Learning by Doing

by Maria on August 8, 2015

‘I don’t have much time to read. When I do, I want to learn something. So I don’t read novels.’

The only unusual thing about this sentiment, printed in a recent issue of the FT’s odious How to Spend It, is that it was expressed by a woman. It’s usually male readers whose time is too precious to waste on made-up stories, and who can only learn about the world by ingesting facts. But facts can be neither here nor there, and so can experience.

When I went to Lagos, I couldn’t cope with its aggressive heat and humidity, the throat-sticking catch of mould in every air-conditioned breath, the sick thrill of traveling at speed in Nairobi-like traffic cohorts, the money-led evangelism and TV histrionics, the wildly coloured dresses fighting back and winning against the pitiless, equatorial sun.

I was working for the World Bank so I knew a lot of facts about Nigeria’s economy. I was familiar with its resource wealth and corruption, its north-south divide, its hyperactive diaspora. But those facts could only make the place real in the same attenuated way an encyclopaedia entry approximates a city or a gene sequence conjures a human child.

It was a mostly solo work trip that had taken in the eerie lawfulness of Kigali the week before – the only African city I’ve been in where moped taxis insist on helmets – and ended in a five-day battle of wits with a fixer / sexual opportunist I depended on to get me around Ethiopia’s Oromia province and back to Addis for a Friday night flight. My task was to gather photos and success stories to populate a year or two’s worth of brochures, presentations and assorted donor fodder.

Everywhere else on that trip, people talked about Nigeria. In Kenya, it was grudging admiration for Nigerians’ energy and sharp business practice. In Rwanda, people said Nigerian soap operas were the only ones worth watching. Even in far away Ethiopia, some women wore, or just talked about daring to wear the typically bright Nigerian fabrics.

But Lagos was the only city I have ever disliked on sight, the only airport/taxi interface I’ve crossed over feeling viscerally uneasy. It was too bright, too hot, too loud, too quick. It rattles the nerve-endings, razzing the brain like a migraine just before it bursts. As hard as I tried to just go with it, I couldn’t get out of my white, female body, my rational and irrational fears.

My loss.

If I hadn’t since read Chimimanda Ngozie Adichie’s novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, I would still know a mathematically negative amount about Nigeria.

When I was a child, Biafran meant starving. I mean that quite literally. ‘Biafran’ was an adjective with a lower-case b that described pregnant-looking toddlers. To a six-year old in 1970s Ireland, Biafran was somehow the reason for ‘the black babies’, a globe-shaped collection that went around my primary school class each morning. We would put in our five-pence or two-pence pieces, or sometimes just a penny each. It was mortifying to have the ‘black babies’ go by your desk and put nothing in. We couldn’t say why, but we somehow understood that Irish children and the black babies had common cause.

Partly, it was a Catholic thing. Before the Biafran war, the Irish-founded Holy Ghost order had sent scores of priests to minister to and convert southern Nigerians. When war broke out in 1967, the Catholic charity Caritas was the main one on the ground. (The International Red Cross seems to have had a checquered record in Biafra, and Medecins sans Frontieres was later created by a French doctor as a response to the suffering in the conflict.) It turns out there were other reasons why the Biafran War felt personal to Irish people, but I didn’t understand why until I read Half of a Yellow Sun.

Nigeria had been a British colony. It got its independence in 1960, and religious, ethnic and class conflicts soon threatened its rather contingent unity. Sparked by state-sponsored massacres and led partly by university intellectuals, the south broke away to form its own state, Biafra. For a short time, ‘Biafra’ meant optimism, identity and the future.

The famine in Biafra was wholly man-made, a weapon of war wielded by the Nigerian military junta, and supported – by military, financial and political means – by Britain, Russia and the United States. About a million people were starved to death and as many again were displaced; the same numbers as in Ireland in the 1840s. A million dead and a million lost. Those numbers echoed to us across space and time.

People in the west knew about Biafra’s suffering, but they didn’t quite seem to believe it. Distance, race and the time lag of sixties news cycles meant Biafra was all too ‘other’. Grotesquely beautiful black and whites of starving children were printed in Time, Life and Sunday newspapers, but the situation seemed too complex to understand, still less to address. The war was presented as tribal, a synonym for barbarian, something you had to expect in Darkest Africa. ‘Our’ involvement – exacerbating difference with colonial divide and rule, amping up rivalries with competition for sinecures and contracts – was mostly outside the frame. The self-interest of the sponsoring super-powers worked nicely alongside journalistic who-what-where-when to obscure the war’s players and motivations. And anyway, it was a civil war, an internal matter, so sovereignty was at stake. (In the global system, sovereignty is volume-based, not binary; large countries always seem to have more.) What protests there were petered out, showing that ‘we’ couldn’t do much about Biafra, even if we had wanted to.

But a novel changes the ‘we’ to ‘me’. Some theorists say de-familiarisation is the hallmark of fiction; it makes the familiar seem strange and allows us to experience it afresh. Others go for verisimilitude and the re-creation of life as it is lived in someone else’s head, something that’s ironically been best achieved by difficult modernists. However it is approximated or experienced, the ability of fiction to home-tool psychological realism out of a box of writer’s tricks is what makes it so important. The writer provides the wire monkey; the reader makes it into a good-enough mother. Just as children build the epic richness of Gondal out of stick figures and scribbled notebooks, we are primed to colour and shade in the extra bits that actualise two-dimensional pen portraits into fully believed humans.

It turns out that just as making more associations and layering on a scrim of emotion helps memories to form – hence memory palaces, epic poems, synaesthesia – the wealth of detail, incident and inherent contradiction we use to create subjectivity makes a story the best way to acquire ‘facts’. (And as anyone who’s being paying attention to the last century knows, facts are not free-floating data, unmoored and untainted by their selection and gathering, but embedded instances of mortal ambition and conceit. Nothing is sacred.)

Half of a Yellow Sun is a love parallelogram about twin sisters and their partners, set around the Biafran War. Partly based in the university town of Nsukka where the poetry and ideology of the Biafran state were born, the novel tracks the lives of two privileged sisters who, for different reasons, can only choose to stay put when war breaks out. From inside their fictional lives, you feel the conviction and belief in the seeming rightness of their cause because you are put right into the moment it all seemed possible. The two sisters, Olanna and Kainene are as different as it is possible for two siblings to be and yet retain the ability to cut each other to the quick with a comment or a look. Their partners – Odenigbo, a charismatic teacher, and Richard, an English writer – are so perfectly, believably idealistic and venal. They neatly make the point that those trained from birth to see themselves as the protagonists can flail and fail when they finally realise the story isn’t about them.

Half of a Yellow Sun has other points to make, but they emerge unbidden from the novel. Richard struggles and fails to attract the world’s attention to the famine but he cannot break the still-standing rule of Western journalism; that one hundred dead black people (or Palestinians, or ‘economic migrants’ ) equal one dead white person. At one point, he guides a western journalist who munches a chocolate bar as he makes disparaging comments about children roasting a rat to eat.

“Richard knew his type. He was like President Nixon’s fact finders from Washington or Prime Minister Wilson’s Commission members from London who arrived with their firm protein tablets and their firmer conclusions: that Nigeria was not bombing civilians, that the starvation was overflogged, that all was as well as it should be in the war.”

Richard fails to write the great post-colonial novel he went to Nigeria to write, and also fails to write his novel of the war, ‘The World Was Silent When We Died’. He admits towards the end that despite having lived through it, the Biafran war is not his story. He couldn’t tell it, and when he tried to, nobody listened. Ugwu, the family’s houseboy is nonplussed; he’d never thought it was the Englishman’s story in the first place.

It turns out that neither the ‘we’ of the West to whom such a story might at first seem to be addressed; nor even, ultimately, the ‘me’ who experiences it as she reads is significant. It is the act of telling the story that is important, not that of listening to it or acting on it.

During Lent this year, my church held weekly historical talks on Jewish Passover traditions and the Last Supper, the Eastern church and so on. Our priest is a big believer in learning by doing. One night, we sat in a side-room around a table, drank red wine and ate pitta bread (it’s unleavened) and wondered at the early Christians. They thought the Second Coming was imminent, so there was no need to write anything down.

But by 70 AD it was clear that no one was coming, at least not yet, and probably not for a long time.

And that’s when I realised.

You write because no one is coming.

You tell the famine story not to be saved from it, nor to stop it happening to someone else. You tell the story not – as Adichie’s Richard tries – to prompt awareness, action, rescue. The fortunate outsiders will mostly remain ignorant and apathetic. They won’t believe it is really happening because it is not happening to them, or to people ‘like’ them. Only rarely are associations are made that criss-cross the space between consciousnesses.

A Native American tribe sends money to Irish peasants because they know what it is to be starved. Winter-trapped Europeans send money to swamped Indonesian villages because they know what it is to lie on someone else’s beach, cocktail in hand, looking out to sea, wondering when the hammer will fall.

But these are the exception. Mostly, we trust our extinction messages to the distant future, to dead air.

Again and again we attempt forward time travel, to send our thoughts and feelings as emissaries for our trapped and arbitrary bodies. We have nothing to say, and everything. There are only three facts. We lived, we died, and someone should know.



oldster 08.08.15 at 12:48 pm

Very moving. Thanks.


