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Novels Are a Waste of Time. Except They’re Not
Russ Roberts’s Top-5 Novels and Mine, But Novels Aren’t Real, Charles Portis and Toni Morrison’s Research, More
A few years ago one of my favorite podcasters shared his top-five novels. They were Mark Helprin‘s A Soldier of the Great War, Robert Crichton‘s The Secret of Santa Vittoria, William Faulkner‘s As I Lay Dying, Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend, and—tied for a spot on the list—Alexander Solzhenitsyn‘s In the First Circle and Fyodor Dostoyevsky‘s Brothers Karamazov.
Roberts gives a lot of space to the humanities on his show. He recognizes the social sciences are enhanced by the arts. Others agree. Roberts recently interviewed psychologist Paul Bloom about his book Psyche, a comprehensive statement on the field. While defending the findings of psychology, Bloom admits something surprising:
I think it was Noam Chomsky who once said that if you want to learn about human nature . . . you'd be much better off reading some good novels than reading any psychology textbook in the world.
And I agree with that. If I want to know about successful marriages or raising your children or running a business or being a person in this century, there’s a stack of novels that are well worth reading. And I know of some really good TV shows, some good documentaries. It’s not that psychology will teach you the secrets of human nature at a level that will give you something above and beyond that. Our insights are often banal and uninteresting, and we don’t write anywhere near as well as a great novelist. I will cop to all of that.
Roberts and Bloom are, however, up against a view I sometimes encounter. Maybe you have, too. Namely, that because fiction is imaginary it’s not worth reading. It’s not as valuable as nonfiction, not as capable of conveying useful insights about life, the world, and all the rest.
Back in 2009, for instance, 37Signals founder Jason Fried, an entrepreneur I admire, said, “I don’t read fiction. I find it a waste of time. There are so many amazing things that are real; I don’t need to spend any time on a made-up story.“ I’ll take a lot of Fried’s advice. Not this.
I only read factual books. . . . I mean, novels are just a waste of f—ing time. I can’t suspend belief in reality. . . . I just end up thinking, “This isn’t f—ing true.”
I like reading about things that have actually happened.
Gallagher’s whole screed is something else. But the truth is neither he nor Fried seem to understand what’s going on with fiction or its value.
It’s a mistake to equate fiction with unreal. Novelists aren’t pulling candy floss out of the air and calling it a book. Consider historical fiction. Richard Cohen includes novelists such as Walter Scott and Hilary Mantel in his wonderful history of historians, Making History. Why? Because they have shaped our understanding of the past and—importantly—are working with source material that grounds their narratives in real life.
But this goes for most any kind of novel. The final product is almost always mix of personal experience and research—sometimes heavy research. Novelist Jake Wolff describes what his process looks like here.
Another way to discover this reality is by looking through the working papers of authors themselves. Library of America recently published a single-volume edition of Charles Portis’s novels, essays, and reportage. The editor Jay Jennings knew Portis and was given access to “a . . . cache of Portis’s papers, brimming with notes, ephemera, and correspondence. . . .” There were receipts of research trips, jotted story details, and notes about characters and events.
“Many of these notes speak to the historical novelist’s fusion of imagination and accuracy,” says Jennings,
a hybrid process addressed by Portis in his letter to the Fort Smith [National Historic Site] superintendent: “[M]y ‘research’ wasn’t very professional. If I couldn’t confirm something, or locate a particular fact I needed, I would just make something up. And something much better, too, I told myself, than the dreary fact would turn out to be. I wasn’t writing a treatise, only a novel. Still, you like to get things right.”
Whatever their mix of fact and fantasy, the novelist is trying to reveal truths about the world and largely succeeds or fails to the extent that readers recognize something real in the work. “You like to get things right.”
An exhibition of Toni Morrison’s archives have recently gone on display. They show how fully Morrison investigated the worlds she created in her novels. “That she was a meticulous researcher is no surprise to those of us who’ve encountered the precision in her work,” writes Syreeta McFadden.
Morrison listened to jazz records, researched when silencers were made for firearms, studied 1920s Jim Crow laws regarding segregated train cars, and pored over maps of waterways and small towns from 1870s Virginia.
But there’s more here, of course, or we would just read newspaper clippings. Morrison, says McFadden, “pieced together neglected stories with an eye toward what history ignored, and gave them space to breathe.” Grounded in facts, a novelist can go beyond them and explore ideas to which historians have no access. Morrison’s “archival materials demonstrate not just the potency of her thinking,” says McFaddon, “but also the care and meticulousness required for literary mastery.“
Is it make-believe? Only in the most reductive sense. Is it more than that? To people like Roberts and Bloom, yes, obviously. Good novels can be psychology, history, philosophy, even economics, and more besides.
Not your cup of tea? No worries. But to blow it off like it’s unimportant or meaningless is a bit myopic. Someone could just as easily—and erroneously—tell Fried that planning and coordinating work (through platforms like Fried’s own Basecamp) is nothing compared to actually doing the work, or Gallagher that songwriting isn’t too tough; it’s just stringing together rhymes and a few chords.
“Research is formalized curiosity,” said novelist and lay anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston in her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road. “It is poking and prying with a purpose. It is a seeking that he who wishes may know the cosmic secrets of the world and they that dwell therein.” It’s safe to say far more people have enjoyed the secrets Hurston unearthed in her novels than her formal folklore work—though it’s all of equal value. She couldn’t do the one without the other.
All of this comes close to highlighting the true value of fiction, something Bloom says explicitly in his interview with Roberts.
One of the reasons why I love novels—to go back to them—is novelists, of course, are extraordinarily skilled at putting us in the heads of people with lives very different from our own.
You could go off the rails on this point and make outlandish claims about the benefits of that process, but the simplest, humblest expression of the point is that fiction provides conceptual and emotional diversity to the reader who is otherwise constrained by their own experience and all its deficiencies. Good fiction represents a powerful resource just an arm’s length or a click away. Hardly a waste of time.
As philosopher Martha Nussbaum said in her book, Love’s Knowledge,
We have never lived enough. Our experience is, without fiction, too confined and too parochial. Literature extends it, making us reflect and feel about what might otherwise be too distant for feeling.
Finally, it’s worth dispelling one last misconception here. Contrary to Fried and Gallagher’s sentiments for the “real” and “factual,” history isn’t simply a record of what happened. Historians have agendas, projects, perspectives, and biases—all of which affect their portrayal of what, why, and how anything in particular happened or didn’t. If we think otherwise, we also misunderstand history.
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As mentioned up top, Russ Roberts shared his five favorite novels. For those interested, here’s my current list:
Eugene Vodolazkin’s The Aviator
C. S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces
T. C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain
Cormac McCarthy’s The Road
Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven
None of these really happened. Still, they’re all really good. But notice they’re mostly modern? There are a lot gaps in that list. That’s why I started my classic novel goal for 2023. So far none of the four books I’ve read have knocked one of these off their perch, though Pride and Prejudice comes close.