May 30, 2012

Fiction - A Blessing Or A Curse?

As you probably know by now, I really like reading. And I make sure to always take some time during the week to read a chapter or two of the book that I'm currently going through. Most of those books are non-fictional and end up being "discussed" by myself on this blog :)
But I also enjoy burying myself in a good fictional book that keeps my imagination going and has a storyline that somehow touches my heart. That way I can always have a good balance between stimulating the intellect (non-fiction) and the emotions (fiction).

So naturally, I was intrigued when I recently came across an article by Jonathan Gottschall entitled Why Fiction Is Good For You (published online at I had always thought that fiction was good for me in the sense of entertaining me, kind of like curling up on the couch to watch a nice movie. Well, that's not what this man is talking about.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves and instead start with the basics, namely that stories have an influence on us. Here's Gottschall:
"This research consistently shows that fiction does mold us. The more deeply we are cast under a story's spell, the more potent its influence. In fact, fiction seems to be more effective at changing beliefs than nonfiction, which is designed to persuade through argument and evidence. Studies show that when we read nonfiction, we read with our shields up. We are critical and skeptical. But when we are absorbed in a story, we drop our intellectual guard. We are moved emotionally, and this seems to make us rubbery and easy to shape."
So far, so good. But doesn't that imply that we are easily influenced in a negative way when we read fiction? How can that be good for us? If that's what you're thinking, then this probably comes as a surprise to you, as it did to me:
"But perhaps the most impressive finding is just how fiction shapes us: mainly for the better, not for the worse. Fiction enhances our ability to understand other people; it promotes a deep morality that cuts across religious and political creeds."
The reason for that is pretty simple: In most fictional stories, the bad guys are not allowed to live happily ever after. These tales usually teach us that it is profitable to be good. Hence, we are also more likely to be good guys than bad guys if we read a lot of fiction, because we intuitively know that, in the long run, crime won't pay. Of course, Gottschall does acknowledge that fiction is dangerous "because it has the power to modify the principles of individuals and whole societies." Not sure about the 'whole societies" part of that quote? Well, he cites two examples to prove it: a positive and a negative one.
Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin is probably the prime example of a book that brought about a huge change of values at the societal level by convincing large numbers of Americans that blacks are also people and should not be kept as slaves. The result, of course, was the American Civil War between the northern and southern states that ultimately ended slavery (officially).
"On the other hand, the film 'The Birth of a Nation' inflamed racist sentiments and helped resurrect an all but defunct KKK."

So essentially, it's still up to us to choose fictional stories that make the world a better place; those in which the good guys win, the bad guys lose, but above all - those which lead us to more empathy for and a better understanding of the people that surround us each and every day.


  1. Spannender Gedanke, dass Geschichten uns emotional weiterbringen. Das Gefühl hatte ich schon immer -- jetzt kapiere ich, warum das so ist. :) Wie überall im Leben gibt es für ein gutes Werkzeug oder einen wünschenswerten Genuss auch eine negative Anwendung. Das scheint zu unserer Entscheidungsfreiheit dazuzugehören. Danke für die interessante Auseinandersetzung mit der "Fiction"! Herzlich, Titus

  2. Der Artikel klingt spannend, vor allem der Versuch, dem Phänomen Fiktion mit statistischen Methoden zu begegnen. Ich, als Fiktions-Jünger und -Prediger gleichmaßen könnte jetzt Stunden schreiben, widerspreche dir - und vielleicht auch Gottschall,hab den Artikel noch nicht gelesen - aber lieber erstamls in einem Punkt. Die Unterscheidung: Nichtfiktionales rege den Intellekt an, Fiktionales die Emotion ist a.) banal und b.) falsch. Ich sag's mal ganz salopp: Fades regt den Intellekt nie an, egal ober echt oder nicht, Herausforderndes immer. LG Marcel

  3. So, jetzt kommt endlich mal ein wenig Leben in die Bude hier! ;-) Danke für die Kommentare.
    @Marcel: Du hast natürlich Recht, dass diese klare Unterscheidung Blödsinn ist. Jetzt, wo ich mir meine Einleitung noch mal durchgelesen habe, fällt's mir auch auf... wobei ich schon (zumindest bei mir) eine gewisse Tendenz registriere, je nachdem ob ich mich gerade mit Fiktion (eher emotional) oder Nichtfiktionalem (eher rational) beschäftige. Wobei da natürlich die Frage bleibt, ob man diese beiden (rational/emotional) überhaupt so strikt voneinander trennen kann. Wahrscheinlich eh nicht...
    Und ich hab natürlich auch schon Bücher gelesen (zumindest damit angefangen), die so fad waren, dass sie mich weder emotional noch intellektuell angeregt haben, da hast du vollkommen Recht. Was mich jetzt aber noch interessieren würde, wäre zu wissen, was du in diesem Zusammenhang unter herausfordernd verstehst.

  4. Also Marcel hat siche Recht wenn er sagt, dass fades Zeug weder Intellekt noch Emotion anregt, und spannende Dinge eher beides...
    Aber ich denke auch dass man Gefühl nicht allzusehr von Verstand trennen sollte. Wenn man das tut legt man sich slbst eine Beschränkung auf die nicht unbedingt notwendig wäre...
    LG Simon