Chris Bertram 08.08.15 at 12:51 pm

Great piece Maria. I’ll get round to Yellow Sun soon, but I made the mistake (it is always a mistake) of watching the film first, so I need to forget enough that first. Americanah was wonderful, I thought.

For a ghastly example of a man who says he doesn’t read fiction, see this profile of LSE “happiness expert” Paul Dolan



PJW 08.08.15 at 2:09 pm

The novelist Cormac McCarthy said a few years ago that he hadn’t read a novel in years, and I believe he also said he thought that reading fiction was a strange thing to do. Your opening reminded me of that. Incidentally, CM reportedly has a new book coming out next year called The Passenger, a large book he has been working on for many, many years. One of the main characters is a female mathematician. There has been some news about the new book this week, including a reading of selected passages from it at an event hosted by the Santa Fe Institute.


MPAVictoria 08.08.15 at 2:15 pm

Great and moving piece. Thank you.


P O'Neill 08.08.15 at 3:05 pm

Really excellent read.One other bit of context. Ireland had also engaged heavily in post-colonial Africa in the 1960s via the UN role in the Katanga crisis. Of course this turned out to be fraught with complexity and politically loaded, but it also reflected a view at home that perhaps there was a distinctive role for Ireland in these self-determination crises.


Austin Loomis 08.08.15 at 3:10 pm

There are only three facts. We lived, we died, and someone should know.

Or, in the words of Little Nemo, these people ought to know who we are and tell that we are here. (I know this quote because Neil Gaiman was originally going to use it as the title for the group of short stories that evolved into the collection Fragile Things.)


bianca steele 08.08.15 at 3:12 pm

Maria, great post.


JimV 08.08.15 at 3:33 pm

Thanks for a great piece, which I happen to agree with – it would still be great if I didn’t. That is, that reading novels is a good way to learn some things. It would be interesting to hear from the other side, who thinks fiction is bad and responds to this piece’s argument. One of the dangers of non-fiction, as I see it, is the tendency to believe that what the authority (author) says is accurate and his/her conclusions are correct. There are reams of ‘non-fiction’ which are largely fiction. Of course, 99 of 100 novels are also not good, by my standards of taste. And for all I know, “A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” might be inaccurate, but it has the the ring of truth.

Counterpoint to #2, my rule has been the opposite: if a movie based on a book is good, always see the movie first and then read the book, because the book will be longer and better, so if you read the book first, the movie will disappoint you. Examples: “Presumed Innocent” -saw the movie, liked it, read the book, liked the book even more; “The Maltese Falcon” – read the book, liked it, started to watch the movie on TV, found that the dialog was word-for-word from the book (so I knew what every character was going to say before they said it), and that Humphrey Bogart did not look like Sam Spade. This might not work if a bad movie is made of a good book (e.g., “Dune”), but the trick is to avoid bad movies, which my instincts usually allow me to do, based on their preview trailers. In my experience, a movie based on a good book is more apt to be worth seeing than something made up by Hollywood screen-writers, but will still be somewhat disappointing compared to the book. “Gorky Park” would be another example (saw the movie, then read the book) .


JohnD 08.08.15 at 4:13 pm

Very thoughtful – and your point about the teaching power of fiction is very good. If someone doesn’t learn something from a novel then you’re probably dealing with a brainless novel or a brainless reader…. I find this particularly true for historical fiction- the interesting part of the challenge in understanding historical events thousands of years and or miles away lies for me less in the chronology and more in the psychology. And a good novel is often a better way to understanding an alien mindset than a research paper.


Theophylact 08.08.15 at 5:23 pm

Fine post. (Pita’s not unleavened, though.)


MHen 08.08.15 at 5:50 pm

Great article Maria. I very much like the way you seamlessly pass from narration to idea, event to philosophical remark. Ironically, this is just the style I look for in an author, even though in the very words you are challenging the efficacy and motives for writing fiction. In this, I think, the most interesting point of your article lies; when we read (or, rather, write) is it the content which is important or the insight into another human’s mind?

Last year I applied to University for English Literature, fascinated as I was by the ability of Man to communicate across generations, cultural and linguistic barriers, through the written word. Of course I also found great pleasure in an exciting novel with a great plot, but, when it came to the decisive factor in choosing a degree, it was the opportunity to study humanity through English which attracted me above all.
When my offers came through, however, I started to have reservations, even doubts, about English. This was not due to a waning passion for the written word, in fact, it was quite the opposite.

A growing interest in Current Affairs (spear-headed largely by the Election and general news of the time) combined with my existing fascination with the study of humans through books, resulting in the thought that the medium of fiction is not an accurate, or at least practical, way for me to further my study of people. The clue is in the word ‘fiction’; if we know that an author is not writing about reality, how can we be sure that what we are reading is a just reflection of the author’s thoughts or perception of reality? As you so succinctly (and accurately) put it, “They won’t believe it is really happening because it is not happening to them”. How many times have you honestly read a book about a natural, military or societal disaster and thought, “Gosh, I hope that does not happen to me?” I always found the notion of the cathartic impact of Greek Tragedy in leaving the audience ‘drained and afraid’ of the possibility of a fictitious realisation in reality difficult to comprehend, and even harder to imagine.

Fully aware of this natural cynicism (and perhaps arrogant denial) in a reader, do writers truly write to convince and explain, or simply to share a point of view? If they know that “no one is coming”, surely the sole purpose of writing extends no further than a desire to reach out to others, to emanate a voice which would otherwise be lost in the loud hubbub of an increasingly global and connected world?

Returning to the original quotation, therefore, whilst purposefully contentious, perhaps a valid point has been made after all. If you truly want to learn objective facts and truths, fiction is not the place to be. The only thing one can learn from fiction is what the author wants to convey through his, or her, chosen words.


Ronan(rf) 08.08.15 at 6:01 pm

Nice post indeed. I think this article


Is relevant, for a number of reasons, and worth reading.


bob mcmanus 08.08.15 at 6:12 pm

Fiction discomfits me, and I no longer read it.

I to some degree understand the way “This is not a pipe” in the Magritte painting and visual representation; and I understand the ways it is not a pipe in poetry; but I no longer seem to be able to buy into and comprehend the conventions and imaginary that make it a pipe (and not a pipe) on the pages of a story or a novel. Reading fiction feels deceptively private and radically social.

I get my fictions and figurations from visual media everyday.


steven johnson 08.08.15 at 6:51 pm

Personally I tend to prefer non-fiction because there’s more originality and complexity there. Fiction tends to be composed of a things borrowed from other books and comments on things borrowed from other books. And mostly what it says about the world is either that it’s okay or that it can’t be changed.

As for learning how other people feel? If Richard the novelist is a villain for daring to empathize with others to whom he bound only by marriage and a shared life in wartime, how can a mere reader in the US with no connection at all presume to empathize? I guess this is why the OP says that the point is the telling.

But the book sounds very interesting. Put in for a library loan.


Lynne 08.08.15 at 7:31 pm

” At one point, he guides a western journalist who munches a chocolate bar as he makes disparaging comments about children roasting a rat to eat.”

Now there’s an image.


Suzanne 08.08.15 at 7:48 pm

Yes, it is usually men who believe that fiction-reading is a pastime for idle women, and indeed it is women who make up the biggest audience for fiction. It is sad that there are people who are unable to appreciate the magic of conjuring worlds and characters out of words written on a blank page. They’re missing a lot.

Novels have also historically provided a major means of artistic expression for women, because it was an art and craft you could practice without the ability to get out of the house much.

@8: I would say the opposite – if the book is good, it is more important to read it first, because a movie, even a bad one, can take over your imaginative capacity and when you come to the book you will find that the characters and settings of the book dominated by images of that inferior movie. Sometimes this happens even if you did read the book before and it isn’t always bad – I am quite happy to accept Audrey Hepburn as Natasha and Peter Sellers as Quilty, for example. (Robert Redford as Gatsby, not so much.)

Graham Greene once said that short stories made better translations to film because they generally had to be expanded, not contracted, to fit to feature film length (and thus were more rewarding for him to work on as a writer because the writing then became a form of creation and not elimination). Huston’s version of The Maltese Falcon is a classic and reflective of Huston’s regard for writers and writing, but it did leave some important dialogue out – the Flitcraft anecdote that Spade tells to Brigid. The reason for eliminating it is obvious – it would stop the picture dead. However, it’s a crucial incident – it’s Spade warning Brigid about himself, and Brigid’s response makes it clear that she doesn’t get it.


Layman 08.08.15 at 7:51 pm

“Personally I tend to prefer non-fiction because there’s more originality and complexity there. Fiction tends to be composed of a things borrowed from other books and comments on things borrowed from other books. And mostly what it says about the world is either that it’s okay or that it can’t be changed.”

I’m struggling to think of a non-fiction book I’ve read, with the originality and complexity of – to pick one example – “100 Years of Solitude”. Any suggestions?


Maria 08.08.15 at 7:57 pm

Layman, off the top of my head, Red Plenty – if you count it as nonfiction, of course.


Daragh 08.08.15 at 8:00 pm

@Maria – I’d argue Red Plenty largely lies on the fictional side of the ledger, though the factual research underpinning the story is first rate.


yes fiction can make for great propagand 08.08.15 at 8:13 pm

But anyone interested in understanding what happened in Biafra better read up on French and Portuguese neo imperialism.

