?