What Fiction Can Do For Us

While at the RWA National Conference in New York at the end of June, I attended a media training workshop. The workshop concentrated on  preparing yourself for interviews – particularly hostile interviews. The questions running through my head were: “Why do we have to defend our writing like this? Why is Romance under constant attack?” I have my own theories and have written about those in a previous post.

However, here is one heartening item broadcast on BBC Radio 4 this morning. Keith Oatley has just published Such Stuff as Dreams: The Psychology of Fiction. My attention was caught by the comments Oatley made about the way in which fiction informs and socializes readers. He claims that people who read fiction are better equipped for social interaction than those who read only non-fiction. The most striking of these was (and I paraphrase his words): Readers of fiction are better prepared for sexual and interpersonal encounters.

With all the trash thrown at romance fiction about its detrimental effects on readers, this particular claim puts to rest any arguments along those lines. Romance provides a safe environment for readers of both sexes to learn about relationships. Regardless of the heat level, most romantic novels these days present characters who are people with difficulties and needs they overcome during the course of the story. A reader can experience problems vicariously and relate these to their own lives.

Even if the novel is far-fetched and fantastic, the positive atmosphere, at the very least, takes the reader away from their day to day difficulties with no damage to their sense of reality.  I know from my own reading of Gone with the Wind – presented to me when I was 14 and my mother deemed I had come of age –  the introduction to the complicated workings of the human heart prepared me for more than just meeting my own Rhett Butler. Romance novels are always so much more than a “love” story.

They are also lessons in survival, determination, justice, ethics, morality, emotional intelligence as well as providing learning experiences about other countries, customs, periods of history and walks of life in a form that is also entertaining and fulfilling. In my first book for Avalon Books, Wait a Lonely Lifetime, Sylviana wrestles with self-doubt and low self-esteem to find the love of her life. Her battle with herself matches Eric’s insecurities. Their struggles against their worst enemies forms the foundation of my story. These emotions are never far away from any human relationship.

A reviewer of Such Stuff as Dreams comments:  ” Many people have noted that men can be much more comfortable with a solid biography ( or instruction manual) than they are with the fictional world which is found in a novel, and this book is concerned with exploring this terrain.” This is certainly my own personal experience. Give a man a history book or political analysis and he’s away. Present him with fiction and you get a shrug. Starquester goes on to say: Such Stuff as Dreams …” is deft in its establishment of the links between social skills/empathy and the consumption of fiction, and as such is a valuable companion piece to works such as The Essential Differences by Simon Baron Cohen.”

As I’ve questioned before, can any other genre claim to develop social skills in the way that romance fiction does? As by far the most popular genre of all, romance writers can celebrate their positive influence on generation after generation of readers.  Why else do mothers pass on their most treasured books to their daughters as they come of age?

After the media training workshop, I announced to my colleagues that I won’t be hiding anymore. I’m out of the closet. I not only read romance, I write romance. Can anything be better than writing about people falling in love and making a go of a relationship against all the odds, as well as providing solid training material and entertainment for all readers?

Oatley’s book will be on my shelf from this day on.

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  1. This article expresses the thoughts of many and should open a new world for people who have shunned romance novels. Personally, I have always been a reader of history and non-fiction but now I am looking forward to entering this new world of learning experiences.
    When will “Wait a Lonely Lifetime” be on the bookstore shelves?

  2. I’m glad you’ve seen the light! It has taken me a few years to open that door too but Keith Oatley’s book makes my work a lot easier. I think readers and writers of romance have every reason to celebrate their good taste and sense. We don’t revel in death and destruction. We rejoice in life and love.

    Wait a Lonely Lifetime will be released next year, a specific date will be announced in due course.

    Thank you for commenting, Hallie. It’s always a pleasure to exchange thoughts with you.

  3. Excellent article, Leigh. Very well written.
    These ARE some cogent bases for refuting antagonistic critics.

    I must submit one caveat, however — not ‘all’ men shrug at fiction. I’ve read novels for my own enjoyment for several decades … at least since I was in high school, if not before.
    The first I recall were Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, but I’d read a western before that and I think at least one sci-fic book. Some of the fiction I read was associated with school work, but one, Lord of the Flies, was also a terrific novel that I really enjoyed.
    Not wanting to pick a fight, of course, but do want to remind your readers that some guys do dig fiction … and I have for many decades.
    Of course, I should explain that I was also a librarian for nearly 30 yrs., so you can see by that career choice that I was bonded to books. LOL

  4. A most provocative thesis and discussion. In my view, the best non-fiction histories also provides “lessons in survival, determination, justice, ethics, morality, emotional intelligence as well as providing learning experiences about other countries, customs, periods of history and walks of life in a form that is also entertaining and fulfilling.” And because these are about real people, in real concrete situations, these biographies, autobiographies, and histories also reassure us that happy, victorious, and rewarding endings aren’t limited to fiction. Are there people (and are the majority of them men) who read dispassionate histories dispassionately without drawing any interpersonal benefit? Perhaps. Is every romance novel an exemplar of profound human drama? Perhaps not. Each work, to my mind, is to be judged not by its genre but by its generosity toward the “Gentle Readers” who open their hearts and minds for new adventures and insights.

  5. Oops! I stand corrected and chastised, Jeff. I’ve never read an Ian Fleming novel, except for a bit of From Russia with Love – a treasured volume (among the other Fleming novels and Agatha Christie mysteries on DR’s shelves) to choose a character for a costume party! And my father read Zane Gray westerns. So I take it back. Oops again, my brother reads copious numbers of novels.

    Lord of the Flies was required reading at school, an experience that has informed my own writing, as have countless other books I’ve studied over the years. All of which supports Keith Oatley’s premise that fiction provides more than entertainment.

    Always good to hear your insights, Jeff. Thank you.

  6. Bill, thank you for your comments. You too are right. As someone who reads non fiction and history, I didn’t say that these areas of writing were in any way lesser than fiction. From a different perspective, they also provide insights into the ways of humankind.

    Oatley’s book has given writers of fiction a new leg to stand on to bear up under the onslaught of attacks from various sources. As a writer of romance, I see no reason why my genre should be so viciously maligned when it causes so much less harm to readers than the nefarious News of the World.

    Romance is written almost exclusively by women, read almost exclusively by women and so the genre is fair game for critics of both sexes who enjoy nothing better than assaulting and belittling women’s creativity. The few men who write and read romance are given far greater credence than their female colleagues.

    What Such Stuff as Dreams offers is academic research and evidence of psychological value to all forms of fiction, including romance. The many millions of “gentle readers” of romance can take heart and perhaps not be forced to conceal their reading choices, secure that there is nothing wrong with them or their preference for happy endings.