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The value of novels



Like many other privileged people, I learned to read before I was five, and have hardly stopped reading since. That was the way things were in that long-ago pre-TV world, when we children read fiction mainly per courtesy of writers like Enid Blyton and Mary Grant Bruce, who had not then come under a cloud of anachronistic criticism.

Main image: Children reading while parent uses iPad (Chris Johnston illustration)

I was at university when I first heard of the so-called death of the novel, and was frightened by the thought. But I’ve since heard the phrase many times during the ensuing decades, and am cheered by the fact that so far the novel has clung to life, albeit precariously, while novelists persist in writing, despite the many drawbacks attendant upon the practice.

But there is growing worry about the decline in reading: a recent study confirms the fact that women read more than men, but that time spent on reading has declined for both. Time spent watching television, however, is increasing, and these trends have been evident for years now. During a de-cluttering session recently, I came across a transcript of a conversation between erstwhile President Obama and deeply Christian award-winning novelist Marilynne Robinson. It was conducted in 2015, during those almost halcyon days before President Trump, that famous non-reader. Obama and Robinson talked of many things: the state of the American nation, the nature of democracy, the divisions in modern society, the concept of freedom, and the dangers of fear.

At one point in the conversation, Obama asked Robinson whether she worried about people not reading novels anymore. She replied that the matter was not really one of her concerns, because she associated mainly with writers and readers. Obama, who has always found time to read (how?) then remarked that the ‘most important stuff’ he has ever learned came from novels; he went on to make the connection between the reading of novels and the concept of empathy. An obvious connection when you think about it, because novels are about imagined people living in places other than your own: thus they enable you, at best, to experience other minds and the inner lives of others, to imagine what it is like to walk a mile in someone else’s moccasins, as the nineteenth-century American poet Mary Torrans Lathrap put it. Nearer to our own time, novelist William Boyd says succinctly: ‘If you want to know what makes people tick, read a novel.’

Robinson had mentioned the problem of fear, which prevents the fearful from understanding other people: fear, particularly fear of people who are different in any way, militates against empathy. It is significant, I think, that Valeria Luiselli, Mexican writer and winner of this year’s Dublin Literary Award, also connects fear and lack of empathy. She says she is afraid of our spirits becoming stagnant, ‘of not having a common space in which to listen to each other and understand each other…I am afraid of a world without fiction.’ I think she is right to be afraid.

Of course we do have fiction, but it is communicated in different forms, and we have experienced a shift in the way people consume stories: witness, for example, the popularity of Netflix. Film, however, most often imposes a particular view on the consumer, while the reader of fiction has to decide on his or her own view and interpretation. One’s individual imagination is its own unique picture-making facility, and open to shades of meaning and nuance that film often lacks. At least this is my view, and I have often been indignant when characters in film do not match my vision of them. (I confess, however, to making an exception in the case of Laurence Olivier playing the part of Mr Darcy.)


‘Novels are about imagined people living in places other than your own: thus they enable you, at best, to experience other minds and the inner lives of others, to imagine what it is like to walk a mile in someone else’s moccasins.’


When reading we ask ourselves questions about what will happen next, but we also wonder how each character will react to a crisis or to another character, or to the place the action is set in. We thus escape what novelist Elizabeth Strout calls the prismatic quality of viewing people, a narrow understanding. The possible answers are many and varied: imagination is at work again as we try to understand how protagonists and others feel, as we try to practise empathy.

The concept of empathy is often in the news these days, even if the reading of fiction isn’t. Indeed, even certain politicians have been instructed to receive empathy training. This is a sound idea, and acknowledgement of the necessity of empathy, and all credit to the person who recommended it. But I just wonder whether, in a simpler time, such training would have been necessary?

For Australia still purports to be a largely Christian society, and Prime Minister Morrison is an avowedly and practising Christian leader. Surely, then, the Golden Rule as set out in St Matthew, Chapter 7, is the real starting-point? Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them, more commonly expressed as Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Of course, this straightforward instruction for living is not solely Judeo-Christian, but is an idea common to most religions and ethical traditions.

