"Reading" (Photo Credit: Shena Tschofen, flickr)

Neil Gaiman on The Truth of Fiction and Why Fiction Matters Today More Than Ever Before

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In a recent article, novelist Neil Gaiman argues for literacy and libraries, but he also argues for fiction’s role in helping children understand the real world.

Have we failed children by prescribing what they should or shouldn’t read in school? Neil Gaiman thinks so.

In a recent lecture on reading, re-printed in The Guardian (“Neil Gaiman: Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming”), Gaiman argues that our future depends on allowing children to read whatever they want. Specifically, he argues that children should read fiction — any fiction, not just the fiction adults want children to read.

"Reading" (Photo Credit: Shena Tschofen, flickr)
“Reading” (Photo Credit: Shena Tschofen, flickr)

Gaiman’s argument goes against some of the changes in reading curricula in schools, which emphasize reading non-fiction. Yes, being able to synthesize and analyze non-fiction is an important skill, but reading fiction, according to Gaiman, fosters long-term skills, like empathy. A recent study on reading and empathy backs up this claim.

What strikes me most about Gaiman’s argument is his claim that reading fiction brings us closer to the truth than other forms of reading. It’s through fiction that young readers learn more about the world around them than they do from any form on non-fiction. And, as writers like David Shields argue, non-fiction is often trite, over-simplified. Gaiman goes along with this, saying

Fiction is the lie that tells the truth, after all. We have an obligation not to bore our readers, but to make them need to turn the pages. One of the best cures for a reluctant reader, after all, is a tale they cannot stop themselves from reading.

This simple statement says more about the role of reading fiction than the thousands of literary theory books and articles published on the subject. When comparing modern popular fiction to modern non-fiction, I learn more about life from the simplest story than I do from the most complex non-fiction argument. In fact, the best non-fiction titles are ones that tell stories; a good example is The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson.

Neil Gaiman Writing Advice
Neil Gaiman (Photo credit: 22Words)

Last summer, non-fiction science writer Jonah Lehrer was caught plagiarizing – and in some cases, outright fabricating – portions of his articles in Wired, The New Yorker, and his book Imagine: How Creativity Works. Fellow non-fiction writers like Malcolm Gladwell didn’t denounce Lehrer, they defended him (granted, not everyone defended him, but it took a freelance writer working on his own to uncover Lehrer’s lies).

Even though Gaiman’s lecture focused on child readers, I’d argue his ideas matter to adult readers as well. Sometimes, we forget the power of a good story, whether it’s written or told well, or not. We worry too much about what we think is important – what is literary, or what sells the most. We forget that stories affect our outlook on our lives and the people we see every day.

For writers, this means we have a lot of power. And we shouldn’t forget that. We need to keep making our stories and our words better — to craft the best work we can.

About Kevin Eagan

Kevin Eagan (@criticalmargins) is a freelance editor, writer, and teacher who lives in Central Florida. He edits book manuscripts and articles for local and national publications. In addition to writing about book technology and teaching college students how to write, Kevin works as an associate editor for punctum books. Previously, he was the books editor for Blogcritics. You can also follow him on Google+ or check out his professional website, KevinThomasEagan.com.

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  • Anon

    Empathy is not a skill, it is an emotion. It only becomes a skill when one is using it to manipulate others. Understanding and evaluating our emotions is quite
    important for personal development, yet advocating a need to empathise
    over a need to analyse is a sure way to emasculate all critical debate.

    Fiction is important in today’s society because quite a lot of our

    perceptions on reality and our views of society, and our relation to it,
    are now heavily rooted in a fictitious narrative. To a point, I’d
    argue, that many can no longer see the strings and wires.

    As an English, English Literature, post-grad student, I have
    encountered in my studies a trend of treating fiction as fact or
    indicative of a mass consensus. Many studies have formed over the years,
    such as colonialism/post-colonialism, feminism, queer studies, which
    often take works of fiction to be indicative of factual events and a
    mass consensus of opinion and belief, and furthermore blatantly
    encourage readers and students to view the texts as they wish them to be
    seen. These texts, and the studies that have used them and/or
    influenced them, often become politicised (often intended to do so) and
    have been forced upon the academic community (heavily since the Marxist
    revolution of 1968) with a coercive attitude that espouses a desire for
    liberal understandings but uses words like racism and homophobia to
    conjure sympathy and to silence any debate.

    This article is heavily grounded in this Marxist attitude. Lies never
    tell the truth. They only tell a version of what might be true in this
    world, but without facts these truths becomes undefinable and unreal.

    In my personal opinion, though I encourage reading in the youth of
    today, I would not ever promote fiction over fact and view the attempt
    to do so as the surest way to kill off all critical debate.

    • Prof M

      Your reply reads like an exercise in contradiction.

      First you state empathy is not a skill, but an emotion, when it is in fact the ability to share or understand the emotions of another. You seem to understand that though as your second statement contradicts the first stating that empathy is a skill, albeit you have attached your own very narrow definition of the term. This is baffling when considered it’s coming from a Literature major.

      You end your article with the opinion that youth should never read fiction if non-fiction is available because it will result in the end of critical debate, yes the majority of your response is composted of your critical thoughts on fiction.

      Accepting fiction as fact isn’t a new problem; it’s as old as language. The safeguard to this is critical thinking. Reading fiction doesn’t detract from the value of the skill, it should be applied regardless of what you happen to be reading.

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  • templeruins

    For writers, this means we have a lot of power. And we shouldn’t forget
    that. This is why, as writers, we need to keep making our stories and
    our words better, to craft the best work we can.”

    -Kev, You are a journalist, not a writer.