Why We Read Fiction

by kangcuzzi

As a debater, I’ve heard a fair share of skepticism on the value of reading fiction. Some say it’s naïve, others say it’s worthless; those in the latter group often go so far as to render fiction a ‘waste of time’. Last summer, when I was preparing for a major debate competition, I remember being caught with a work of fiction and cringing as my coach dramatically (but not entirely jokingly) buried his face in his hands. In those days, I, too, felt little pangs of guilt whenever I decided to forego a book on nascent democratic states for a Murakami novel, and I would convince myself that reading was a zero-sum game which I would win if I ‘balanced out’ my choices later on.

So far this year I’ve read seventeen books, only three of which were non-fiction. The remaining fourteen — novels, short story collections, novellas — have exposed me to a range of themes and cultures and writing styles so distinct, so invigorating, that I have come to formulate my personal response to why we need fiction in our lives.

But first — what exactly is fiction? To make a long story short, fiction is a way in which we make sense of our lives. It is the product not only of observation, but also of careful synthesis: the stringing together of thoughts, memories, pictures and feelings that maximise the human capacity to be. It is this maximisation that distinguishes works of fiction from their non-fictional counterparts; whilst non-fiction states things as they are, fiction also states what they could be, taking into account the various permutations of human experience — cultural, psychological, personal or otherwise — and using these precedents to formulate lessons we can apply to our own lives.

Thus, fiction is a gift that keeps on giving, that simultaneously reflects how we are now and anticipates what we will become. And once we become what we are destined to become, fiction morphs yet again and brings us more opportunities to make sense of our new identities.

That’s why we turn to works of fiction in times of distress, confusion or great joy. In fiction there is a camaraderie that we cannot find elsewhere, a subtle reminder that our individual experiences are legitimate. In the opposite scenario, fiction is also available as a reminder that we are not islands unto ourselves, that there exists a greater range of human lives beyond our own that are equally worthy of celebration or commiseration.

Fiction has saved me more times than once, and for that I’ll always be thankful. Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar stayed with me on days when I felt that the world was moving so much quicker than I was. Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life taught me what it means to cherish timeless friendships. Around the World in Eighty Days made an otherwise banal week filled with endless train rides a journey to remember.

Recently, I’ve also come to appreciate fiction for its capacity to reveal the lives of others. After a friend of mine recommended Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, I’ve developed a new voracity for contemporary African literature. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been particularly immersed in the works of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a Nigerian novelist whose books deal with topics such as the Nigeria-Biafra War (1967-1970) or the modern-day American-African experience in countries like England or the US. Whereas I previously knew very little of the African experience, after three books’ worth of stories and memories I now know a little bit (certainly not a lot) about, say, the frustrations that come with styling natural African hair, or the devastating ways in which the Nigerian Civil War divided a country and its various ethnic groups.

Obviously, I still have a long way to go. But fiction has helped me understand the world a little better than I did before. As a Korean born, Hong Kong bred girl who has met very few people of African descent, I find it empowering that I am no longer ignorant about an entire group of people whose lives are, in fact, very similar to mine, and whose literary representation deserves greater appreciation in the same way the Korean experience deserves.

And boy, have I learnt a lot. I used to see Africa as a ‘distant continent’ that was incredibly different from my own. Now I know better. One day I’d like to travel to Nigeria and try jollof rice, fried plantains, yam pottage or the myriad other things that remind me of the comfort food of Korea. I’d like to meet people from these countries and integrate myself into their families, finding in the interactions between elders and youth, neighbour and neighbour, societal elements that remind me very much of my home country. I’d like to see, for myself, the reality that the world is really small, a very big kind of small, in which the discovery of similarities are made ever more wonderful by how different people can be.

And how humbling it is, to think that I may not have made this realisation had it not been for the democratising nature of fiction. In fiction, everyone’s experience is legitimate. We can make true whatever we wish to be true, we can make relevant whatever we wish to be relevant, we can make wonderful and amazing and intricate whatever we wish to be so.

(Of course, it doesn’t hurt that fiction is terribly good fun to read, which is why an eighteen year-old student can devour three books during exam season and not realise how absurd this is.)

So it is a shame that fiction sometimes has a ‘bad rep’. If anything, what deserves shame is the attitude that condemns fiction in the first place. If we want to learn more about the world, not through numbers but through the lens of humanity, we need fiction. Perhaps seeing the world through this latter lens might make more sense of what we see through numbers and statistics and other objective tools to begin with.

Because, obviously, we’re all human. And the primary priority of every single human is to be human: to feel, to react, to reflect. Fiction lets us do all three.