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Tuesday, September 14, 2010

On the Relevance of Fiction

More than one person has remarked to me over the years that they only read non-fiction because novels are not about "real" life. While I certainly read my share of non-fiction (that is a part of my day job, after all), I generally prefer reading good fiction when I have the time. This is because fiction not only tends to be more entertaining than non-fiction, but it is often better at offering insights into human nature than is non-fiction. Consider, for instance, the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. No doubt, there are great books about the period, but if you really want to learn about its impact on those who lived through it, read John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath instead.

I suspect that it is because fiction tends to reach a wider audience, that many non-fiction authors often try their hand at fiction. Yale law professor Stephen Carter is a good example. The author of widely-acclaimed and controversial non-fiction books, such as Reflections of an Affirmative Action BabyThe Confirmation Mess and The Culture of Disbelief, in recent years Carter has turned to writing fiction (e.g., The Emperor of Ocean ParkNew England White, and Palace Council) in which he explores many of the same themes he expounded on in his non-fiction books. However, in a much more entertaining way.

I write this post as I reluctantly read Dick Francis's final novel, Crossfire (co-authored with his son Felix). Francis, a former steeple-chase jockey who died earlier this year, wrote over forty mystery/thrillers novels that were related in some way to the racing industry. While his novels have always been fun to read, they have also touched on a number of issues that got to heart of what it means to be human (e.g., honor, loyalty, doing what is right) in a world that is not always fair.  My guess is that his insights (as well as those of other successful fiction authors) have touched far more people in the real world than have most academics such as myself.

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