PS: the shaming and conditioning of Irish children described by the author is horrifying.


Layman 08.08.15 at 8:15 pm

Maria @ 18

Red Plenty is outstanding – a belated thanks to CT for pointing it out. That said, I think it makes the case that fiction (by which I mean novelization) is more effective. Also, too, the excellent HHHH (again thanks!), which manages to be both an historical novel and an exposure of the conceit of historical novels. Neither book is in my view nonfiction, though I can see why others might see it differently.


engels 08.08.15 at 8:39 pm

For a ghastly example of a man who says he doesn’t read fiction, see this profile of LSE “happiness expert” Paul Dolan

He actually says he’s never read a novel in his life, so not even at school (!?)


Bloix 08.08.15 at 8:52 pm

Layman, you might try Behind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo.
Or perhaps Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, by James Agee.


geo 08.08.15 at 9:32 pm

Layman: Any suggestions?

The Genealogy of Morals


steven johnson 08.08.15 at 9:44 pm

Layman @17
A random assortment of books I personally have been meaning to re-visit, since I don’t feel sure I’ve mastered their complexity: Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah; Vico, The New Science; Thomson, Aeschylus and Athens; Harris, Rise of Anthropological Theory; Arrian, Campaigns of Alexander; Procopius, Secret History; Penrose, The Road to Reality; Susskind, The Black Hole Wars; Deborah Bennett, Logic Made Easy (oh, dear, should be higher on the list!)

Books I hope to read that promise great originality: W. Brian Arthur, The Nature of Technology; Sahlins, Apologies to Thucydides; Boole, The Laws of Thought, and frankly books whose existence of which I am unaware but would eagerly read, about such interestingly complex topics as the War of the Triple Alliance; the biography of Joan of Arc; the Langlands program; a history of WWII that starts in 1937; the book that explains how humans like the Neanderthals can persist for thousands of years without any discernible change in culture, while the extant variant is in constant cultural change.

I think what you meant by “complexity” and “originality” is not quite what is ordinarily meant. Perhaps you mean something more like “refined sensibility” and “advanced style”? Or perhaps “sophisticated moral analysis” and “psychologically definitive”? But I suppose it is possible that I’m not using complex and original in the correct literary context.

The thing is, by that standard, the writer I know who best captures the complexity and originality of daily life is Dickens (who no more knows the inner thoughts of the people around us than I do.) The last I heard the literary people don’t rate Dickens very highly. But doesn’t that suggest I would indeed be better advised to stick to non-fiction? Not chew off more than I can handle?


Ebenezer Scrooge 08.08.15 at 10:14 pm

Fiction is “practical” because the scholarly fields of sociology and psychology haven’t caught up with the insight of particularly acute individuals.
Fiction is also worth pursuing for its own sake, but that’s a different matter. Many things are worth pursuing for their own sake, and our time is only so long.


Layman 08.08.15 at 10:29 pm

I have a comment in moderation (not sure why) re: Red Plenty & fiction / non-fiction.

@ Bloix, I’ve read Agee but not Boo, thanks for the pointer!

@ geo, was driven away from Nietzsche by too-early mandatory exposure, and left with the impression he was very far up his own rectum. I’m aware that’s an unfair take, and resolved to one day give him a fairer try.

@ steven johnson, that’s some list. On WW2 I suggest Shirer’s Collapse of the 3rd Republic and Manchester’s The Last Lion volume 2 – both focused on the run up to the war, in France & Britain respectively. Shirer is dated but contemporary and I haven’t found anything better. And I do think we mean something different by ‘complexity’ and ‘originality’.


Zamfir 08.08.15 at 10:47 pm

Layman says: I’m struggling to think of a non-fiction book I’ve read, with the originality and complexity of – to pick one example – “100 Years of Solitude”.

Is that the right yardstick, though? A humdrum textbook can be fascinating if it deals with a fascinating topic. That’s borrowed greatness, but it works just as well for the reader.

As the OP says, novels can also act as windows on reality, to borrow greatness from their topic. But can they do that with the same ease as non-fiction? Or do we need a great novel to rival the insight one can get from merely competent nonfiction?


Layman 08.08.15 at 11:06 pm

“Is that the right yardstick, though?”

I didn’t mean it to be. I read fiction & non-fiction, and find insight in both. I personally think fiction can inform about the lived experience of human history in ways that non-fiction rarely does. As an example, I’ve read good histories of Occupied France, but none conveyed the human story of life under the occupation as well as do the novels of Modiano, Simenon, & others. Red Plenty is another example.

There are a lot of books to read, and too little time.


bob mcmanus 08.08.15 at 11:24 pm

Wandering too far from post, guys.

But a novel changes the ‘we’ to ‘me’.

The two paragraphs following this sentence tells me I don’t have to mansplain fiction round here.

And very aware of the partially gendered preferences for fiction and non-fiction, umm, The Imaginary and the Symbolic, although probably as socially constructed as gendered, neither at all unproblematic, no shame, no blame, nothing to be celebrated.
Or maybe the Symbolic is patriarchal.

I just found after a while ( I read a ton of fiction) most prose fiction to be too social and conventional, an excess of meaning, and tried to find accessible surrealism in arthouse movies and dadaist anime.


Harold 08.08.15 at 11:25 pm

Fiction is like time travel — poetry, too.


Val 08.08.15 at 11:34 pm

Thank you Maria, beautiful piece. I haven’t been reading much fiction lately, because of studying, but would really like to read novels that illuminate Africa for me. I’ve read quite a few by white people, like Gordimer or Lessing, but not so many by black Africans, and those are the ones I want to read. I will put this book on my list.

As to why people don’t read fiction, I guess my case is a good example of one reason: the ‘because I ought to be reading’ something else reason, which is a pity. When I studied Australian history, we had several novels on our reading list, but I don’t know which novels would illuminate my present studies about inequity, environmental loss and what we can do.


Anderson 08.09.15 at 12:51 am

Novels tell us what other people think and feel and imagine and fear and wish and regret and hope. I think that counts as “learning something.”


Julie 08.09.15 at 1:17 am

“Fiction is “practical” because the scholarly fields of sociology and psychology haven’t caught up with the insight of particularly acute individuals.”


If the psychology of the characters and the sociology of the settings are believable or believably absurd, I can read fiction. If not, there seems no reason to find out what happens in the end.


Bruce Baugh 08.09.15 at 1:28 am

Layman: James Macpherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom comes immediately to mind. :) Also, Edwin Barnhart’s Lost Worlds of South America.

Maria, I love this post very much. Thank you for writing it.


Val 08.09.15 at 1:36 am

I said above “I don’t know which novels would illuminate my present studies about inequity, environmental loss and what we can do.”

Of course I do. ‘Flight behaviour’ by Barbara Kingsolver. Even Jonathon Franzen’s ‘Freedom’ does a bit I guess, much as I don’t like Franzen’s work – Walter is definitely a bit like some of the environmentalists captured by big business that Naomi Klein writes about in ‘This changes everything’.

I’m sure there are many if I think about it.


Bloix 08.09.15 at 2:48 am

Quite a bit of fiction is wish fulfillment – it can be brilliantly done and very satisfying, but it doesn’t tell us much about the world as it is. Cormac McCarthy is a great novelist, but I hope people don’t read All the Pretty Horses to get an idea of what Mexico in the early 1950’s was like.

Val- Flight Behavior is an extraordinary novel, isn’t it? Kingsolver is often uneven — the characters are good but the plot isn’t credible, or the environmentalism becomes an animated lecture acted out by cardboard figures – but in that novel everything comes together with a sustained insight and intensity that is just brilliant.

Layman – I was trying to think of non-fiction that does what fiction does, in terms of creating characters and plots that are credible and illuminating. A lot of non-fiction has people walking through it to conclusions that we already know, and we don’t feel that we know them or how the events that occurred could possibly have happened. Some nonfiction genuinely understands the people that inhabit it.


tony lynch 08.09.15 at 3:05 am

Geo, Genealogy of Morals a good example. The best might be Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations – at least Stanley Cavell’s copy.


NickS 08.09.15 at 3:23 am

I’m struggling to think of a non-fiction book I’ve read, with the originality and complexity of – to pick one example – “100 Years of Solitude”. Any suggestions?

It’s been ages since I’ve read it, but the book that comes to mind is Parting The Waters, Taylor Branch’s book about the civil rights movement (the first of a trilogy. It sets an extremely high standard for skillful writing, compelling subject matter, and complexity and detail.


Marshall 08.09.15 at 3:38 am

Fiction “people who read fiction” read seems to mean e.g. David Foster Wallace. I tried to read Infinite Jest, and it seems indeed infinite since I read rather slowly but not that funny inasmuch as it didn’t seem to be about anything. So I will never be “a person who reads fiction”.

When it comes to it, even “non-fiction” books are about some person’s view of things. I did quite like The Road. I might like Yellow Sun. I do like books that are about something, and I wish I could find a way to read many many more of them. Vita brevis.