Here is some (unsolicited) advice for servants of government in Canberra: make sure you do the empathy training, but follow Obama’s example as well. Call in at the local library, borrow some books, and start reading fiction, instead of work-prescribed non-fiction. Given the Federal Government’s record with regard to children and the poor, I recommend the novels of Charles Dickens as a good and reliable beginning. Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Great Expectations: it doesn’t really matter which one you choose. And then, like the final line of A Christmas Carol, ‘God bless us, every one!’

Let Obama have the last word. The reading of novels, he believes, teaches us that ‘the world is complicated and full of greys, but there’s still truth to be found, and that you have to strive for that and work for that.’



Gillian BourasGillian Bouras is an expatriate Australian writer who has written several books, stories and articles, many of them dealing with her experiences as an Australian woman in Greece.

Main image: Children reading while parent uses iPad (Chris Johnston illustration)

Topic tags: Gillian Bouras, novels, reading, fiction, Barack Obama, Marilynne Robinson, Dickens, empathy



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Existing comments

Sometimes watching TV can be most beneficial. Not only the Olympics but programs about writers like Ernest Hemingway (thank you SBS). I had mislaid the memory of the significant impact of reading "The Old Man and the Sea". Early in his writing career Hemingway said "I start with one true sentence..." I have five of his books. Enough for a lifetime. And, Gillian, I much prefer Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy!

Pam | 27 July 2021  

Barack Obama’s ‘the world is complicated and full of greys, but there’s still truth to be found’ is a statement in which one main clause contradicts and is contradicted by the other. He isn’t using the word ‘but’ as a conjunction. If he were, both clauses would have an equivalent meaning. He is using ‘but’ as a preposition meaning ‘except’ because the clauses do not have an equivalent meaning. The world is not, but only appears, complicated and full of greys because when you find the truth, the apparent complications will be resolved. Catholics have Jesus speaking authoritatively through the Church to resolve the apparent complications. Obama has another agency as the truth which resolves the transient (hence only apparent) complications and greys in the lives of women: https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2013/04/26/remarks-president-planned-parenthood-conference

roy chen yee | 27 July 2021  

Thank you Gillian for another thought provoking article. It is mid winter here in Adelaide, and cold and blustery outside. I am sitting by a warm fire and have turned the TV off to savour your article which appeared on my iPad. Yes, there is something deeply satisfying about reading a good book, particularly novels, which can place ourselves in other people’s shoes, and the extra effort required to do this as apposed to watching TV is always rewarding. A book, particularly an actual paper book, I find is a great friend, and with it I can travel along at my own pace.

John Whitehead | 27 July 2021  

Nice... but the word "novel" has had me cringing since being forced to read D.H.Lawrence's Freudian tripe, Golding's Flies and assorted prescribed scholastic reading. Who can forget R.M. Ballantyne's Coral Island and Gorilla Hunters? Good adventurous Christian fellows imposing their virtues on those heathens and shooting every unfortunate primate in the name of sport. I don't think I'd be (Defoe's) Robinson Crusoe if my attitudes to race (Friday) and hierarchical society weren't initially shaped in formative years by the musings of a writer's meanderings. I won't suggest I'm skilled at deciphering Obama-ese but that last quote about "truth to be found... to strive for that and work for that" seems to suggest you'll read a lot of books before you discover a black or white; as usual, his words seem a beautifully scented perfume of profundity that temporarily conceals a miasma of nonsense. While many novels rely on drawing the reader's sympathy by fairly formulaic pathos I'm not sure we want to hear Scomo or his ministers confess to understanding empthy better after reading (say) Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, particularly after the drubbing he received for a moment's honesty to admit he talked something over with his wife. Recommend reading?

ray | 28 July 2021  

I suspect I've read more novels than anyone else in Australia! These days I make myself read some non-fiction in between each novel to prevent myself from becoming too soppy. I agree with Gillian about Dickens, but would like to squeeze George Eliot in to the recommendation as well. Apart from film and people's busy lives, what will kill off fiction is the awarding of prizes to books that have little literary merit (they're written on topical subjects from the fashionable point of view) - people will read them and not get that transcendent experience that literature can give. I've just discovered the novelist Niall Williams, so if you have a bit of an Irish sense of humour and feel like a laugh, get yourself a copy of This is Happiness, or, History of the Rain.

