Why Bother With Literary Fiction?

“I know more than I can express in words and the little I can express would not have been expressed had I not known more.”

Vladimir Nabokov, Strong Opinions

The reading age of an average adult in the UK is 13. The UK Literacy Trust says so. That’s the competence of a year nine, a child with three years of secondary school left, and GCSEs to take. Overall, we do not make progress, then, but regress with age. With so few books read the majority does scarce practice; regression is inevitable. As historian Susan Jacoby has said, we know fewer avid readers because of competition for time from other media and work labour; there are few hours for mere reading pleasure. And everyone knows the newsy statistics that show literary fiction sales are down, and its readership dwindling.

You could reasonably jump to blame the decline on a widespread disdain for art and reading as a waste of time, but entertainment and storytelling themselves still flourish. Perhaps literary fiction will fade into a rarity comparable to the theatre, poetry, and comic books. Though, these are now minority traditions and mediums; and sophisticated prose fiction is a genre of writing rather than the medium of writing. Other prose genres remain popular, such as Young Adult Fiction, so there is potential for rekindling a literary tradition. What trends now is just that: a trend, which may raise from statistical trough to peak. Indeed, the genre we call ‘young adult fiction’, was birthed by semi-literary fiction, like John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids, a dystopian sci-fi novel from 1955.

And let us not forget: screen entertainment is written and boasts narrative conventions. Scenes, for example, work like chapters with a cut from scene to scene signifying a change in time, place or perspective. (As psychologists say we think, so we art: we chunk). Earlier films, silent films, make this evident by often subtitling narrative shifts with words, for instance: “ninety minutes earlier…”, “LONDON”, “an assassin”. In a manner shared by storyboards and comics. Contrary to these conventions being natural, they only become natural to us: “second-nature” is a wise phrase. We learn to read film and television as we do other mediums. The fact that the earliest films made their narrative shifts obvious with subtitles or voice-overs is telling. Early audiences unfamiliar with these new phenomena called “movies” had to be instructed, hinted along.

Anthropologists explain that when someone who has never seen a screen watches a situational comedy or a romantic film – they have no clue what is going on. Afterall, for the untrained the point of watching and the sequence of events is indecipherable. They can no more understand television than read Norwegian. The inability of some to get into books, therefore, is not because the medium itself is inferior, but because they lack exposure to books in a way they once lacked exposure to screens. Screen passivity now is just an earlier, easier, acquaintance.

As with art house film, so with literary fiction. Crossing from film to art-house or fiction to literary is easy. Often people just need to give it a chance; they may end up liking something against their pre-judice. For the pleasurable experience, rather than the shelving category.

And there is some cause to hope that quality media and writing is not mistaken for pretension or doubted in principle. Most people asked would say they would like to be well-read, informed, and to read quality journalism; whereas no one reasonable would say they want to be badly-read, ignorant and to read junk journalism.

All of this and the existence of stories through the whole historical record – that’s why there is a record at all – shows that humans need stories and strive for quality. From religion with its parables, nations with their founding stories, to the metaphorical ‘advance’ of science. Human nature necessitates sharing and narrative coherence; variations are less important than the inevitable, species-level invariant, theme of communication. (This is why it’s important to read to children, and they enjoy it so much.) Although ‘communication’ which implies only talking, does no justice to how we define ourselves and our communities. The sum of culture and contingency transcends individuals. The technology of writing and now digital media spreads and consolidates our sense of self and sense of community. Through the shared narratives of myths and conventions, we build selfhood and solidarity.

We think of our lives as a sequence of events with characters and, when asked, our life is conceptualised within metaphor as a ‘game’, ‘play’, ‘journey’ or ‘battle’. These significant parts of life (which features playing and journeying) come to form our understanding and experience of life as a whole. Indeed they limit it to merely ours rather than an objective, Godly, view of reality. Cognitive linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson say metaphorising is not arbitrary or merely metaphorical but inevitable sense-making by us Homo Sapiens. Filtering, distorting and having one thing stand for another is part of our biology. In language a word stands for an object or a concept, much as a metaphor stands one object or concept in relation to another—fictiveness pervades.

Part of this sense-making is actually delusion-making. We cannot understand the world totally as it is, but rather as we think of it; what is more, we like to have coherence and meaning. What inherent meaning life lacks, humans provide themselves. The random, dull, and ugly parts of life, as Jorge Luis Borges says, are edited out in fiction. Cause and effect and what humans like are stressed instead. Frodo does not (which is very plausible) die by a Ringwraith before he leaves The Shire but follows his quest; Miss Havisham is a spurned spinster instead of someone with a chance brain disorder; Emma learns from her failure rather than dies alone in apathy. And though playful fiction flouts sense-making convention, part of the joke of playful fiction is that there is no escaping pattern-making: even an antipattern is a pattern. In our own lives, we tend to think of ‘ought to’ and ‘meant to’ even if we do not believe in God or fate, and our abstract selves as having character traits. We can’t help it.

Stories, in general, be it from film, television, articles or books can contribute to who you are.

But what of the value of literary fiction, any story is a story right? Nope. While all narratives can culminate in an enriched self, literary fiction is better able to enrich the community and variously make humans more kind, giving, understanding, and empathetic. As cognitive neuroscientist Daniel Levitin explains in: The Organised Mind

When we read well-written literary fiction, for example, our prefrontal cortex begins to fill in aspects of the characters’ personalities, to make predictions about their actions, in short, we become active participants in figuring out the story. Reading gives our brains time to do that because we can proceed at our pace. We’ve all had the experience of reading a novel and finding that we slow down in places to contemplate what was just written, to let our minds wander, and think about the story. This is the action of the daydreaming mode (in opposition to the executive mode) and it is healthy to engage in—remember, it is the brain’s “default” mode.

Whereas other media – TV watching is notably the only pastime linked to cognitive decline – does not:

In contrast, sometimes entertainment comes at us so rapidly that our brains don’t have time to engage in thoughtful reflection or prediction. This can be true of certain television programs and video games. Such rapidly presented events capture attention in a bottom-up fashion, involving the sensory rather than the prefrontal cortices. But it would be wrong to focus on the medium and conclude “books good, movies bad”. Many nonliterary, or pulp fiction, and nonfiction books even though they allow us to proceed at our own pace, present information in a direct way that lacks the nuance and complexity of literary fiction.

Levitin concludes:

“Reading literary fiction, but not pulp fiction or nonfiction, increased the reader’s empathy and emotional understanding of people.”

Yet providing scientific evidence for what is intuitively known is silly. As the opening Nabokov quote hints; that our narratives shape who we are as people and as communities ought to be a given, for intuitively there is no better explanation. The Humean test of time – enduring – applies to science as much as fiction. And the puzzling, complex and nuanced should be credited prestige as it has through the prior centuries. Words are not everything, but they are so very much. As great writers know, you need not provide an argument for pleasure, experience, and meaning; words can fail to justify words. And that’s okay, even wonderful in a way.

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