Bloix 08.09.15 at 3:41 am

Parting the Waters belongs on the list.
A very different sort of book that also belongs is The Making of the Atomic Bomb, by Richard Rhodes.
Another is Lords of Finance, by Liaquat Ahamed.


geo 08.09.15 at 3:55 am

Layman @25: Nietzsche … was very far up his own rectum

Perhaps. But what a fascinating place!


david 08.09.15 at 4:45 am

a child in Ireland knows about the Biafran war from activism by Western-linked individuals and organizations operating in nominally-postcolonial Biafra – it was really this overrepresentation of Westerners in Biafra and Western-linked Biafrans that led to such overconfidence in waging armed secession. For as long as British boots were on the ground, a Western-oriented political mobilization oriented around civic institutions and newspapers and university educations in England were sufficient; it was not necessary for local elites to have effective military or logistical preparations in the event of a civic breakdown inasmuch as patronage and family wealth. That influence would be sufficient for boots to be shipped in from India or elsewhere. Indeed, before independence, the north feared domination by the south, not the other way around.

but post-independence, it turned out that mere alliances with NGOs in the West was no longer sufficient; Labour politicians who had been eager to work with Nigerian civic leaders towards decolonization had their own priorities now. Social democrats would wring our hands about the baleful influence of BP in Nigeria or copper interests in Katanga, but we would write noble epitaphs, not advocate troubling career-ending compromises at home (especially as the Nigerian/Biafran sides kept switching Cold War aisles along the course of the war – unlike the bloody Katanga crisis earlier, Biafra was fraught with divided US/UK/USSR/PRC interests and carefully avoided waving socialist or anticommunist banners throughout – it was never clear that an independent Biafra would expropriate Shell-BP at all, even, and conversely Nigeria promptly nationalized BP after the war). It is this dis-conjuncture of expectations and reality that led to the Biafran war. It may be humiliating to concede to compulsory Islamic education, shariah law, religious persecution etc., where one previously enjoyed British-imposed standards of religious freedom (which effectively favoured the wealthy evangelistic south over the traditionalist Muslim north), but it would still have been better than starving to death.


Meredith 08.09.15 at 6:44 am

Aren’t reading habits funny? As a scholar, I tend to read one kind of thing by day and another by night. At night, I don’t want even the beloved (foreign!) poetry I read by day (and certainly not the critical scholarship about it). I want a novel, and I want it set in some foreign place. The foreignness is crucial, be it a foreign country or a world foreign to me within my own.

I am responding to your beautiful essay from a strange place. I have been doing a lot of genealogical research (prompted initially by wondering if and who among my Northern “ancestors” might have owned slaves, long story). You say, “And that’s when I realised.

You write because no one is coming.”

Well, someone is coming, but none of us knows who. I have spent many hours tracking the lives, as best I could, of collateral (by definition!) spinsters and bachelors. The world is better today, now that spinsters and widows, bachelors and widowers, are not so forlorn as once they were. But always there was much loneliness, and much much love, as those without children of their own tended others’. I am sorry if I intrude. But you are a mother, not just in words printed here. You have spoken at least to this mother of the sense that “no one is coming” — or anyone everyone is. I’ll stop here.


bad Jim 08.09.15 at 8:37 am

I have thousands of books on my shelves, almost entirely novels, some my father’s, some mine; there are more in the attic. My detailed knowledge of the world was to a considerable degree imparted by these confections. It certainly isn’t dependable knowledge, but it’s rich in verisimilitude, close enough for its likely customer.

The contents of a famous book are facts themselves: one’s expected to know what Dostoevsky wrote. Books of another era are at least evidence of how people thought about themselves and the rest of the world at the time, and contemporaneous non-fiction isn’t necessarily more reliable.

Following an author entails a vicarious personal relationship with an articulate human who, being confined to a book, has certain advantages over a warm breathing creature. It doesn’t insist on conversation when you’ve just crawled out of bed needing coffee and the newspaper.


ezhutachan 08.09.15 at 10:34 am

Beautifully written but a weak argument, surely? The Igbo, like the Bengalis, were unfortunate in having exceptionally talented novelists and poets and propagandists and ‘brilliant’ leaders. In consequence they suffered a wholly avoidable famine- indeed, their leadership somehow thought an agricultural people should live on PL480 grain and International Aid because this increased their own salience and obligatory passage point status. The Igbo suffered only one famine in the twentieth century. The Banglas suffered 2.
The superiority of the Igbos is confirmed by their failure to produce a Nobel Prize winning Economist with a crack-pot theory of famine.
Novels are important for teaching strategies and vocabularies for social advancement or sexual opportunism. The best novels may even capture Cliodynamic processes. What novels can’t do, however, is shovel a grave in the air or inter a Time-capsule of Shulamith. Only poetry- i.e. stupidity- can do that.


JPL 08.09.15 at 12:18 pm

Maria, your interesting post jogged some old memories for me.
As it happened, I visited the Eastern Nigerian region of the former Biafra about six months after the war had ended. I traveled by taxi from Benin City to Enugu in one of those reliable and very hardy Peugeot 404 estate wagons, which had been packed as per usual to just over capacity with an assortment of mostly Igbo passengers going back to Eastern destinations. The taxi stopped on the western bank of the mighty River Niger, just before crossing the bridge into Onitsha, the sprawling market town which we could see way over on the other bank, and the passengers got out to stretch their legs. I understood that the river was the dividing line between the recently warring factions, and I think the passengers were reflecting at that point about what the recently past events had meant to them. It was there that a situation unfolded among our little taxi group that made a profound and lasting impression on me. (Let me just say that at that point people still called me a “kid” (or the translation equivalent); I didn’t really know much of what was going on in the world.) Anyway, there was a confrontation between one of the passengers, a Nigerian (federal) soldier, who had his weapon with him, and the Igbo passengers, especially a couple of young fellows who I took to be university students, since they were clearly educated and articulate. It was the kind of scene that could be a fruitful focus for literary treatment, since the significance for ordinary people of a very complicated social upheaval was clarified in a concentrated moment. The possibility for a deeper and richer probing of the aspirations and understandings of ordinary people facing crisis of this magnitude is something nonfiction accounts will miss, but fictional accounts can fruitfully realize. Writing would be first of all, I suppose, a way of making sense of such a complex reality for oneself. Sadly, I suppose, I’m not a fiction writer, but for me the (at its effective heart verbal) incident gave me a lasting example of what is possible when the people are aware of their rights vis-a-vis even military power (and when the representatives of power retain a shred of humanity: there’s the mystery!).


Lynne 08.09.15 at 12:29 pm

About learning something, and whether that is best done through fiction or non-fiction, you can learn from both. Facts and ways of thinking from non-fiction, and really so much more from good non-fiction. And worlds from good fiction, too.

To those who claim to eschew fiction because they prize knowledge, I’d say knowledge of our world isn’t worth much without empathy—it’s a thin knowledge indeed, and good fiction excels at empathy, each character striding onstage in his turn and stubbornly seeing events from his own limited perspective.

I suspect most people are like me, and read what they enjoy (when they are not reading for their work or some other “should” reason) and then find reasons to justify their preferences. So although I read more fiction than non-fiction I can hardly claim it’s because I learn so much; I read it because I like it.


Lynne 08.09.15 at 12:32 pm

about Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour: Okay, I’m going to look for this now. I stopped looking for her fiction after reading The Lacuna. She is indeed an uneven writer, but when she is good she is brilliant. My favourite of her novels is her first, The Bean Trees, though I admire The Poisonwood Bible. The Prodigal Summer was too much of a lecture (though I learned a lot!)

Her non-fiction can be as delightful as it is clever. How many other collections of essays begin, as High Tide in Tucson does, by talking about a hermit crab and his frock?


Lynne 08.09.15 at 12:35 pm

Maria, this gave me chills:

And that’s when I realised.

“You write because no one is coming.”


John Garrett 08.09.15 at 12:59 pm

I read non-fiction looking for insight; I read fiction looking for revelation. While most of the novels I read are at best intriguing, the endless search for revelation is what keeps me reading fiction. A few examples: Mrs. Dalloway; Penelope Fitzgerald, The Gate of Angels; Flann O’Brien, The Third Policeman and everything else; Portrait of the Artist; Dubliners. Life for me is the search for those rare moments of revelation, and fiction is one path.



peter 08.09.15 at 1:49 pm

We read fiction for many reasons other than just to obtain information about the world. Indeed, this reason strikes me as rather narrow and impoverished, like learning to play the trumpet in order to practice your circular breathing. We mainly read for pleasure: the pleasure of reading poetic text (as in the novels of James Joyce or William Faulkner, for instance), or the pleasure of reading elegant, finely-crafted prose (eg, Fanny Burney, Doris Lessing, Richard Brautigan), or the pleasure of engaging in deductive reasoning (any detective novel), or the pleasure of imagining alternative societal futures (scifi), presents (political thrillers, espionage novels), or pasts (historical fiction), or the pleasure of being scared (crime thrillers), or the pleasure of parsing an intricate narrative structure (eg, Italo Calvino, John Fowles, Thomas Pynchon).


Lisa 08.09.15 at 2:51 pm

I only want to register my reaction–beautifully written post.

The Quiet American is one of those books that explains more about American foreign policy than 500 IR scholarly tomes (even the good ones).

@2 Chris Bertram Ghastly, and yet—a good novelist could do wonders with that bit of inadvertent self-parody. He or she would have to know the type–but what glorious raw material for an epic of self-absorption.


Plume 08.09.15 at 3:08 pm


Thank you for that article.

