Fiction: Is it good for you?

Fiction: Is it good for you? April 29, 2012

Some of you may be sprawled out on a couch reading fiction right now, or others may be sitting in a favorite chair reading some novel, and you may well know I’m not … so it’s worth a discussion:

Are novels good for us? How so or how not?

Just in case you are interested in my take, I’ve always maintained (for no good reason) that “classics” (even if a novel, say Homer or Dante or Bunyan or Dickens or Hemingway) are not the same as “fiction” or “novel.”

The research by Jonathan Gottschall contends those fiction stories are good for us.

Is fiction good for us? We spend huge chunks of our lives immersed in novels, films, TV shows, and other forms of fiction. Some see this as a positive thing, arguing that made-up stories cultivate our mental and moral development. But others have argued that fiction is mentally and ethically corrosive. It’s an ancient question: Does fiction build the morality of individuals and societies, or does it break it down?…

Until recently, we’ve only been able to guess about the actual psychological effects of fiction on individuals and society. But new research in psychology and broad-based literary analysis is finally taking questions about morality out of the realm of speculation.

This research consistently shows that fiction does mold us. The more deeply we are cast under a story’s spell, the more potent its influence. In fact, fiction seems to be more effective at changing beliefs than nonfiction, which is designed to persuade through argument and evidence. Studies show that when we read nonfiction, we read with our shields up. We are critical and skeptical. But when we are absorbed in a story, we drop our intellectual guard. We are moved emotionally, and this seems to make us rubbery and easy to shape.

But perhaps the most impressive finding is just how fiction shapes us: mainly for the better, not for the worse. Fiction enhances our ability to understand other people; it promotes a deep morality that cuts across religious and political creeds. More peculiarly, fiction’s happy endings seem to warp our sense of reality. They make us believe in a lie: that the world is more just than it actually is. But believing that lie has important effects for society — and it may even help explain why humans tell stories in the first place…..

Fiction is often treated like a mere frill in human life, if not something worse. But the emerging science of story suggests that fiction is good for more than kicks. By enhancing empathy, fiction reduces social friction. At the same time, story exerts a kind of magnetic force, drawing us together around common values. In other words, most fiction, even the trashy stuff, appears to be in the public interest after all.



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  • In short, yes. It’s good for us.

    –Dayne Sherman, Novelist

  • Makes me proud to be a fiction writer.
    “…fiction seems to be more effective at changing beliefs than nonfiction…” I didn’t actually know that to be so, but I think it was my suspicion of it that moved me to make the switch from sermons etc. to concentrating more on writing fiction.

  • Tom Howard

    I believe YES and that is why great storytellers are so powerful. As an “obsolete” mechanical engineer I appreciate logic and reason and evidence but a good story will persuade me.

  • KC

    What do you mean when you say: “a “classic” (even if a novel, say Homer or Dante or Bunyan or Dickens or Hemingway) are not the same as “fiction” or “novel.””
    In my mind those classics are literary fiction…

    This excerpt does ring true in a lot of ways though. I would argue that even nonfiction has the power to do the same thing though, since any story as long as it is well told, can entrench the reader and give hope in a more just world. Especially if you consider the Bible to be a work of nonfiction – it is a story that we consider to be true, not made up, but it is told to engross the reader and help them believe in a world and a God that is better than our own. That’s powerful stuff.

  • scotmcknight

    KC, “classic” is a word I use for famous novels/fiction that need to be read because of culture importance, but since I’m not a huge fan of fiction, I prefer to call them “classics.”

  • “…the two most important personalities that came out of the American civil war were…Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara….”
    -Shelby Foote

  • JohnM

    “…even the trashy stuff, appears to be in the public interest after all.”

    Well, I read THAT with my shields up! 🙂

  • CK

    Absolutely, novels are “good for us”! Although I’d agree with you, Scot, that some are more valuable than others (vexed questions of canon aside). I’d like to expand the article’s generic focus beyond narrative fiction and drama to include poetry – which you implicitly do by citing Dante and Homer, though epics are narrative). My feeling is that the aesthetic experience has significance for individual and cultural values beyond the effects of story alone. Of course, as the article points out, this is an ancient debate!

  • The Bible contains fiction. Jesus told fictional stories (parables) to communicate truth about God and God’s kingdom. Nathan made up a story to convict David of his sin of adultery and murder (2 Sam. 12). His story was much more powerful than if he had just confronted David directly. If Jesus and the authors of Scripture thought fictional stories should be used, that works for me. Thanks for discussing this topic.

  • I’ve wondering about a variation of this question for awhile. Namely, why is fiction so good for you? The way I phrase the question assumes that an answer to your question: it is good for you.

    The thought sort of snuck up on me through a Wendell Berry novel about the good folk in Port William, Kentucky.Day by day, hour after hour, the characters celebrate and work and live and grieve together. It just felt good reading that book. It seemed I was better person after having read it. But I don’t know why.

