Why We Need Fiction

- by Barbara Keiler

Glinting like a ray of sunshine through the gloomy headlines is a bit of good news for novelists: the recent release of a 105_05061report by the National Endowment for the Arts announcing that Americans read more fiction this past year than they had in any of the previous ten years.

Among the theories offered for the increase in fiction reading, the head of the NEA mentioned the Harry Potter and Twilight mania among younger readers, Oprah’s endorsements, and “Big Read” programs in which municipal leaders urge everyone in their community to peruse a classic like The Great Gatsby or To Kill a Mockingbird.

Many of my writer friends believe that during times of trouble, people seek escape from their problems through entertainment.  They cite the popularity of movies during the Great Depression and hope that in our current economic downturn, people will escape into the novels we’ve written.

While I agree with all those theories, I’d like to add a theory of my own: people turn to fictional narrative as a way to make sense of our troubled world.

This is not the same thing as seeking escape.  If that was what people wanted, they could escape with television, MySpace and Facebook.  But the internet and television don’t provide much in the way of fictional narrative.  Television has replaced hours of narrative story-telling with reality shows, sports competitions, news roundtables and celebrity gossip.  And while I suspect that a great deal of what gets posted on the Internet’s social networks is fiction, these sites don’t offer the same narrative experience readers can find in a novel.

Why does it have to be fiction, though?  Plenty of non-fiction is written in narrative form, with a beginning, a middle and an end.  But non-fiction is, by definition, reality.  The reader enjoying a biography can’t imagine herself into the story.  She might be skeptical about the authenticity of a non-fiction book; enough fake memoirs have been published lately to make a reader wonder whether what she’s reading is fact or fiction.  Yet as long as the book is presented as non-fiction, the reader can’t approach it wondering, “What if?”

“What if?” is the basis of all fiction.  “What if a girl chased a rabbit down a hole in the ground?”  “What if the ghost of a dead king informed his son that his murder at the hands of his wife and brother must be avenged?”  “What if a wry outsider during the Roaring Twenties became embroiled in the romance between a married socialite and a millionaire of dubious background?”  “What if a young girl in Depression-era Alabama became caught up in her father’s efforts to defend a black handyman charged with raping a white woman?”

“What if?” is the portal through which readers enter a work of fiction.  It is the key that unlocks our imagination.  If I read a biography of Eleanor Roosevelt, I can’t imagine myself as Eleanor Roosevelt.  But if I read To Kill a Mockingbird, I can imagine myself as Scout Finch, or her brother Jem, or her father Atticus, or Tom Robinson, the man accused of rape.  And by imagining myself in that fictional world, I can gain insights into my own beliefs and coping strategies.

Surviving in tough times requires imagination.  Fiction liberates our imagination in a way non-fiction-to say nothing of TV shows like “American Idol” or “Hardball”-does not.

So I’m not surprised people are reading fiction in these difficult days.  And I don’t believe we’re reading fiction only because we want escape.  We’re reading fiction because we want enlightenment, not just about the challenges we face but also about ourselves.

Fiction asks “what if?”  By exploring that question, we can discover important truths our own lives, our values and our connection to the world.


  1. Great post!

  2. Thanks, Estella!

  3. I totally agree. I can’t watch any sort of torture, slasher or horror film. Sorry, just can’t. I even plug my ears. I do think the hundreds, no thousands of times our children see such cruel things on TV and in the movies, slowly desensitizes them….

    Thanks for the frank and interesting post!

    I, too, read the report stating people are reading more now than in the past few years. It was a boost in these uncertain times. We must keep creating so readers won’t be disappointed.

    Congratulations on your prolific career!! Eighty-six novels!! Outstanding!! Whew!!

  4. Sorry, top paragraph was from another blog….

  5. An excellent post, Barbara. I sure hope the fiction-reading trend grows and grows!

    I agree that people read fiction to escape, to make sense of things, and to let their imagination take flight so they can better understand life. I think another related reason is that it helps us feel that we aren’t alone.

    That’s paradoxical because we may be all alone when we’re reading, but when we enter into a fictional world we have companions. We find characters we relate to, who are like us, or maybe a little more flawed than us (which can make us feel good!) or a little wiser and stronger than us (which gives us something to aspire to).

    I was an only child with busy parents and, though I had a best friend, at home I was often alone. Except, I wasn’t. I had Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, and the Hardy Boys. I could rescue The Black Stallion or discover Misty of Chincoteague (yes, I was a horse lover).

    No big surprise I ended up being a fiction writer! Over the years, so many authors have given me so much pleasure, companionship, and insight, I only hope I can do the same thing for other readers.

  6. Thanks, Caroline and Susan! Susan, that’s a good point. Because we can “enter” a novel, we can have companions in the fictional world we inhabit as we read. I don’t think I’ve ever felt lonely, or even alone, when I’ve been reading a novel.

  7. I dont think that reading fiction to make sense of the troubled world is the most intelligent use of one’s time and intention. In fact it could quite easily be counter productive.

    Fiction is just circus for so called intellectuals. Mostly a waste of time. :)