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.
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.
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.