Fiction versus nonfiction: Which is better?

The age-old fiction-versus-nonfiction debate resurfaces, with a rock musician taking one side and a Supreme Court Justice the other.

Jonathan Short/Invision/AP
Oasis member Noel Gallagher (r., with Sarah McDonald, l.) recently criticized novels in an interview with GQ Magazine, calling them a 'waste of... time.'

Fiction is “a waste of ... time.”

So said rock musician Noel Gallagher in a recent interview with GQ Magazine, reigniting the debate on the value of literature in the information age.

“I only read factual books. I can't think of ... I mean, novels are just a waste of ... time,” Gallagher told GQ UK in an interview to mark his becoming GQ’s ‘Icon of the Year.’ “I can't suspend belief in reality … I just end up thinking, 'This isn't ... true'.”

While his style and scale of attack was more scathing than most – Gallagher is a rock musician known for stirring controversy – the songwriter was, in fact, echoing the sentiments of many readers: that non-fiction is more useful, more worthy of one’s time than fiction.

As Gallagher, and we suspect some other readers, prefer, is reading “about things that have actually happened.”

It’s a not uncommon sentiment, one we have heard anecdotally in our own circles of readers. And it turns out surveys back this up, particularly among male readers.

A 2010 Harris Poll found that male readers, especially male Baby Boomers and seniors, were more likely to have read nonfiction than fiction books, with the greatest gender gap appearing in the genres of history, politics, current affairs, and business. (For more on the gender gap in reading, we recommend Roz Warren’s recent post titled “Are there really ‘men’s books’ and ‘women’s books’?")

Incidentally, the Harris poll did find a slim margin of all readers preferring fiction to non-fiction: 79 percent to 78 percent.

Nonetheless, there often appears to be a perception that nonfiction is “smarter” than fiction, that the former deals in facts, truths, and information, while the latter is merely “made-up stories” designed to deliver a pleasant escape. 

Leave it to Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, then, adjudicator of the highest court in the land, to refute popular perception.

Justice Breyer, you see, is a reader, and an avid reader of fiction at that. And in fact, he considers the reading of fiction instrumental in his work as a Supreme Court Justice.

“...reading is a very good thing for a judge to do,” Breyer said in an interview with France’s La Revue des Deux Mondes, which was translated into English and pubished in the New York Review of Books. “Reading makes a judge capable of projecting himself into the lives of others, lives that have nothing in common with his own, even lives in completely different eras or cultures. And this empathy, this ability to envision the practical consequences on one’s contemporaries of a law or a legal decision, seems to me to a crucial quality in a judge.” 

As we reported in an earlier post, studies by psychologists Raymond Mar and Keith Oatley suggest that “individuals who often read fiction appear to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and view the world from their perspective.”

“The emotional situations and moral dilemmas that are the stuff of literature are also vigorous exercise for the brain, propelling us inside the heads of fictional characters and even, studies suggest, increasing our real-life capacity for empathy,” Annie Murphy Paul wrote in a June 3 article in Time Magazine.

As Breyer so astutely observed, “We are only allowed to live one life: it’s the human condition, there’s no escaping it. In my view, only by studying the humanities can we hope to escape this fundamental limitation and understand how other people live. Because literature, history, or philosophy all provide extraordinary windows on the world.”

Take it from Justice Breyer: Fiction is no waste of time.  

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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