You’ve probably already read them, but just in case: Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart; Amos Tutuola’s The Palm Wine Drinkard; and Gabriel Okara’s The Voice. Classic novels from all three. The latter writer is chiefly a poet. I highly recommend them.


ChrisJ 08.09.15 at 4:59 pm

I’ve just been reading Dos Passos’ America all the way through. I can’t imagine a better way to understand how people actually lived in the first decades of the twentieth century. Only fiction can do that so vividly.


ChrisJ 08.09.15 at 5:00 pm

Well, his USA anyway. Flub


novakant 08.09.15 at 6:03 pm

Goodness, listening to Bach, Coltrane or DJ Shadow gives one exactly zero “information about the world”, are the enlightened non-fiction readers also dismissing music in the same way?

Besides, fiction does many things the sciences cannot do at all and in some fields (ethics, psychology, sociology) complements them or even beats them at their own game – this is just silly.


js. 08.09.15 at 7:58 pm

A lovely piece, indeed. Thank you.


steven johnson 08.09.15 at 8:13 pm


js. 08.09.15 at 9:29 pm

Oddly, about an hour after reading this, I happened upon this. I haven’t read it all the way through yet, but so far it’s quite good.


JimV 08.09.15 at 9:51 pm

Belated response to Suzanne @16: Thanks for the reply.

For me there isn’t much chance that a movie can overcome or replace the impressions of a good book. The impressions of a good book are so vivid to me that there’s really no point in seeing a movie of it. I didn’t like the “Lord of the Rings” movies, again because where they matched the book I already knew that scene and had pictured it in my head, and where they left things out or changed them I was disappointed. Had I never read the books, I might have enjoyed the movies, and then gone on to enjoy the books more.

I didn’t know the movie of “The Maltese Falcon” left out the Flitcraft story, because I stopped watching it after a few scenes, but there’s another example. If I had never read the book I would have enjoyed the movie, then gone on to read the book and enjoyed the missing parts.

The few times I have liked a movie better than the book it was based on it is when the book contains cardboard characters, and the movie necessarily uses real people who have expressions and try to convey emotions.

That’s just the way my mind and tastes work. It is interesting to know there are people whose minds run differently.

My mother read to me at a young age. I don’t remember being taught to read, but I could read before I entered school, and devoured Dr. Seuss books. In college I meet some friends who had a tough time with reading assignments, and it turned out their parents had not read to them as children. So I think that is an important part of child development – perhaps training imagination neurons. I wonder if the people who only read non-fiction were read to much as children.


bob mcmanus 08.09.15 at 10:26 pm

I wonder if the people who only read non-fiction

For the record I spent the 1970s devouring high literature. All of Proust, Mann, Joyce, Brontes, Gide, Pynchon, Theroux, Ibsen, O’Neill, Vidal, Cheever, John Hawkes, the classics. All science fiction ever nominated for an award, and everything by those authors, so all of Delany, Dick, Russ, LeGuin.

I quit on Falling in Place, Ironweed, and The Names.

It was an informed decision. I won’t go into details as to the decision, because apparently many people’s self-image as empathic is dependent on the application of imagination to strings of words on paper, and I don’t much care what others do. After twenty years, I decided that literature was not going to make me a better person.


geo 08.09.15 at 11:57 pm

bob@60: After twenty years, I decided that literature was not going to make me a better person.

But think what you might be like if not for those twenty years.


Bill Benzon 08.10.15 at 12:17 am

“The writer provides the wire monkey; the reader makes it into a good-enough mother. ”


I mostly don’t read much fiction any more. Different needs for different seasons. I certainly don’t regret all the fiction I’ve read. These days I’m more likely to watch movies, etc.


LFC 08.10.15 at 2:47 am

Mostly agree on the pt re fiction as a source of insight, but to address glancingly a diff. issue —

from the OP:

The famine in Biafra was wholly man-made, a weapon of war wielded by the Nigerian military junta, and supported – by military, financial and political means – by Britain, Russia and the United States. About a million people were starved to death and as many again were displaced; the same numbers as in Ireland in the 1840s…. People in the west knew about Biafra’s suffering, but they didn’t quite seem to believe it. Distance, race and the time lag of sixties news cycles meant Biafra was all too ‘other’. Grotesquely beautiful black and whites of starving children were printed in Time, Life and Sunday newspapers, but the situation seemed too complex to understand, still less to address.

An interesting contrast with the Biafra tragedy, from several angles, is the birth of Bangladesh in Dec. 1971, only several years later. One contrast has to do with the response in the West, where journalistic accounts of the Bangladesh crisis (originally sparked by one journalist in particular) did have an impact on public opinion, leading among other things to the Concert for Bangladesh, w famous rock musicians and Ravi Shankar, etc. The story (incl. that aspect) is well (if not absolutely flawlessly) told in S. Raghavan’s 1971: A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh. What accounts for the difference from Biafra esp. in this respect is not, to me, altogether clear, since there was no 24hr news cycle in ’71 any more than there was during the Biafran war. However, it may be that the identification of obvious villains was easier in the Bangladesh case, and the overall situation somewhat easier to make sense of. The eventual outcome obvs. differed b.c of the Indian intervention, but I’m referring here mainly to the difference in public response in the West. There was some concern about Biafra in the West but as the OP indicates, it didn’t really seem to translate into mass action.


js. 08.10.15 at 3:00 am

I just want to register—against no one in particular, because the attitude/complaint is so common—that I find book-film comparisons amazingly tiresome. Look, if one wants to watch a film., then one should watch it and evaluate it on its own merits. This is true whether the film has an “original screenplay”, whether it’s based on a now-forgotten work of fiction (cf. Vertigo and a dozen other genre classics), or whether it’s based on a well-regarded or canonical novel/play/short story. If the only reason you want to watch a film is its source material, then, I don’t know, maybe don’t watch it. Or at least find out more about the film—it’s style, it’s director, cinematographer, cast, etc., and then decide if you want to watch the film, on that basis. Otherwise, it does seem like you’re setting yourself up for completely avoidable disappointment.


ZM 08.10.15 at 6:16 am

“But by 70 AD it was clear that no one was coming, at least not yet, and probably not for a long time.

And that’s when I realised.

You write because no one is coming.”

Someone Who Is Not Like Anyone Else (1965)
by Forugh Farrokhzad (1935-1967)

I dreamt that someone is coming
I dreamt of a red star
and my eyelids keep fluttering
and my shoes keep falling into line and may I be blinded
if I am lying
I dreamt of that red star when I was not asleep.
Someone is coming
Someone is coming
Someone else
Someone better
Someone like no one else, not like father, not
like Esee, not like Yahya, not like
and that someone is just like he ought to be and he is even taller than the tree in Macmar’s
yard and his face
is more radiant than the face of the Twelfth Imam and he’s not afraid of Sacid Javad’s brother
who went
and put on a cop’s uniform
and he’s not even afraid of Sacid Javad himself who owns all the rooms
in our house
and his name which mother
invokes at the beginning and end of her
O, Judge of all Judges
O, Providers of all Provisions
and he’s able
to recite all the difficult words in the Third
Grade Book with his eyes closed
and he’s even able
to subtract 1000 from 20 million without any
and he’s able to get as much as he wants from
Sacid Javad’s shop

and he’s able to make the neon sign of “Allah”, which was green, like the green of the early
against the sky of Moftahyan Mosque, shine again ah . . .
how splendid is the bright light
how splendid is the bright light
and I wish so much
that Yahya
could own a push cart
and a Coleman lantern
and I wish so much
that on the push cart of Yahya among the water- melons and melons
I sit
and go around the Mohammadiyah Square ah . . .
how pleasant to go around the Square
how pleasant to sleep on the roof
how pleasant to taste Pepsi Cola
how pleasant to go to Fardin movies4
and how much I enjoy all these things
and I wish so much
to pull the hair of Sacid Javad’s daughter.
Why am I so tiny
that I get lost in the streets?
Why is father who is not so tiny
and who doesn’t get lost in the streets
doing nothing to hasten the arrival of the one who has come into my dreams?
And the people in the slaughter-house neighborhood
whose flower-beds are bloody
and the soles of their shoes are bloody
why don’t they do something
why don’t they do something
How lazy is the winter sun
I have swept the steps of the roof
and I have washed the window-panes
why must father dream only when he’s sleeping? ***
I have swept the steps of the roof
and I have washed the window-panes Someone’s coming
Someone’s coming
Someone who’s with us in his heart, with us in
his breathing, with us in his voice Someone whose coming
cannot be arrested
and handcuffed and put in jail
Someone who has given birth to a child under the
old trees of Yahya and day by day
grows and grows
Someone from the rain, from the pitter-patter of the rain
from the murmur of petunias
Someone from the shower of fireworks in an evening sky of Topkhanah Square5 comes
and spreads a cloth
and distributes the bread
and distributes the Pepsi Cola
and distributes the City Park
and distributes the whooping-cough syrup
and distributes the registration day at school
and distributes the hospital waiting-room numbers and distributes the rubber boots
and distributes Fardin movies
and distributes the clothes of Sacid Javad’s
and distributes whatever does not sell and gives us our share
I dreamt . . .


Trader Joe 08.10.15 at 11:59 am

Thank you for a fine and thoughtful post.

