Fiction offers many intellectual benefits that are similar to non-fiction books. However, these benefits are more abstract and quite ambiguous, and thus, harder to pin down than a self-help book. Yet both non-fiction and fiction rely on knowledge to produce benefits. In this essay, I will explain the intellectual benefits of reading fiction. There are four main focal points: Language and Rhetoric, Ideas and Philosophy, Benefits and Wisdom.
Key considerations include:
- How novelists present sophisticated ideas
- The structure of a novel compared to narrative and informational non-fiction
- Why readers love fiction and the importance of pleasure
- The divide between ‘educational’ and ‘entertainment’ in literature
- Topics regarding ‘literary merit’
Consider the nature of information whilst reading this. All books, regardless of genre, curate and reveal information to the reader. A talented thriller author will not reveal who the killer is initially, thus contributing to gaps in the reader’s knowledge. Not only does this establish mystery but it ensures the reader will pursue answers to his own questions. Our human desire for knowledge and wisdom is the driving force behind reading.
Rhetoric & Language
A reader can analyse literature through both micro and macro methods. The latter refers to the ‘big’ issues: plot, characterisation, pacing, setting and theme. However, micro aspects include: word choice, syntax, sentence structure and paragraph length. A reader should not ignore the importance of either micro or macro methods in analysing literature.
Language unites the macro and micro. You cannot have one without the other; they are both puzzle pieces fitting perfectly together. Yet language is not the only present concern. Rhetoric, made famous by Aristotle in the 4th Century B.C., deals with persuasion. Whether one discusses theatre, copywriting, political propaganda, academic literature or fiction, one discovers the power of persuasion. This process is straight forward in non-fiction. An author, such as Jordan Peterson (as an example), presents his findings, arguments, evidence and ideas in a linear fashion. Contemporary non-fiction uses headings, chapters and sections to divide information which adds further clarity and structure. The strength of an author’s arguments relies with persuasion. If a reader of a self-help book is convinced through quantitative research, then the author must provide this if the persuasion will be successful.
This differs in fiction. An author may employ chapters or paragraph breaks, but this does not change the inconsistent distribution of information. We, as the readers, cannot figure the gist of a novel within a beginning chapter. The thesis, or theme, of a novel is hidden through characterisation, setting and narrative. A novelist must present his ideas through narrative alone. This emphasis on storytelling explains the concerns of ‘preachiness’ in fiction. A teenager may scoff at an overly moralistic Young Adult book and remain unconvinced. As this is both a failure in storytelling and rhetoric, the lacklustre performance of the author is more noticeable and damaging than a poorly explained blog post.
My point is: a novelist uses storytelling and narrative to mask information and arguments. There’s a reason why high-concept fiction requires a satisfying execution, as readers will engage with disliked ideas if there is solid storytelling. Although I disagree with Margaret Atwood’s conclusion and worldview in The Handmaid’s Tale, the storytelling is interesting enough to grab my attention. I have a similar sentiment about His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman. In many ways, storytelling is the best method in sharing ideas, particularly controversial ones.
Ideas & Philosophy
All books are driven by ideas. As said earlier, this is regardless of genre. However, a novelist may be unconscious of the ideas he or she uses. Few novelists, especially in adult fiction, are brazen about messaging or enforcing moralism. This is understandable, as such tactics can weaken the reading experience. But one cannot create a story without engaging with ideas. A character is an idea, as is a setting or a conflict. Of course, a novelist will end up combining and fleshing out ideas. This is because ideas are useless on their own. Each thought requires further contextualisation and information.
Philosophy is an interesting topic in literary studies. Certain novels, such as Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina are deemed philosophical, as are the writings by Michel Proust, Albert Camus, David Foster Wallace and Italo Calvino. This classification helps potential readers prepare, and understand, the intellectual ideas brewing in these novels. However, this does not mean that other novels aren’t rooted in philosophy. Whether one discusses genre or literary fiction, there is a reflection on the author’s philosophy and engaged with ideas. This is most notable in science fiction. A genre deemed by some as ‘escapist’ and ‘not serious’ is brimming with ideas. From the short stories of Ted Chiang to Frank Herbert’s Dune, ideas are the flower seeds of the genre.
