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  • Kathy Sullivan

    Kathy Sullivan asked in Humanities 18th Mar '13:

    If you had to pick one, which genre do you think has a greater influence on readers-- fiction or non-fiction? Is one genre more "true" than the other? Please include in your answer an example of writing (either kind) that had a great influence on you.

    Gareth Cornwell replied 25th Apr '13:

    The claims of non-fiction are great, but…

    The degree of generalization required in any response to this question is so great as to risk its own disablement. Nevertheless, I feel sufficiently strongly about the issue to take that risk.

    The claims of non-fiction are great, but not paramount. The language of non-fiction is no more nor less than a bridge to a reality that is responsible for whatever authority the text commands. But the language of fiction creates an alternative world that distils and refines and universalizes reality, so as to rival or even supersede the claims of reality (Aristotle realized this a long time ago).

    The dramatization of human situations in prose fiction and poetry offers the reader unique access to the range, depth and complexity of human consciousness and experience. Fiction is a moral force of great power, certainly of greater power than the example or advice of others, whether encountered directly or indirectly in non-fictional texts. As the instance for which you ask, I offer Joseph Conrad’s novel Lord Jim (1900). Repeated readings of this work have taught me so much of the little that I can confidently claim to know about life: about the dangers of Romantic idealism and the temptations of self-deception; about the nature of courage and the necessity of taking responsibility for one’s actions; about the huge importance of solidarity and fidelity (both to oneself and to others). But to isolate thus these abstractions is misleading, for the experiential wisdom that they purport to evoke is ultimately and importantly inseparable from the process of reading the novel.

    Thus if my own experience is generalizable, fiction “has had a greater influence on readers” than non-fiction. I would of course include the Judeo-Christian Bible and other “sacred” texts among the former, while allowing that the further back one goes in history, the harder it is to preserve the distinction between the two.

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