Is Reading Fiction . . . Safe?

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Stories have always stimulated our minds. Thousands of years before computers were dreamed of, people told stories and passed them down from generation to generation.

Our earliest record of fiction comes from the morality plays of the eleventh century. Typically, these allegorical dramas followed a story line where the antagonist tempts the protagonist to sin. And, much like our inspirational fiction of today, the protagonist finds peace, salvation, or hope, through the grace of God.

The belief in metamorphose is old. Today’s writers call this the character arc of the protagonist. The writer asks the reader to think and feel. With the suspension of disbelief, our minds reach out. As readers of well-written fiction, we think it could happen. Psychologically, the story becomes part of us. We realize we too can change.

With the origin of fiction, people thought literature could change and improve our actions. Today we turn the assertion into a question. If reading can change us, is reading fiction . . . safe?

As we learned last week, our brain doesn’t make a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life. Just as in dreams and memories, the same neurological regions are stimulated. (Have you ever had a child tell you about something horrible that happened last week and start crying as if it had just happened?)

In his book, Such Stuff as Dreams, Keith Oatley proposed that reading produces a vivid simulation of reality, one that “runs on minds of readers just as computer simulations run on computers.”

And just as my grandsons’ piloting skills improve when they spend time in a flight simulator, so people’s skills of understanding themselves and others should improve when they spend time reading fiction.

Fiction gives readers an experience found only on the page. As we read, we can enter fully into the thoughts and feelings of fictional characters which simulates the feelings of other people.

Dr. Oatley notes, “I liken fiction to a simulation that runs on the software of our minds. Just as computer simulations can help us get to grips with complex problems such as flying a plane or forecasting the weather, so novels, stories and dramas can help us understand the complexities of social life.”

So what exactly is fiction? Contrary to popular opinion, the word doesn’t mean untrue. The Latin word, fingere means to make. The Greek word, poesis also means to make. Both fiction and poetry come from the imagination, on the part of both the author and the reader.

Novelist Henry James said fiction is a direct impression of life. Robert Louis Stevenson didn’t agree with that statement. A novel, he said, is a work of art.

Oatley researched the effects of fiction on readers. He tested for empathy and understanding of others’ minds.

Participants looked at photographs of people, showing only the eyes. For each image, they chose the most appropriate of four words, “joking, flustered, desire, or convinced,” to describe what they thought the person was feeling at the time the photo was taken.

Regardless of personality type, people who preferred fiction had greater empathy than those who read mainly non-fiction. The more fiction people read, the better they were at having empathy for others.

Which leads us to our third question: Will reading fiction turn men into . . . sissys? Thoughts?

Until next time, . . . Sharon A. Lavy

15 Replies to “Is Reading Fiction . . . Safe?”

  1. Thanks for the inspirational thoughts, Sharon.

    I love how we learn through characters’ mistakes and subsequent changes.

    Romans 15:4 shows us this applies to Bible stories too. “For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.”

    Interesting fact about fiction readers being more empathetic. Makes sense because people read to feel. I love that. We story writers help unlock hearts. We soften people to take a closer look at truth. Nothing sissy about that. Soft hearts rock.

  2. What a great post!

    Whether or not it is ‘safe’ probably depends on what which fiction we embrace. Some fiction is rather volatile, so it depends on who the reader wants to be. We become what we do, eat and read. The idea is choose wisely, and to know thyself.

    A friend in academia spent several years reading all the Christian literature he could get his hands on, and then spent the next several years reading all the information he could find to refute the other teachings. He ended up opting for the former as opposed to the latter. Even after reading all the information that he felt was unsafe, he just said, “Nevertheless…” and at the end of the literary journey, was that much more committed to his faith. That being said, another component of safety is knowing the impressionability of one’s own mind.

  3. I read this this week.

    “Neanderthal man listend to stories, if one may jusdge by the shape of his skull. The primitive audience was an audience of shock-heads, gaping around the camp-fire, fatigued with contending against the mammoth or woolly-rhinocerous, and only kept awake by suspense. What would happen next? The novelist droned on, and as soon as the audience guessed what happened next, they either fell asleep or killed him.”
    E.M. Forester in Aspects of the Novel, as quoted in The Eye of the Story by Eudora Welty.

    1. Love this: as soon as the audience guessed what happened next, they either fell asleep or killed him. Talk about a tough audience!

  4. I do think it’s interesting that fiction can be true– and the closer it is to reality the more it connects with people.

  5. Thanks for sharing this information, Sharon. The book by Oatley sounds fascinating.

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