Agreeing with some points from the young man who reads no fiction but attempting to correct some fallacies

Dear Gergely,

Thank you very much for responding to me chastising you for not reading fiction and for taking my old man’s stern words in a positive spirit.

As is so often the case in “arguments” we are not actually far apart. I’m not arguing that anybody should read only fiction, especially at the cost of actually living life. And you seem to have accepted that reading some fiction may be worthwhile.

I’ve tried to summarise my arguments and yours, clarify further where we agree and disagree, and refute any fallacies I detect in your argument.

I summarise my arguments thus:

  1. Fiction is the best way to learn about human relationships; the truth is in the fiction
  2. The importance of style
  3. Fiction is the best way to occupy another world and another mind
  4. Reading fiction is essential for learning to write well

Your arguments are:

  1. Reading fiction is a form of escapism
  2. Non-fiction is “knowledge and pleasure” with the implication that fiction is simply pleasure
  3. Non-fiction is a better way to understand another world than reading fiction–for example, Cortes on Mexico
  4. The truth is in yourself not in fiction

You seem to refute my arguments that fiction is the best way to learn about human relationships and that “the truth is in the fiction.” I’m not arguing that reading fiction is the only way to learn about human relationships, and having relationships is clearly fundamental to understanding them. But you are born only once (and have no memory of that), are yet to die, and experience only a limited number and range of relationships, usually in one or two countries and one or two languages. (You are doing well here.) Fiction can introduce you to an unlimited range of relationships, loves, and deaths and provide insights from multiple minds (not just one) into those phenomena.

You argue that science will help us understand humans and their relationships, and I agree that they can tell us much. But as some sort of scientist, I think that fiction can let us feel and experience things like depression (Darkness Visible) and child abuse (A Little Life) in a way that science can’t.

And when you argue that experiencing Mexico through Cortes is somehow superior to reading fiction by Mexicans about Mexican life (both now and in the past) you are surely very wrong. Cortes was a brilliant man in many ways, but he was also a bloodthirsty, buccaneering, Catholic fanatic who was busy destroying a people he did not understand or respect. His prose may be rich, and his account of his adventures will be worth reading–but they will be a million miles from “truth.”

I can’t accept that reading good fiction is “escapism.” It is, I suggest, the opposite. It is a very active process that allows you to examine yourself, your beliefs, and your relationships. It requires much more from you than watching a film or a football match. Reading Cortes or Cyrus the Great will also require concentration, but they are unlikely to tell you much about yourself, your beliefs, or your relationships. Nor can I accept your implication that fiction is not knowledge: this can be true only if you have the most narrow view of what constitutes knowledge.

You seem broadly to accept my arguments that the style of fiction offers something that non-fiction rarely offers, although it can, and that reading fiction may be the best way to learn to write well.

As a result of this interchange you are going to read some fiction, but what is your prescription for me. Get out more?


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