Opinion: The power of fiction

Carley Hull is a senior magazine journalism major. Contact her at [email protected].

Carley Hull

About 21 years ago the late David Foster Wallace said in an interview, “I had a teacher I liked who used to say good fiction’s job was to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.”

In Wallace’s mind, entertainment was not the sole goal of a good read. Reading fiction was supposed to push us out of our own minds and into the minds of others. So while many of us pick up a novel for an entertaining escape from reality, we in turn get so much more.

Reading fiction has the power to help people empathize with others, according to 2006 and 2009 studies conducted by psychologists at the York University in Canada and the University of Toronto. Through their studies, the psychologists found that people who read fiction were better at understanding other people and their perspectives of the world.

I believe empathy is important for all people to understand the vast cultures and situations other people live with. Most of us will not have to go through hard situations like a school shooting and its aftermath, like in Jodi Picoult’s “19 Minutes,” or living in a 1960s mental institution, as in Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” but reading about characters in these situations can help us come closer to understanding how real-life people felt by reading their fictionalized counterparts.

Foster Wallace stated this idea similarly: “We all suffer alone in the real world; true empathy’s impossible. But if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own.”

Still, what we are reading is fiction, and we can relate it to reality because fiction still has some ounce of realism through the characters making decisions and having emotions.

In The Atlantic’s essay “Confronting Reality by Reading Fantasy,” the writer Joe Fassler explored how reading “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” took a problem in reality and transformed it into a problem in fantasy. The characters may be in a magical world through a wardrobe, but they still bring their suffering from the WWII London evacuation and very human emotions to Narnia. Reading of how others deal with their hardships in fiction can ultimately teach us lessons for our own lives by empathizing with these characters we read about.

So grab a good work of fiction. You just might gain more than an escape.