to Fiction or Not to Fiction?

The Daily Post asks – which do I prefer, fiction or non-fiction?

I’ve been reading much more non-fiction lately than its counterpart, but an admission of habit doesn’t consummate an endorsement. Instead of my undergraduate idols like Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Twain, Calvino and Delillo, now my reading pile is full of business and political biographies, philosophy, psychology, and software development manuals.

What gives? I can’t explain the transition, other than hinting that I don’t get paid to read novels, whereas skills or ideas I pick up from non-fiction have a chance of application in my working life. It’s a cheap premise, and I shudder to think I’ve unwittingly given up on the textured experiences of reading make-believe for the slim chance that I might find better financial rewards elsewhere. Reading non-fiction doesn’t also conclude I’ve disowned creativity – the best works of non-fiction can expose an unbelievable universe just as well as Tolkien can.

Fiction might be a little more ‘dangerous’ to read, in the sense that I don’t know how deeply affected I’ll be by the time I turn the final page. That could be why I’ve been skimping on it.

Non-fiction feels safer in the way of its predictability. A work of fiction might promise a simple narrative, but underneath the story of a kid floating down the Mississippi on a raft is a byzantine world of emotions, culture, desires and fears.

With some exceptions, non-fiction doesn’t usually offer characters that might confront my understanding of the world and run contrary to it. In fiction (good fiction) characters are explored beyond black & white existence, inhabiting a murkier grey area in which good and bad can cohere. Characters make decisions that expose moral puzzles, and the reader can be left confused about where to place sympathy. Non-fiction is usually much clearer about who its villains are.

Non-fiction opens slowly before it presents a challenge, and usually attempts to uncover a solution or display rationale before it finishes. Fiction often does the opposite; it begins with picture of stability, then transforms it into chaos, quitting haltingly just after the highest point of drama and leaving me to come to conclusions independently.

The authors of non-fiction (at least the kind I’ve been reading lately, and not the creative non-fictionists of the Wolfe and Mailer school) indirectly impress upon readers the idea that their subjects are under control, figured out, and ready for clear-eyed examination. The writers of fiction don’t dare to be as presumptuous, they are more likely to say ‘here is what exists, judge it as you wish.’

Of course there are exceptions to my generalization. There exists non-fiction which is just as challenging and open to interpretation as a novel, and there is some very bad fiction which is utterly thoughtless and predictable. The problem is that when non-fiction leaves its thesis open to analysis, it is much less entertaining than the same experience or idea presented in a fictional format – and when fiction is predictable, the time spent with it could have been made more prosperous by examining the monotony of the real world, instead.

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