I honestly cannot grasp the idea of ‘only’ reading either fiction or non-fiction. It would seem like the equivalent of using only the upper chambers of the heart and not the lower or the left half of the brain and not the right. Surely non-fiction illuminates the reading of fiction which then provides new avenue for pursuit of non-fiction.

I love nothing better than to pair and concurrently read a work of fiction and non-fiction that cover similar times, settings or history. The first time I recall doing so was reading Lonesome Dove at the same time as Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.

Also, identifying where fact ends and fiction begins applies to both works of fiction and non-fiction. I think reading a bit of fiction makes one a more critical non-fiction reader.

Thanks also for the many useful book recommendations – as someone upstrand said, so many books, so little time.


Lynne 08.10.15 at 1:24 pm

ZM, that is a beautiful poem.

js, irritating, perhaps, but often irresistible! We are just watching the 4-part HBO miniseries Olive Kittridge, based on the novel by Elizabeth Strout. That novel is one of my favourite books of all time. I can’t praise it enough. Strout takes such risks with her MC, but pulls it off, and amazingly the novel is comprised of short stories that were written over the space of twenty years. So I read the novel a few years ago, and now we’re watching the mini-series and naturally I’m comparing what I remember, noticing differences and similarities, but being blown away all the same. Remarkable acting, the scenery is beautiful and evocative…We are 3/4 of the way through and I’m as impressed with the miniseries as I was with the novel. {Happy sigh}


novakant 08.10.15 at 2:48 pm

One shouldn’t read literature with the aim of self-improvement, Bob, that kind of spoils it.

As for literary adaptations, I tend to agree with js. I am often bewildered that seemingly highly intelligent people often neglect to acknowledge that books and films are different types of media with different aesthetic possibilities and constraints. Or is it just snobbery?


Plume 08.10.15 at 3:15 pm

js @59,

Thanks for The Nation article. Well thought out and composed.


LFC 08.10.15 at 4:11 pm

Movies based on widely-known or canonical books almost inevitably invite comparison with their sources, whether that’s fair or not. Perhaps it helps not to see the movie version soon after reading the source. I still remember reading The Great Gatsby (prob. for an English class) and then, shortly after, seeing the 1974 movie version (mentioned by Suzanne way upthread). At this remove I’m not sure whether it was just a bad movie, or a bad adaptation of the book, or both. OTOH, some adaptations succeed. For ex., I suspect only nitpickers would complain about the 1939 movie of Wuthering Heights (w a cast incl. Laurence Olivier, Merle Oberon, David Niven, and Geraldine Fitzgerald).


bianca steele 08.10.15 at 4:45 pm

I don’t think anyone commenting here is unaware of the difference between film and literature. But it would be naive not to recognize that filmmakers are often engaged in revealing, to the best of their ability, the same essential truth that the novel contained. Sometimes what’s annoying about the movie is noticing what the filmmaker apparently viewed as extraneous or misleading, which was actually essential. Sometimes the movie improves on the novel–especially when the novelist is very aware of film traditions and mostly ignores literary ones. Graham Greene and Michael Crichton were more intelligent writers than most in that category, but their books filmed well because they kept what filmmakers would make of the material in mind as they were writing.


JimV 08.10.15 at 5:29 pm

During long walks one of my mental distractions is to plan how I would produce a movie based on C.J.Cherryh’s “Merchanters Luck”: Anthony Hopkins as Papa Kreja, Bruce Willis as Sandor’s only surviving older brother, Linda Hamilton in her prime (that’s how long I’ve been doing this) as Allison Reilly etc.. My ending scene would be in the space station where Bruce Willis was arrested, with Bruce as an old man working as a janitor, as the announcement is made over loud-speakers, “Now arriving at Dock 19, independent merchanter freighter La Cygne,” and a big screen shows a side view of the ship with its original logo restored. (Pause while I wipe tears out of my eyes.)

That scene is not in the book. Hey, when you adapt or remake something you make changes. People who write books and people who make movies are trying to make something good, but other people may or may not like the results. Probably a lot of people would say of my movie (“La Cygne”) that I took a good book and added a schmaltzy ending.

In the end credits, I would include this: Whether you liked this movie or not, try the book. The book is way better.


Harold 08.10.15 at 5:51 pm

I would complain about the 1939 version of Wuthering Heights since it completely omits the culminating Catherine Linton and Hareton Earnshaw romance, which resolves the story through Hareton’s redemption though love and poetry (folk ballads).


bob mcmanus 08.10.15 at 6:05 pm

The book is way better.

1) Describe Velazquez Las Meninas in prose to such a fine degree that a painter reading your description could reproduce the painting such that a casual oberserver could not tell the original from the copy. How much text would it take? Compare to 10-20 high-res photos.

2) What bugs me about prose fiction are the claims to some sort of mimesis or realism or representation conflicting with the grotesque amount of info left out, not supplied, left to the imagination of the reader, or “sketched in” with a few keywords.

3) OTOH, what visual media have more difficulty with, and what prose fiction claims to excel at, is the representation of internal states. We really don’t get faces, architecture, landscapes, actions in fiction…but we do get, to an excess, thought feelings impressions perceptions. And these internal states largely without context, including that of the narrator/author, are what the readers of prose fiction seek, admire and enjoy.

4) There is an ideology, involved here, and an semi-conscious social decision made say 1850-1925, as to what visual media would represent and what prose narrative would focus on. Peter Brook and Jameson and many others are still trying to determine the implications.

5) I like manga anime because the creators can “break the rules”, and use authorial and anti-realistic intrusions in visual representations to portray internal states.


stostosto 08.10.15 at 11:07 pm

Wonderful post. Thanks, Maria.

I’ve just returned from a vacation in Africa – safari in Botswana mostly. To prepare I read most of the “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” series which may not aspire to a literary classic, but worked very well for the purpose: Introducing a sense of place that I only had hazy ideas of as a place with desert, diamonds and HIV epidemic. To be honest, I did do a bit of non-fiction reading also.

On the trip I also brought “Half of a Yellow Sun” (which I only finished yesterday), and it was a good pick for several reasons.

First, it’s a fine novel, even if I did have trouble keeping up my reading pace — something about the main characters losing their capacities for acting and instead becoming more or less passive victims and observers of the – gruesome – circumstances. (Or maybe it was just me).

Second, it’s about a war that I vaguely registered as a kid from its fleeting “cause célèbre” status in the West and haunting TV images of starving children, but which was otherwise ignored and soon forgotten — and the Vietnam war loomed infinitly larger on the media and political agenda. At least I wasn’t exposed to much information about it, nor did I ever seek any myself. Yet, it was a true human disaster, and a political one as well, and I was fundamentally curious to find out more about that. And now I wonder how current developments like the Boko Haram are tied to what went on back then.

Third, Nigeria figured quite prominently in places I visited on the way, notably Johannesburg where we had a guide who more or less equated the city’s terrible crime rate with Nigerians. Reading a piece of fiction like “Half of a Yellow Sun” provides one with a deeper perspective when confronted with such assertions.

And, more. But I’d say it’s essential to always read some factual accounts, too.


Victor Scamorza 08.10.15 at 11:12 pm

A beautiful essay, I read fiction when I was young and most of it was in the form of G G Marquez, or perhaps Galleano writing about South America, I was enthralled by the magical presence of everyday life in Central and South America. As I grew older I looked for non-fiction to fill my brian, and as I am now in my fifties I have learned to love fiction again, and to allow the writers fancy to take me on a journey. I am so happy I have discovered an ability to enjoy the fictional again, it has brought more creativity to my own writing and thinking. Thank you for this beautiful essay..



js. 08.10.15 at 11:42 pm

Lynne — I agree that comparisons can sometimes be irresistible. And when the book and the film, or other type of adaptation, are both good, then it’s great, and the adaptation can gain an extra layer of richness and meaning through it’s relation to its source. (And this is as true of, say, Throne of Blood as of more conventional sorts of adaptations.) I completely understand all of this.

What I do find irritating is a very common sort of complaint, one that always seems to go in one direction… I also understand that I’m in the minority here insofar as I’m probably more invested in film than most people on here (bob mcmanus excepted, of course!), and I’m certainly a less sophisticated/knowledgeable reader of fiction than most people on here (which isn’t to say I don’t like it, I very much do). But—and without at all meaning to pick on LFC here—this is the sort of thing I find odd:

I’m not sure whether it was just a bad movie, or a bad adaptation of the book, or both.

LFC maybe doesn’t mean this, but this seems to imply that (a) something could be a good movie while being a bad adaptation, and (b) something could be a bad movie while being a good adaptation. And if it’s (a), then I don’t see why I should be troubled that it’s a bad adaptation—it’s a good movie, after all; and if it’s (b), then the overriding fact is that it’s a bad movie, seems to me anyway. It’s really not totally clear to me why I’m supposed to care about about the quality of the adaptation, rather than just the quality of the movie.


Helen 08.11.15 at 12:36 am

As Novakant pointed out, one shouldn’t read novels with the aim of self improvement. It should be enjoyable. But the idea of novels as things which are constructed completely from whole cloth is incorrect, too. Novels which aren’t fantasy or sci-fi are usually built on a basis of real things. Reading Austen or (George) Eliot, for instance, you become familiar with what the elites might have worn, what kind of vehicles or conveyances were used, the fact that these were horse drawn and not combustion, the fact that the military and clergy played an important role in upper class society, what roles were expected of men, women, children, and so on… you get the idea.. Look for the bits which are *assumed*, not part of the plot or setting as such.


