Why read novels?

by Marija Peričić


“There’s more to life than books you know,

but not much more.”

                                                – The Smiths


As an emerging author, and as a reader, every few years I get a small chill of horror as a spate of articles appears heralding the death, or at least the demise, of the novel. This is appalling to me not only because I have just written a novel, and hope to write others, but because so much of what I know about the world I know through novels. My world is built out of them. Obviously, I have had many experiences in the world that have informed me, but it is novels that I have to thank for allowing me to know the obscure, the unspeakable and the remote, and also to know more about myself. Reading novels has been the one constant throughout my life, and I would not be who I am without them.

And yet, all kinds of people, even ones like Zadie Smith and Will Self, periodically announce that the novel, especially the literary kind, is on its way out, moribund and defunct. They are nauseated by the literary novel, they say, by its bagginess, its artifice. The future, they say, lies in truer texts, and short bursts of them. After all, we live in a time of immediacy and interconnectedness, and what could such a 19th century fossil as a printed book possibly have to offer us now?

And when you consider the kind of world-in-crisis that we live in, one might think they had a point. In the face of climate change and mass human displacement; Orwellian states of perpetual war; gaping chasms of inequality, novels, and even art more broadly, could certainly be seen as a frivolous irrelevancy. We stand on the very brink of auto-annihilation; one might easily argue instead that what we need right now are practical things that can have real and immediate impacts in the world, not made-up stories and images. Action rather than contemplation. What if all the time and energy that was spent writing novels and making art was spent developing renewable energy, one might ask. Or curing cancer? Or saving endangered species? Wouldn’t that be a much better world?

And of course it’s impossible to deny that solving all those problems would make for a better world. But, if I had to choose between a world with novels and art, which is also full of chaos and destruction, or a serene world of abundance and no art, I would choose the chaotic world without any hesitation. A world without art is just a world in which I do not want to live.


But I also disagree that art does not have real impacts on the world. And I think novels in particular, most especially literary novels, have a unique ability to change the world in ways no other art form can, and in ways that are more important now than ever.

The situation that we find ourselves in today with the mass displacement of people in need, against whom we put up walls, both physical and psychological; the casual racism and abuse; the misogyny, homophobia and transphobia: all of these are caused by a failure to see the other as we see ourselves. And seeing the other as we see ourselves is precisely what literary fiction gives us, and precisely what we need right now. Reading novels allows us to inhabit the lives of others for an extended period, to concentrate on them and seek to understand them. It allows is to imagine the life of another, to deeply feel it and see the world from another’s viewpoint.

As Iris Murdoch pointed out many years ago, the reading of literary fiction is a moral act and a humanising one.[i] In Murdoch’s opinion, novels are fundamentally a moral art form because they can provoke an emotional response in the reader, most importantly, one of empathy.[ii] Murdoch argues that this is because novels give us a window into the moral world of others, and allow us to react to, and make moral judgements upon, characters as though they were real people.

And recently, Murdoch’s connection between empathy and literary fiction has been backed up by neuroscientific studies which have linked the reading of literary fiction, compared with non-fiction or popular fiction, with increased empathy. In other words, when we read literary fiction, we become better at seeing the other as we see ourselves. We become kinder people.

So reading fiction is actually far from a frivolity: it is in fact an act of resistance. Resistance to unkindness, to ignorance and apathy, and it is a way for us to become better people. Because of this, to read fiction becomes nothing short of a moral necessity. So I think that, despite the doomsayers’ predictions, the novel will never die. We need far it too much.

[i] Murdoch, I. 1994, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals. London: Penguin.

[ii] Murdoch, I. 1997. Existentialists and Mystics: writings on philosophy and literature. P. J. Conradi (ed). London: Chatto & Windus.