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Fiction or Nonfiction: Which is Better for You?

June 24, 2013
The three basic genres (not in order): Fiction, Nonfiction, and Football

The three basic genres (not in order): fiction, nonfiction, and football

Vacation time (for me) means selecting which books to read while I’m waiting because there’s a lot of waiting during vacations.  There’s waiting in the airport, waiting on the airplane (in between naps), and there’s waiting in the hotels, tourist traps and traffic jams.   For as long as I can remember (including childhood), I’ve packed two books for these waits, one fiction and one nonfiction.  I’ve always known that one part of my brain likes fiction, and when I get tired I can use another part of my brain for nonfiction while the fiction side of my brain rests. 

All my life I’ve either had an innate understanding of my brain, or I’ve had a really short attention span. 

An article in The Atlantic examines the differences between fiction and nonfiction, but I have to warn you; it’s kind of boring.  The article is not something to read in the airport (unless you want to fall asleep on the airplane).  At least it’s boring to me, but I have a short attention span.  I don’t think these kinds of articles were written for people who have a short attention span.  Despite having a short attention span, I understood the point of the article (even if I thought it was boring). 

According to the article, fiction is spiritual reading, and nonfiction is carnal reading.  Talk about loaded words.  Fiction is considered spiritual, and I get that.  It’s not the word I’d choose, but I understand what they mean.  When you read fiction, you put yourself into another person’s mind.  You have empathy for people that aren’t you (and people that probably don’t exist).  You think about their problems and how you would handle their situations.  You put yourself in another place and time, and if you’re lucky, you see the pictures in your head and can tune out everything around you. 

And if you’re really lucky, nobody sneaks up behind you and conks you on the head while you’re reading (and tuned out).  I have a thing about being conked on the head while I’m reading.  That’s more likely to happen if I’m reading fiction. 

I was surprised that nonfiction would get the term carnal applied to it.  When I think of carnal, I think of Fifty Shades of Grey (not that I’ve read it).  When I think of carnal, I don’t think of Wheat Belly, Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight , and Find your Path back to Health (15 word title, which isn’t that long for nonfiction). 

Supposedly, (according to the article) people who read fiction are more empathetic than people who read more nonfiction (or don’t read fiction at all).  I haven’t seen the studies.  I don’t always trust these kinds of studies (especially if they’re funded by somebody with an agenda, which is almost everybody, but I don’t know who has an agenda for fiction over nonfiction other than fiction writers).  Being able to get into the minds of various characters helps fiction readers see and understand the points of view of others.  Readers might not get by just reading nonfiction. 

All I know is that if somebody interrupts me while I’m reading fiction, I’m NOT very empathetic because they’ve disrupted my concentration when I’m in somebody else’s entertaining world.  That ticks me off.  If they interrupt me while I’m reading nonfiction, I usually don’t care because I’m just reading information.  If I’m reading fiction and watching football at the same time, do… not… disturb! 

Since I have a short attention span, carnal and spiritual don’t seem to be the best words to use to describe the categories of literature.  To a guy like me, nonfiction might be practical reading, and fiction would be fun.  Again, neither term is completely accurate.  Both terms have positive connotations.  I’ve replaced two loaded words (carnal and spiritual) with two other loaded words, but at least my two loaded words are loaded in the same direction, and I know what the two loaded words mean. 

Loaded.  Haha! 


Switching from fiction to nonfiction is easy today with so many electronic devices for reading.  For example, my phone can store as many fiction and nonfiction selections as I want (keeping me both spiritual and carnal).  And with longer airport lines this summer, I don’t think I could carry enough books to keep me occupied.  Now all I need is my phone and a small dose of a certain (legal) drug, and I’m ready to travel and stay entertained at the same time. 

Just don’t interrupt me while I’m reading fiction because I might not be empathetic. 


So what do you think?  Does reading fiction make you more empathetic?  Are these studies bogus, or do they have merit?  Is carnal the right word to describe nonfiction?  Which do you prefer: fiction or nonfiction?  Should I let my subscription to The Atlantic lapse?  If so, what should I replace it with? 

That’s probably too many questions, but this is what happens when you’re a guy with a short attention span.

  1. I prefer reading fiction, but I like both. I’ve never really thought of their individual impact on me though; I just read what I like.

  2. Well, the conclusions make sense, for the reasons they sight, however… there is plenty of nonfiction out there that seeks to put you shoes of others and plenty of fiction that fails to do so, so I’m not real wild about this criterion as a difference between the two.

    That aside, I almost am always reading a bit of both, so it’s difficult for me to separate the effects of one versus the other.

    • That’s true, I think the article (and maybe the studies) lumped all nonfiction together. I wonder if biographies/autobiographies and narrative nonfiction would have the same effect as fiction. Geez, somebody would have to find the actual studies and read them closely. Ugh. That kind of reading would probably be termed as “carnal.”

      • Yeah, that’s where I was heading too. For example, Eric Larson’s books definitely fall into that category, which I’ve heard called “creative nonfiction”. And they read more like fiction than non-fiction if you ask me.