Kiwanda 08.11.15 at 1:34 am

“I’m struggling to think of a non-fiction book I’ve read, with the originality and complexity of – to pick one example – “100 Years of Solitude”. Any suggestions?”

Well, just at random:
“A Mathematical Theory of Communication”
“The Art of Computer Programming”
“Concentration Inequalities”
“Prediction, Learning, and Games”

Re books and movies: if I read the book and then see the movie, I’m too often thinking during the movie of all the motivations, thoughts, and incidents that are missing. But of course that doesn’t mean movies are worse, just different: the best can be transporting and overwhelming in visual and emotional intensity.

Re novels for self-improvement: as with having children, traveling, or meditating, the motivation of doing them to “become a better person” is dubious. Treating the world as a moral gymnasium seems dubious in general: you’re going to die anyway, why bother to die rich, or “a better person”?

Don’t many writers do it because they have to: they have a great inner compulsion? But yeah, no one is coming. “However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.”


LFC 08.11.15 at 1:50 am

It’s really not totally clear to me why I’m supposed to care about the quality of the adaptation, rather than just the quality of the movie.

I wrote my comment thinking you would disagree with it, js., and that’s fine: it’d be strange if we agreed on everything.

I guess my answer, perhaps not entirely satisfactory even to me, would be along these lines: if a movie takes the name of a famous book, as my example (the ’74 Great Gatsby movie) does, it invites the viewer to compare it with the book, and if the viewer decides that in one way or another it doesn’t capture the book’s spirit adequately or at all, then the viewer can conclude it’s a bad adaptation. Might be an ok movie qua movie (though I doubt the Gatsby movie was), but one of its missions is to somehow capture the book in a cinematic way b.c its title implicitly claims that it will do so, and the viewer is entitled, istm, to judge it along that particular dimension — how well it discharges that particular mission — as well as along others. (This only matters, arguably, if the viewer has read the book and has it somewhat fresh in mind, and most often these conditions probably won’t apply.) Because, as you and other commenters have pointed out, we’re dealing w/ two very different mediums here, such judgments need to be made w/ caution, but I don’t think they’re necessarily illegitimate.


LFC 08.11.15 at 2:00 am

p.s. The sentence in parentheses is not well phrased: what I meant was the judgment can only be made if the viewer has read the bk; it might still ‘matter’ in some abstract sense, however. Btw, this is not something I think about a lot b.c I don’t see very many movies.

And as bianca s. pointed out upthread, if a novelist writes w/ a cinematic sensibility (or whatever word you want), then the issue often tends to dissolve. I think ‘Atonement’ for ex. was a good adaptation of the Ian McEwen novel b.c it’s the kind of book that can be adapted well. Henry James, by contrast, is going to be difficult to put on screen, and the judgment will have to be adjusted accordingly. The ’90s movie version of ‘The Wings of the Dove’ was a reasonably good adaptation, as I recall (even though in that case I read the novel after seeing the movie).


js. 08.11.15 at 4:29 am

LFC — The Gatsby example is apposite because I’ll implicitly concede most of your point: You’d have pay me to get me to watch Baz Luhrmann’s Gatsby. Partly it’s that I don’t much like what Luhrmann does in general, but partly it’s because when that treatment is given to a novel I love, I want absolutely none of it. Similar goes for, say, the Merchant-Ivory production of The Remains of the Day. But in a way this goes back to my original comment—where I already know how I feel about the novel and where I can well guess how I’ll feel about the film given the director, I just wouldn’t bother watching it—in the case of the directors mentioned, I really wouldn’t bother watching many or any of their films anyway.

One last thing and then I think I should stop derailing this thread. One thing I find a bit bothersome about this topic is that in discussions of it, something like the Merchant-Ivory production of The Remains of the Day or a Forster novel always serves as an ideal type. But I think it would be good if we equally kept in mind The Thin Man (novel more enjoyable because so much more dissolute); Naked Lunch (both “novel” and film great, relation unclear); and again, Vertigo (has anyone even read the novel/short story/whatever)? I think this would help test some assumptions commonly in play.


Lynne 08.11.15 at 12:57 pm

js, Absolutely something can be a good movie but a bad adaptation, and maybe no one would care, if they hadn’t read the book. Or if they’d read the book but the movie had a different title and was only loosely based on the book. But if the titles are the same, people are led to expect that the movie is going to tell the same story the book tells, so if the movie is then a bad adaption because it misses some of what is essential to the story (in the book) naturally there will be disappointment. I think a lot of this disappointment could be avoided just by changing titles. The movie version of One True Thing changed the end! Which changed everything. That was a good book, but a terrible movie adaption. Grr.

I think, though, that you are getting at something true: that people have unrealistic expectations of movies as compared to books. I think it was Nick Hornby, who has had several novels made into movies, and who has written screenplays himself, who said, when someone complained about a movie version of one of his books, (paraphrasing) “The book is still there. It’s still on the shelf to read. The movie hasn’t replaced it, it is something else.”


LFC 08.11.15 at 12:59 pm

js. — I agree it wd be good to test/question some of the assumptions, probably starting w/ some of my own. Also will stipulate that you have a wider/deeper knowledge of movies than I do; for ex., I didn’t remember who had directed that Gatsby nor do I know offhand what else Luhrmann has done.


ZM 08.11.15 at 1:33 pm

Maria :”But a novel changes the ‘we’ to ‘me’. Some theorists say de-familiarisation is the hallmark of fiction; it makes the familiar seem strange and allows us to experience it afresh. Others go for verisimilitude and the re-creation of life as it is lived in someone else’s head, something that’s ironically been best achieved by difficult modernists.”

bob mcmanus: ” There is an ideology, involved here, and an semi-conscious social decision made say 1850-1925, as to what visual media would represent and what prose narrative would focus on.”

bob mcmanus — to tell you the truth, when I read your list of authors you read in the 1970s I don’t think you chose the right authors if you were looking for books to make you a better person. You would have been better off swapping Ibsen for Paul Gallico or another pleasanter writer.

I think I would make your time period a bit later too, maybe 1865-1965?

When I was doing my undergraduate, I often puzzled on the different sorts of modernism — how is James Joyce modern like Le Corbusier is modern? I would think to myself, as they are quite different.

But now I’m studying urban planning instead, there is an easier way to understand modernism — the relative importance of the individual to the public realm — as Maria says, the (modernist) novel changes the we to me.

In cities you get lots of object buildings that don’t contribute very well to the public realm, and while one or two are alright (especially if they are good examples, but many are poor examples unfortunately) once you get too many object buildings it is detrimental to the urban fabric of the city: “while Modernism’s ‘best solo performances’ may have been ‘more virtuoso’, they failed to produce ‘good’ streets or ‘good’ cities, and there was a recognition that ‘…the typical fabric and its overall orchestration were better in previous eras’ (Kelbaugh)” (Heath, Oc, Tiesdell).

In this case it is easy to see how James Joyce and Le Corbusier are like each other.


bianca steele 08.11.15 at 2:00 pm

A lot of the inadequate (I won’t say bad, in some cases, esp. where I saw the movie first or just didn’t like the novel much, the movie was better) adaptations, I think smooth out rough spots, especially wrt character. I do think we’re allowed a narrower range of human types and human actions in (mainstream) film than in literature. IIRC The Children of Men, for example, leaves out how the main character’s son dies, which is centrally important to the book, if only symbolically. I admit I probably read the book hoping, without success, to make more sense of the film.


bianca steele 08.11.15 at 2:22 pm

Also, on novels as “self-improvement”, even if readers today would sit still for all the irrelevant bits you get in Hugo or Eliot, a lot of the informational character novels used to supply is now available elsewhere: instead of long descriptions of Roman architecture in a novel set in Rome, say, now it’s expected that the reader will just Google the background for him/herself.


lemmycaution 08.11.15 at 2:58 pm

I am back to reading novels after a break of 15 years or so. I stopped reading them arbitrarily and I started back up arbitrarily. I only read short-ish novels now; while before I was working my way through the big classics.

I am not sure I get much out of reading books. You learn things which is good, but it does not really seem so valuable that I would try to convince someone who did not like to read books to read books. It is just something that I like to do.


Ragweed 08.11.15 at 3:27 pm


An excellent and well written piece – thank you. Fiction does have a power to get inside an experience in a way that is hard for non-fiction.

In reality, though, there is no clear line between the fiction and non-fiction. Somewhere between purely internal fantasy stream-of-consciousness and a list of cold dry facts are a range of narratives that put together pieces of truth to tell a story. Some narratives are closer to the list of facts, and some closer to internal dialogue. Fiction is often a label for those stories that explore the emotional and aesthetic qualities of an experience, of telling truths that must be felt.

As for non-fiction that approaches the literary quality of fiction – Te-Nahisi Coates maybe?

I work a lot with Native American communities, and I often think if you want to understand more about Native experience, read the literature. Oh, by all means read some good *accurate* history and the like, but Native fiction can bring it to life and give a sense of Native world-views in a way that the historical facts just can’t. I mean, you can read all about how the US cavalry slaughtered 3000 horses of the Yakima and Nimi’ipuu (Nez Pierce) on the banks of the Palouse, about the importance of the horses to the people, etc. but to read Big Ma’s memories of it in Reservation Blues is to understand it in a deeper, more visceral way.

