Why do we read fiction? “Because it’s fun!”
You’ll notice I’ve made an assumption. Plenty of people think fiction is boring as rocks and the only time they ever read a novel was in high school or maybe during a required “Literature 101” class at college.
But I’ve assumed you think fiction is fun to read because if you didn’t – would you be reading this blog post?
The real question is “Why do people find fiction fun?”
I don’t have answers I can prove. I am not going to let that stop me from speculating, however.
Stories are fun
First, almost all fiction is founded in stories, and people like stories.
We like things to happen in stories. We like those things to be exciting and surprising. We want the story to have a beginning, middle, and end. Especially an end.
Even very young children respond to stories with these qualities. Which says to me there is something in the human animal that is made to like them. What is it?
One answer is that many people dislike boredom but they also dislike danger. Stories allow us to experience excitement without risk.
Another answer is that the human brain has evolved to process, organize, and remember important information through stories. I think this is particularly true when some of that information is emotional, which is why families, cultures, religions, and nations all tell stories about themselves.
Finally, I think the structure of stories – their beginning, middle, and end – confers meaning on events, even when the events themselves seem senseless.
How else can we understand why anyone would read King Lear? A story where characters suffer is bad enough. A story were characters suffer for no good reason is worse. But the architecture of the play, and its aesthetics, imply reasons without having to supply them.
(This is a theory which might explain why art and religion are two major ways we deal with the ultimate questions of life, by the way.)
People are fun
The second reason we like fiction is because fiction is about people or heavily anthropomorphized animals, monsters, mythical creatures, aliens, or robots. (I’m aware of a single instance of a successful story featuring abstract shapes, Flatland, by Edwin Abbott.)
And people like people generally, except for you misanthropes out there.
The reasons for this are grounded in evolution. Living within organized social groups offers significant survival advantages over living outside of them.
But to live in a social group, you have to like people, want to understand them, and have the skills to read their social and emotional cues.
Nature tends to make a thing that offers a survival advantages fun to help ensure we keep doing it. So nature has made us to like people. And we like do them, even if they aren’t real.
Aesthetics are fun (to a geeked-out minority)
Some of us love words, and the craft of writing and storytelling, for their own sakes.
These are wonderful things and they are related to the joyful quiddity of being alive in these bodies, in this place, in this moment, that we feel when let go of every weight and worry and just breathe.
You’ve met people like us. We’re great company up until the moment when you’re just trying to enjoy a Sookie Stackhouse novel after a long day at work, and we simply have to tell you why you shouldn’t.
When we do, look us in the eye, say “I’m reading this because it’s fun,” and then go back to your book.