Even stylish decisions are rooted in philosophy. A magical realist novel from Latin America uses abstract scenarios and far-fetched imagery to reflect the chaos and history present in say, Columbia. A well-known example is One Hundred Years of Solitude by Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez. Other books in this style include Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie and The Tin Drum by Günter Grass, two novels presenting complex philosophies and histories through magical realism.
My point is that novels present their ideas through symbolism, archetypes, narrative, genre and characterisation. This makes the ideas present in fiction seem abstract and open to many interpretations. Whereas non-fiction is open about its intentions, there’s something maze-like to fiction. A novel is truly a labyrinth of ideas; an enigma nestled in another. Personally, it’s difficult to take notes from novels because a novelist presents his or her philosophy in a much different way than say, a business writer would. So often a reader confuses ideas with theme. We should view theme as a tree, with each branch representing interconnected ideas.
It’s natural for a writer to present ideas through literature. However, this does not explain why readers purchase and devour books. Common reasons given why people read books include: immersion in a different world, escapism, personal fulfillment and solutions to contemporary problems. Wisdom is crucial to all four of these elements. But what does this mean? We associate wisdom with figures like Gandalf from Lord of the Rings, or Albus Dumbledore from Harry Potter. Yet wisdom is the desired result from life experiences and knowledge. A writer or a reader having wisdom will improve the reading experience as it makes the process more intellectually fulfilling. From an author’s viewpoint, wisdom can improve the life of others. On the other hand, a reader’s perspective and wisdom will assist in critical thinking and skills regarding comprehension.
Intellectual stimulation occurs when wisdom meshes. Wisdom is useless if it’s never used to advance or improve yourself or others. More importantly, wisdom requires testing. It’s too easy for a highly intelligent or empathetic person to fall into superiority and egoism. By exposing yourself to other perspectives, this can tame such impulses. Fiction has many strengths. For one, novels give the viewpoint of characters and their scenarios. This elicits empathy and, in some cases, make the reader consider the character’s concerns. This is certainly the highlight of Crime And Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Through understanding the protagonist and side character’s actions, we gain both wisdom and humility.
Of course, you don’t need to be Yoda to gain the benefits from reading. Your wisdom, and understanding of the world, will naturally develop over reading many novels. A problem may arise when you fall for shortcuts, or believe that one book is sufficient enough in your quest for enlightenment. A great reading list develops naturally as you age. This is because the connection one has with literature is life-long, as are the intellectual benefits.
Novels offer many benefits: intellectual enrichment and a closer connection with other human beings. As for intellectual benefits, the most important one is the engagement with ideas. A novelist accomplishes this through storytelling and curating information. The brain becomes more sophisticated when it is exposed to new ideas, and thus, an author succeeds when they engage with the reader on an intellectual level. The greatest novels are not complacent and have the power to challenge the reader on a philosophical level. This is certainly a strength of writers with unsympathetic protagonists. It’s a challenge to earn the readers sympathy, yet the cleverest of writers manage to do so through mastery of language. Well known examples include Atonement by Ian McEwan and Les Misérables by Victor Hugo.
This is also why some books are greater than others. Ideas do not solely determine the worth of a novel. However, the intellectual factor is crucial to measuring the worth, and greatness, of a literary work. It’s why Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities is greater than A Christmas Carol. Literature is more than escapism or an aesthetical pursuit. It’s medicine for the human soul. Novels become even more enriching at this realisation.
A problem haunting much of modern literature is the distinction between the subjective and the objective. Many are quick to presume that due to the debatable and controversial nature of literary merit, it therefore doesn’t exist because its subjective. This is not true. A topic can remain subjective and still be worthy of discussion and debate. A perspective cannot turn into concrete fact, but viewpoints that are well-argued and reasoned should matter.
There are numerous benefits of reading fiction that are similar to non-fiction. Although the function of a novel differs to say, an analytical book regarding global affairs, this does not diminish their power.