Your brain on nonfiction vs. fiction

A guest post by Thomas Larson

In a recent New York Times essay, “Your Brain on Fiction,” Annie Murphy Paul argues that “Fiction — with its redolent details, imaginative metaphors and attentive descriptions of people and their actions — offers an especially rich replica” to “construct a map of other people’s intentions.” Research suggests that “individuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and see the world from their perspective.”

Narratives make us better people. I’m open to that. I do agree reading fiction is a pleasure as well as socially instructive. And, it seems, neuroscience confirms it. But why only study novel-reading and then moralize it, like eating your spinach, into preferential behavior?

There are two fallacies in Paul’s argument. First, there is no correlation between reading fiction and human compassion or intelligence. (Remember the concentration camp guards who loved Brahms?) Stating that the language of fiction helps us understand social relationships as well as we do “in life” is meaningless. People who don’t read novels are less able to judge one another? To assume that reading “enlarges” this power seems self-congratulatory to print, and sneers at oral cultures.

Second is the claim that such “improvement” is the province of the novel or story. Does that exclude nonfiction narrative? When I read Geoff Dyer’s nonfiction, does less of my wiring crackle and pop? Is such brain-lightning reserved only for the “social life” fiction supposedly portrays so well? Does my brain go all dim reading the anti-social W. G. Sebald or the graphic-nimble Errol Morris? Any good nonfiction writer (and there are thousands) who uses “leathery hands” (which is Paul’s example of a stimulating metaphoric phrase) need not have a “made up” character who has such hands in order to excite his audience. An actual person nonfictionists write about can have such hands, too.

I think it odd that a nonfiction writer (Paul is a social-science writer herself) claims this reading circuitry solely for novels, which she also calls “great literature.” We know what that means: the hearty oatmeal of Jane Austen. But how can anyone argue this, especially after the rise of memoir, collage forms, immersion journalism, and multimedia online storytelling? Nonfiction has accomplished everything fiction has in terms of narrative, description, and insight into human character. What’s more, it extends and complicates the relationship between an author and her actual (some dead, some living) human subjects, which fiction cannot do because its characters exist only in the book itself.

Neuroscientists, please add us nonfictionists to your MRI studies. If you really want to fathom what happens between the artist and the real world, you’ll find our minds are just as voltage-hot and layers deep as any other of the language arts.

Thomas Larson, a nonfictionist, is the author of The Memoir and the Memoirist [reviewed on this blog].


Filed under essay-narrative, evolutionary psychology, fiction, memoir, narrative

11 responses to “Your brain on nonfiction vs. fiction

  1. Thanks for this! I had a similar response to this study’s championing of fiction as the sole narrative vehicle for human empathy. I’m glad to see someone has written a thoughtful response.

  2. “Any good nonfiction writer (and there are thousands) who uses “leathery hands” . . . need not have a “made up” character who has such hands in order to excite his audience. ” YES!

    I’d read this piece in the NY Times the other day and while I admit I enjoyed it, I felt it was lacking and one-dimensional. And you pretty much nail it, Richard. Thanks — I’m going to share this on Twitter now. 🙂


  3. Agree, Richard! I read both (like most people), but would never dream to tout one as being brain food, yet, not the other. Senseless. And where does that leave poetry, I wonder. The real question is “why are we such an argumentative society?” Why are we so uncomfortable with “both” … forever seeking “this or that?” Maybe we all need to pull out a copy of Death Be Not Proud by John Gunther. Nonfiction that will surely stand up to any novel. I’m glad you wrote this. Fairness is always a worthwhile goal. ~ Daisy Hickman @ SunnyRoomStudio

    • Thanks, Daisy. Truthfully, my guest poster Tom Larson wrote this, and I am glad he did because it touches on so much, as you say. I find it striking that not only college students but adult businesspeople commonly refer to any imaginative book as a novel. It’s a terrible thing on the level of genre distinctions but wise in another way. They are saying that such technicalities don’t count when a work is dramatic and imaginative: it has been rendered and shaped. For the lay reader, or many of them, a good novel and a good memoir are the same at some fundamental level beyond the touch of specialist jargon. And I think they are right.

  4. I’m using my leathery hands to say how much I enjoyed this. My wires are cracking and popping. Tom, you have a great sense of how to attack an idea without being unkind. I agree with Richard that most people think of “good book” vs. “bad book” rather than novel vs. nonfiction.

    I have just read The Memoir and the Memoirist and really benefitted from reading it. That book, and Richard’s blog, have done more than anything else to educate me in the complexities of the genre. I agree with your student who said it is hard work!

    As to whether or not any kind of lit can create more compassion in the world, I don’t think science has the answer. Not sure it ever can, although people like Krista Tippett’s most recent guest, Rex Jung, might try

    I have compared memoir writing to the oral culture concept of ubuntu. I’d love to know what you think of that idea after so much experience with memoir. Richard probed my thinking on this subject with a series of posts:

    I also recall that I talked about reading a novel when I was 7 and my listener was 12. Her eyebrow cocked, she asked,”What’s a novel?”

    My response? “A love story.”

  5. Thomas Larson

    Dear All,

    I better get started responding as there’s just too much juicy stuff here. Again thanks to Richard for posting this; I immediately thought of his blog and its many active minds.

    Again I have to mention the bias toward fiction in research, reporting (esp. at the memoir-unfriendly NYT), and pop culture toward fiction–after all when people think narrative/story they are enveloped by the amount of plotted works in their lives: Hollywood film, TV sports or detective drama (even the fiction-like unfolding of Trayvon Martin’s death, not a whodunit but a howdidhedo it), and people’s sense of their own lives: as hero or unheroic tales.

    These kinds of plots are archetypal, reflect centuries of “literary” patterning, and have their power in realm of larger-than-life–book and movie have a hierarchical enlargement of their products, which lord over the culture. I am drawn to all this because I live in this culture, not because I favor fiction and fantasy and their bigness. But clearly some human impulse is satisfied by mirroring life in temporal and resolution-bound arrays.

    What nonfictionists must do is to challenge this authority and remind everyone that art forms, like all species and cultures, evolve. We evolve by mutation, creative nonfiction using some elements of fiction as well as the elements of film, music, collage, etc. Yes, creative nonfiction uses narrative but as one of many strategies in life and documentary writing.

    Over time, fiction writers (think Sterne, Richardson, Balzac) brought their aesthetic purpose as storytellers to bear on culture at the same time the technology of the book gave them a vehicle as fiction’s expression. We face the same task and, as Richard knows, online reading and blogs, e-books and “the social author,” will make this happen: the partnership between CNF and technology. Coupling the new form and the new tech is, I think, how a new world gets launched most effectively.

    I’d like to read/look into the ubuntu stuff before commenting. But I’m thrilled that Shirley and others are also articulating how nonfiction and the relational nature of nonfiction between author and subject are taking hold. After all, the NYT has a worldview and cultural critique so deeply embedded in its flagship that we have to remind it that what’s happening now with many writers is equally valid.


  6. Thomas Larson

    Indeed, it made Mr. Garner weep. Wow! TL

    • By the way, at least a couple additional people have tried to post comments about Tom’s post but failed and complained to me. I complained to WordPress and they said they’ve changed things so that anyone with a WordPress account has to log in to comment! I gave them grief, and they said they’ll make the login notice larger so that people see why they are failing. But they apparently are going to keep that inexplicable hurdle itself.