  3. I prefer fiction over nonfiction any day but I’ll read a really good recommended nonfiction book or one that’s a self-help book

  4. I’ll agree with you .. The Atlantic article is boring, and, I was rather disappointed, because I was expecting it to be better.

    I don’t know that I’d use spiritual to describe reading fiction … there is certainly an element of ‘otherness’ when you’re reading a novel (especially when it’s written in first person). But, spiritual is totally the wrong word.

    As for what I prefer — I like both. Most of the non-fiction I’ve read is biography/memoir/history, also love essays — most of which focus on a particular person, or group of people. So, in many ways it’s not different from fiction. If you think of non-fiction as textbooks, then, yes, I’d prefer fiction.

    I tend to find non-fiction to be more moving and memorable, because the story is actually true. I still love fiction, and always will, but, in the past decade or so, some of the best books I’ve read have been non-fiction.

  5. Pardon me while I read the word “carnal” to be “camal” in the description of nonfiction books. I guess it’s because of how boring it was to read the information. Ha. Jokes (:

    I like your words better though, cause reading had always been a getaway for me. God help those people who made game of stealing and passing around my book during lunch in school ..

    As for being more empathetic? You could say that, but my friend did repeatedly tell me that his (fictional) short story had made his teacher and classmate cry before he read it to me.. and I didn’t cry.. Am I just heartless? Though I remember trying to bring to life and becoming, or even making a completely new character, and incorporating that into fictional stories I liked. One of the quirks of fiction, even a Ducklet can be a pro.
    Nonfiction usually only really gets me when they’re sad, AND true.

    So definitely fiction.. the Duck is a fictional character itself , and what a sad world for it not to exist 😛

    • I think if somebody tells us ahead of time that a story will make us cry, then we’ll be more likely not to cry because we’re mentally or emotionally prepared for what’s about to happen. Or we might see it as a challenge. I hear my inner voice saying: “I’ll decide for myself when I’m gonna cry!”

  6. Since you have a short attention span: Yes. Have merit. Carnal only works if referring to “having a lust for knowledge” which still sounds creepy. I would use words like: dry, snoozefest, Fifty Shades of Boring. Hands down, fiction!! Yes, let that Atlantic subscription go… You can’t go wrong with Mad Magazine.

    Enjoy your summer reading!

    • Ha ha! I still have a few Don Martin books (from Mad Magazine) from when I was a kid. I was wise enough not to throw those away. Thanks for the great advice!

  7. Thanks for the interesting post! I write both fiction and non-fiction, and I enjoy reading both as well. I think you’re right, they appeal to different parts of the brain. As for empathy, I think what the writer puts determines what the reader gets out, regardless of book type or genre.

  8. How about this one:
    I just like the justification for reading fiction.

    • Thanks. “Book nerds” was a term that the Atlantic article didn’t use. The Salon article also made the point that “literary fiction” is what leads to the empathy (I think the Salon author called it “ambiguous” thinking or something like that) and then listed a bunch of authors that I probably don’t want to read.

      I don’t care for a lot of literary fiction (too much overwriting and authors trying too hard to show off). If researchers conducted the study on me, I’d probably get so annoyed while reading literary fiction (FIVE PAGES OF STREAM OF CONSCIOUSNESS WHILE STARING IN A MIRROR IS DRIVING ME NUTS!!!) that I’d skew the results.

  9. How stupid actually. I write memoir and essays mostly, and I’m very empathetic…and I’ve met empathetic fiction writers, and incredibly annoying and self-centered non-empathetic fiction writers…and the same for non-fiction.
    I love reading both…I dabble in fiction, but my memoir stuff is just more interesting to me for now. I am sure it will change.
    I won’t interrupt you during a novel or football!

    • Oh and I didn’t mean you or the post was stupid. It was interesting…the article I found a bit stupid.
      I think fiction writers can definitely drum up empathy for a character…but a memoir writer can do the same…there are many empathetic characters in non-fiction…depends on the type of non-fiction of course…

  10. And I’m triple commenting because I read fast and first thought that the article said the writer in him or herself is carnal or empathetic…not the actual style of writing. Sorry if my first comment was absolutely worthless. 🙂

    • I think you’re onto something, though. Researchers should try the study on different kinds of writers, and see how much empathy (along with analytical thinking) each kind of author has. But hopefully, they’ll write a more interesting article about it when they’re done.

      • Maybe. I don’t know if it is important or not…write whatever genre suits you! I think you know what is better based on what you want to write or feel most compelled to read. I go through stages, reading-wise.

  11. Gotta go with fiction, more entertaining and elevates one from the morass that is day to day life.

  12. Aang Lewis. permalink

    Of course I prefer fiction, reading is something that you can’t describe in one word (spiritual or carnal) this also ticked me off. Reading is your personal feeling, it’s you, the author, and the characters together in such amazing world. I don’t even care if it’s spiritual and carnal, the most important is reading… and not being disturbed.

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