Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Fiction over Fact

While visiting my sister and her family a few years ago, I had a very interesting conversation with my brother-in-law, Tom, a history professor at the US Naval Academy. Tom’s research focuses on economic and environmental approaches to history. Check out his book on cars and the environment here.

We discussed approaches to teaching history (well, I asked questions and Tom gave very thorough, interesting answers). In academic studies, as in the fashion industry, various trends come and go, and I wanted to know what was currently in vogue.

This wasn’t idle curiosity on my part. My thesis entertained a somewhat
New Historical approach to Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, and I own scores of medieval history books. I adore history—at least as far as it is useful for illuminating literature. I know, for instance, a surprising amount about battle tactics of knights and the invention of the long bow, and I therefore know why the English kicked French butt at the battle of Crécy in 1346, but only because I wrote a paper on Chaucer’s “Squire’s Tale” and needed that information to support my argument about the pointlessness of the knightly class in late 14th century literature.

Hello? Tap. Tap. Are you still with me? I’m sorry. I know most people don’t really care about the pointlessness of the knightly class in late 14th century literature. Please accept my apologies for bringing it up.

My talk with Tom reminded me of an NPR report about how men generally read more nonfiction and women generally read more fiction and poetry. No definitive answer has been found to explain this difference so I started a little research of my own and asked Tom why he generally prefers nonfiction. He answered, stroking his chin professorially, “Fiction is an inefficient means of communicating information, and I decided it was a waste of my time reading it.” Hmmm. Data point number one.

I then asked my husband, George, the same question. He answered, “You know, when I read, I want information, and it’s just easier for me to get what I want reading nonfiction.” Data point number two.

Two test subjects may not constitute a valid study, but I’m certain most women will agree with the immediate conclusion I drew from my data, which is this: men are infinitely weird.

Let’s examine the weirdness, shall we? The charge that “fiction is an inefficient means of communicating information,” as Tom states, requires very narrow definitions of “information” and “efficient.” The images, symbols, allusions, metaphors, and general rhetorical richness of fiction and poetry communicate rather a lot of information in very few words, don’t you think? For example, let us consider the following short poem by William Carlos Williams:

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

What a great little poem. Despite its brevity, there is A LOT going on in it. I gave a five-minute oral presentation on it in 1982. By the end of college in December, 1987, I could have written a 20-page paper on it, easily. By the end of graduate school in 1994, I could have written a book-length dissertation on just these four lines.

How is this possible?

Williams efficiently crams an enormous amount of information (only we literary scholars call it “meaning”) into the image he creates with these 16 simple, ordinary words. The poem speaks to all sorts of universal concepts, including one that drives our Word of the Year project to start anew, fresh and clean. It speaks to the sacrificial properties of blood; of baptismal waters that renew and purify; of the redeeming power of the simplest, most ordinary things (like wheel barrows and chickens); of the value of honest manual labor; and of my favorite subject, perspective.

Okay, I may have lost you at “sacrificial properties of blood” but my point here is that just a few words can convey huge amounts of information if you know what information to look for. Reading literature well requires two things: knowing the specialized vocabulary of literary study and reading lots of literature. The more you study and read, the bigger your frame of reference and the more efficiently you can extract the information encoded in it.

The fact that this sort of information bears no relevance to the economic rise and environmental impact of automobiles is hardly the fault of the poem, but it does explain why such material is a waste of time for an economic/environmental historian like Tom. It also explains George’s statement that it’s easier to get information out of nonfiction: nonfiction doesn’t employ dense literary language but tends to lay out an argument or story in clearly logical fashion.

But does this make much difference in the process of reading nonfiction well? I don’t think so.

Let’s take a book off George’s shelf to illustrate my point. You don’t have to read a bunch of books about the atomic bomb to follow the argument in The Making of the Atomic Bomb. You can easily extract a lot of information about the bomb in the process. But what can you DO with that information? You would still have to read a bunch of other books about the atomic bomb to evaluate The Making of the Atomic Bomb critically for its meaning and to find the holes in its argument and the weak spots in its evidence.

So there’s not a big difference between reading fiction or nonfiction well…both require reading a lot to understand nuances and the deeper significance of the subject matter. The biggest difference is content. In fiction, the content is created to explore philosophical questions about life for which there are no easy answers: why are we here, how do we find ourselves in particular situations, what makes us who we are, what is love? Fiction gives us lots of information to explore these sorts of questions. It’s also written to entertain, which makes it more fun than nonfiction about the atomic bomb, don’t you think?

If, however, you’re interested in questions like how was the atomic bomb built, what were the motives behind its construction, who was involved, how did they feel about it, and what happened as a result, then nonfiction is definitely more helpful—and if it’s well written, it can be entertaining, too.

Ultimately, “information” is really just whatever interests the reader. Most women I know are content with just a little information on the atomic bomb and automobiles but are endlessly fascinated by relationships and love and human behavior.

Whenever I was forced to read “information” on economic history (John Stuart Mill comes immediately—and painfully—to mind), my brain would get all slippery and distractible. The buzz of my tinnitus, which was easy enough to ignore when I read Shakespeare or the Brontë sisters or James Joyce, would amplify annoyingly under the influence of Mill, and I’d start formulating grocery lists in my head or daydreaming about eating a Ruby Tuesday’s Chocolate Tall Cake all by myself. Yummy.

After a while, I would realize my brain wasn’t taking in a single bit of information from the page. I would tell myself, “Focus, Susan! FOCUS! You’re going to be tested on this crap!” To this day, I can’t tell you what Mill’s argument was. My brain never could adequately absorb it.

Is this what it’s like for guys when they have to read A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Wuthering Heights?

My bookshelves contain nonfiction on subjects other than medieval history, such as paper crafts, science, the human brain, autism, and special education. I don’t read fiction for information on those subjects (although there is a fun mystery series about scrapbooking), so I can understand Tom and George’s reasons for preferring nonfiction for their own areas of interest. I cannot, however, understand Tom’s view of fiction as a waste of his time in general or George’s inability to finish the second
Thursday Next novel by Jasper Fforde because it’s totally brilliant satire at its postmodern silliest.

Men and women are different. (Am I not the Master of the Obvious?) I’m convinced that testosterone and estrogen have a greater impact on our brains than anyone outside the specialized field of endocrinology has yet realized. No matter how many federal dollars are spent researching the psychology of gender-based reading preferences, women are generally going to buy more fiction and poetry, and men are generally going to buy more nonfiction. We are chemically motivated to be interested in different things, and really, what’s wrong with that?

I’ll end this far too meandering essay with a quick confession…every time I read the wheel barrow poem by Williams aloud, I have to work really hard not to laugh when I get to the white chickens. Chickens have that effect on me. Read Chaucer’s
“Nun’s Priest’s Tale” and you’ll have all the information you need to understand why.

Note: I will not have connectivity until Monday, June 29, and will be unable to reply to your emails or comments until then. But, as always, your comments and responses are very much appreciated!


  1. Thanks once again for making me both think and laugh.

  2. I look forward to your mid week essays for the thought provoking content laced with wit and humor. It's a grand way to end my evening.
    Thank you for what you do so well.

  3. Thank you, passionforpaper and Lu, for your kind comments!

  4. Pondering how I came to be a Grrrl who prefers nonfiction and poetry.


Thanks so much for taking time to comment!