But in it’s power, lies also the danger of fiction. The ability of the story to take us into a world and make it real can be used to deceive as well as to enlighten. Fiction played an enormous role in glorifying colonialism, occupation, and genocide. Before there were Hollywood Indian’s, there were the “savages” (whether violent or noble) of James Fenmore Cooper and a hundred other frontier and western writers.


Raisuli 08.11.15 at 5:38 pm

My problem with “non-fiction” is the idea that such a thing is even a thing.

Maria- this is an excellent post. Thank you


js. 08.12.15 at 12:35 am

Absolutely something can be a good movie but a bad adaptation, and maybe no one would care, if they hadn’t read the book. Or if they’d read the book but the movie had a different title and was only loosely based on the book. But if the titles are the same, people are led to expect that the movie is going to tell the same story the book tells

Lynne — it’s interesting you say this because in one of my responses to LFC I almost said something like: “well, then you could just solve the problem by changing the title,” but I stopped myself because it didn’t seem right that the point would turn on something so trivial. But maybe you’re right and the point isn’t so trivial—it’s certainly not trivial when the cachet of the title is leveraged to get people interested in the film, e.g. So, I’m thinking now that it definitely matters, e.g., for Luhrmann’s Gatsby or Gone Girl: very famous novels/big Hollywood productions.

I’m less convinced that, e.g., Blade Runner would have to be evaluated along a whole new dimension if only it were called Do Androids Dream… Or e.g. that whatever adaptation-related problems attach to Mildred Pierce (the Joan Crawford one, not the Todd Haynes one), would have gone away if it had simply been called “Veda” or something.


js. 08.12.15 at 12:39 am

PS. I actually thought of Mildred Pierce because it’s an excellent fit for the “great film/bad adaptation” category.


Smass 08.12.15 at 1:01 am

A lovely post Maria, thanks.

On the topic of literary adaption, it is an oft-repeated cliche that it is easier to make a good movie from a bad book than from a good or great one (I paraphrase). Apparently, this is in part because a bad book provides greater freedom for the move-maker: they are less inclined to try to stick so closely to the novel (and there will be fewer people to complain that it does not live up to the original). I do think, as Lynne suggests, that it is often better if adaptations rely only loosely on their source material.

On topic, I have learnt a lot from fiction but I’m a bit suspicious of justifications for fiction as self-improvement (as a quite a few people here). Really, I read it (and non-fiction too) because I enjoy doing so. I’m always baffled by those people who eschew fiction because they only want “facts”. It is not just that they are deluding themselves if they think that non-fiction is any less reliant on authorial intention and narrative convention than is fiction but it just seems such an instrumental vision of life. Don’t they do anything just for fun? I understand (sort of) when people just don’t like reading or think most fiction is poorly written or prefer TV or movies; it is the suggestion that someone’s time is too important to spend on something made-up (and thus apparently frivolous) that I just don’t get.


bob mcmanus 08.12.15 at 1:51 am

The Three Stages in the Reader’s Way

1) Aesthetic: Nietzsche, I with my personal values judge whether the text is fun or pretty

2) Ethical: Levinas, I have an infinite responsibility to the text; the text owes me nothing. My subjection to the text founds my subjectivity. The text judges me.

3) Religious: There is nothing outside the text (but the Cloud of Unknowing and ecstasy)


bob mcmanus 08.12.15 at 1:58 am


From a psychological perspective, ecstasy is a loss of self-control and sometimes a temporary loss of consciousness, which is often associated with religious mysticism, sexual intercourse and the use of certain drugs.[1] For the duration of the ecstasy the ecstatic is out of touch with ordinary life and is capable neither of communication with other people nor of undertaking normal actions. The experience can be brief in physical time, or it can go on for hours. Subjective perception of time, space or self may strongly change or disappear during ecstasy. For instance, if one is concentrating on a physical task, then any intellectual thoughts may cease. On the other hand, making a spirit journey in an ecstatic trance involves the cessation of voluntary bodily movement.


js. 08.12.15 at 4:30 am

LFC — I missed @86 somehow, but to clarify: Baz Luhrmann is the somewhat bombastic Australian director who first came to fame with Romeo and Juliet and directed a version of Gatsby with Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead a few years back. I’m not at all familiar with the ’70s adaptation—IMDB tells me it was directed by some Jack Clayton, which name isn’t at all ringing a bell.


Lynne 08.12.15 at 12:53 pm

js, you are clearly far more versed in films than I am. :) Expectations matter so much to enjoyment of both books and movies, don’t they? And with that banal observation I think I’ve exhausted my contribution to this discussion.


ZM 08.12.15 at 1:46 pm


“to clarify: Baz Luhrmann is the somewhat bombastic Australian director who first came to fame with Romeo and Juliet ”

Romeo and Juliet was Baz Lurhman’s first international film — I greatly disliked it. But his first hit was the Australian film Strictly Ballroom, a comedy about ballroom dancing. This is his best film of the ones I’ve seen. It was part of a certain sort of Australian 90s film along with Miriam’s Wedding and Strictly Ballroom which were a bit cringey but also heartwarming.

I prefer the 70s and 80s Australian films like My Brilliant Career and Picnic At Hanging Rock and The Year My Voice Broke and Storm Boy etc myself, but the 90s ones were better than the current ones, as Australian film took a genre turn in the 00s.


novakant 08.12.15 at 2:12 pm

Jack Clayton directed “The Innocents” which is a very eerie adaptation of Henry James’ very eerie “The Turn of the Screw”. He’s also famous for “Room At The Top” which I haven’t seen.

Expectations are indeed incredibly important, just think of all the hype and marketing that goes into blockbusters, but it also applies to less commercial director driven films, e.g. “the new Fincher/Mann/Allen/PT Anderson/CoenBros” etc.

I’m still not quite sure, and I include myself in this, what people who have read and loved a book actually expect from a film adaptation – worth investigating.


novakant 08.12.15 at 2:14 pm

Oh and I love Moulin Rouge! and Romeo + Juliet, but I can understand why people hate it. Everybody should like Strictly Ballroom though.


JanieM 08.12.15 at 2:35 pm

1. This has been haunting me since Maria put up the post:

We lived, we died, and someone should know.

The “we” and the “someone” are, arguably, the same, at least collectively: i.e., all of us. So we have a responsibility to take both roles if we can…..?

Maybe that’s why people invented god(s), so there would always be “someone.”

Maybe that’s also why people who write stories, whether fiction or non-, are treasured: because they also speak, at least symbolically, for the millions and billions whose stories will never be explicitly told.

I have just been reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which seems apt somehow.

2. From a different angle, I am reminded of an essay I love — “Teaching a Stone to Talk,” by Annie Dillard — and this line from it:

We are here to witness.

Interesting that “witness” can apply to both the “we” and the “someone” of Maria’s concluding line.

3. I’m not a movie person, so my experience isn’t wide. But the only time I’ve ever liked a movie adaptation as well as the book was A River Runs Through It. The movie and the book were uncannily alike in the mood they created and the reaction they inspired, at least in me. Plus, in the movie you actually got to see the beautiful mountain scenery and Brad Pitt, instead of just imagining them.

4. Why aren’t movies adapted into books? ;-)


js. 08.14.15 at 2:59 am

Lynne — Yeah, I guess I’m pretty well-versed in film; on the other hand, I have no doubt that you and mostly everyone else here is much better versed in literature/fiction than me. So it evens out :)

ZM/novakant — Thanks, I’m aware of Strictly Ballroom but haven’t seen it. I think from a non-Australian context, “came to fame with Romeo and Juliet” is fair to Luhrmann (and for what it’s worth, I do like his R+J, tho I haven’t seen it in 15-ish years.)


dr ngo 08.14.15 at 5:16 am

Movies are adapted into books, all the time. Look for the key term “novelization”; you’ll find hundreds of them. In general they are terrible, presumably because those who buy such books want every scene and every line of dialogue that they remember (and like) to be incorporated in the text, leaving very little room for literary artfulness.

As for why bad books often make good – or at least successful – movies, my simplistic view is this. A “bad” book that is successful in reaching an audience (and why otherwise would you make the movie) often, lacking either gracious writing or nuanced characterization, depends very heavily on plot. And plot is something Hollywood knows how to do. Whereas a well-written book achieves much of its virtue precisely through the subtler arts of character development and literary style, which are far far tougher to “transfer onto the screen.” Not impossible, but beyond the capacity of most screenwriters and directors.

Examples (or counter-examples) of this hypothesis are left here as an exercise for the interested reader.


LFC 08.14.15 at 6:05 am

js. @98
LFC — I missed @86 somehow, but to clarify [etc.]

thanks for the clarification.


js. 08.15.15 at 2:13 am

It is true that if I think of what I consider to be the greatest films (and my tastes are vaguely canonical), almost none of them are based on works of fiction (tho again, see #1 on that list—and it’s very certainly not for the reason dr. ngo considers). In fact, I’d say that the movie adaptations I love are ones that make the source material more or less entirely their own, and this can happen whether the adaptation, qua finished product, closely matches the source material or whether it deviates wildly from it.


js. 08.15.15 at 2:16 am

“My tastes are canonical” sounds horrifically wrong, but I expect people understand what I mean.

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