    The research you cited here helps me think through this question a little better. Good post!

  • Diane

    Proverbs 29:18 is close to me: “When there is no vision, the people perish.” Interesting, the proverb follows with the “vision” being the Law– the Law, remarkably, cast as the fictive vision of the shalom kingdom. The law not as dogma but as vision! Amazing.
    I have heard that in the 1950s, Hollywood’s moguls colluded and decided no more movies about the power of communities; it would all be about individuals. It took the Christian right –perhaps ironically, perhaps not–to re-imagine robust community. As I mourn a lack of vision of communities, which forces us, implicitly, to choose individualism or the state, I also mourn the dominance of dystopic visions of the future in film and books–we need a science fiction, as we used to have, that soared to imagining immense hope, possibility and abundance, for, as Oscar Wilde said, nature imitates art.

  • JW

    Marilynne Robinson’s “Gilead” helped save my faith…so yes.

  • David Wegener

    Can’t agree with your distinction between classics and other novels. Almost think it’s a dodge.

    There are well-written novels and poorly-written novels. Read the good ones. They are windows into a culture and help us develop our communication skills and our imagination. The best preachers (usually) are novel-readers.

    Reading novels by African authors (e.g., in the African Writers Series) provide me with a window into African culture (which is, unsurprisingly, not monolithic).

    Fundamentalists used to warn against reading novels. Can’t remember exactly why they said that (perhaps because of its power), but it was not wise counsel.

  • scotmcknight


    I guess you can’t see humor when it’s present. I’ve been poking fun at my own lack of novel reading for years by saying I read classics and not novels. (I do try to read one every year; this year I read Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. Last year I read Kafka’s The Trial. And most years I read Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea and Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. I read a Koetzee and Alan Paton before our trips to South Africa.

    It was the Puritans who were against novels.

  • RJS

    Scot, Try The Lord of the Rings … definitely a “classic” not a novel.

  • I thought we had this conversation a couple of years ago. Flannery O’Connor’s fiction changed my life (A Good Man Is Hard to Find, Everything That Rises Must Converge, Wise Blood, and The Violent Bear It Away). Don’t tell me you haven’t read C.S. Lewis??? J. R. R. Tolkien??? Pat Conroy??? William Faulkner???

    I weep for you.

  • Jeremy

    Absolutely, novels are good for us. A well-written novel exposes us to ideas, cultures and situations that we would not otherwise be open to. Story disarms our defenses like nothing else can. For most of us, reading non-fiction is intellectually stimulating, but the information just kinda bounces around in our heads giving us a nice party trick. If it’s something we disagree with, we’ll actively argue with the text the entire time. A novel opens us up to internalization that far surpasses head knowledge. Authors like Nadine Gordimer of South Africa are heavily credited for moving their people towards justice in ways that activism could not.

    It’s telling that any attempt to control a population relies heavily on control of the stories being told.

  • David Wegener

    Sorry, Scot. Didn’t get the humor.

  • I agree that novels are important. I read mostly non-fiction. But the more non-fiction I read, the more I need novels to re-set my brain. Non-fiction seems to describe the world, but it seems to be that fiction is what really tells us about the world.

    I think healthy reading needs both.

  • Reading only non-fiction is akin to paddling a canoe with only one oar. You’ll wind up going around in circles and getting nowhere.

    This has been one man’s opinion.

  • Scott Gay

    Aesthetic values and disvalues are universal. Ayn Rand, in a not so known novel called “The Romantic Manifesto”, asserts art as one’s own value judgments and personal philosophy and simultaneously criticizes naturalism. This is a form of status quo. It seems to me that the marvelous order and process of external nature and the fantastic vision and process of inner nature combine aeshtetically in good writing. There are many forms of saying things when it is difficult to explain why different people like different things……especially things you don’t like…this is classical.

  • John W Frye

    Scot, I am glad Bob Brague in his comment above suggested Pat Conroy. Because of your love of Italy, I would suggest that you begin with *Beach Music.* Conroy’s novels are amazing, but gritty in that they face head-on family dysfunction. Conroy wrote *The Great Santini* and *The Prince of Tides*. Because of your love of basketball, you will like his *My Losing Season* (a non-fiction book about his days and friends of playing basketball for The Citadel). I would guess that Kris has read some of Conroy. Am I guessing rightly?

  • scotmcknight

    Bob Brague, do you read the comments? I mentioned some of those authors above … and I forgot Flannery, I love Flannery. But she’s a “classic” too.

  • Graham I

    Having grown up on a diet of science fiction I and later on fantacy, I would have to say that one of the benefits I have noticed with both myself and, now my children, is this type of fiction has allowed me to consider outlandish ideas with perhapes a little more patience. Of course little compares to Tolkein’s writings for the pure joy and excitment of a truely integral imaginary world.