Russell | 28 July 2021  

This thought-provoking article reminded me of my former Psychology Professor's saying "St Paul said 'here but for the grace of God do I', good literature says 'there go I'"

William John Burston | 28 July 2021  

Gillian: Such a clear understanding of human nature, how we find ourselves in others when we read - the moral dilemmas and contexts far wider than our own lives which open up and the Golden Rule admonition/injunction - from Jesus - which could certainly do with some due acknowledgement from those who proclaim publicly their Faith but those of us with a little experience of the wider world are not filled with fear of difference - and can find the same versions of the Golden Rule in other cultures, too. In Japan a Buddhist maxim has it that the World is a Mirror - it reflects back to us our actions and sets the agenda as it were for others to do likewise - hopefully of the generous and kind rather than the discriminatory and ugly. Novels have that power.

Jim Kable | 29 July 2021  

A wonderful piece, Gillian, and one that one wishes more of our leaders, corporate and government, would read and take to heart. Novels not only have the power to transport us to other places, they can also show us the emotions and concerns of other people. Perhaps reading and commenting on a novel could form part of the parliamentary sexual harassment (and how to deal with it) training of our MPs!

Juliet Flesch | 29 July 2021  

Agree completely, Russell! I find few novels published today, including sadly, prize winners, are worth reading. It seems that the object of publishers is to maximise their profits rather than give the world something to be cherished over generations.

john frawley | 29 July 2021  

A lot in there Gillian and obviously several topics of contention. I am glad that the novel continues as a source of pleasure and a way of understanding emotional responses to situations we cannot experience.I have just finished reading ‘Snuggie Bain” by Douglas Stuart (2020 Booker Prize) which I approached as an example of Scottish Misery genre. What a delightful,moving book and beautifully written. In spite of my unconscious bias against addiction and alcoholism, i found a great deal of empathy for both main characters and the power of love in the hostile world of post industrial Glasgow.There are worse ways to spend time in lockdown than expanding your understanding of human nature by reading about it .

Maggie | 29 July 2021  

Reading groups are flourishing around Australia and fiction is hardly moribund. Actors pray for good scripts and novelists often deliver the initial story. Popular Australian novelists such as Jane Harper, Markus Zusak, Trent Dalton, Liane Moriarty and many others enjoy success. On classics - Austen, Dostoevsky, George Eliot, Dickens et al., there is a huge repository that illuminates the depths of human nature, standing the test of time. The best of literary fiction often explores perennial human themes in more contemporary ways, and novels such as ‘Milkman’ by Anna Burns and an Australian novel such as ‘The weekend’ by Charlotte Wood do this, as do novels such as ‘Cloud Street’ [Tim Winton] and ‘Oscar and Lucinda’ [Peter Carey]. Some literary competitions and awards generate controversy, especially when the winner is repulsive to some readers, a huge kick in the guts. I recall a clip from a small African boy talking to his mother: “Don’t tell me no more stories that aren’t true, Mommio. I like on my tongue the taste of a story that I can swallow down. A story is to say a true, true thing that you do not know any other way of telling.” An enduring recipe.

Peter Donnan | 30 July 2021  

If Barack Obama were Hindu, he would be deified after death. There might even be an Obama temple somewhere in Chicago or Hawaii. Hang on! Aren't presidential libraries secular or quasi-religious temples? Barack, like JFK, or my favourite, Teddy Roosevelt, all have particular reasons for being deified. I still read after 'doing' English at Melbourne, 'The Shop', in the 70s after people like the atrocious Sam Goldberg and the execrable Tim Kelly tried to brainwash us with Leavisite crap. Utter unmitigated crap it was too. I have little time for faded politicians telling us people don't read. My query would be which people? And why? I get immense pleasure out of Daniel Silva's Gabriel Allon novels. They're basically about survival: the survival of the Jewish state in a hostile world. To survive they need Mossad with all its ramifications. Amoral? The world is. I remember when they were going to erect a statue to 'Bomber' Harris outside St Clement Danes, the RAF church. Some earnest German pacifists were planning to protest. They did not. A very wise decision. Literature is often truer to life than life. I once came across a real life Becky Sharp. She is dead and I hope in Hell for all the evils she did. God or Karma, call it what you will, caught up with her in the end.

Edward Fido | 30 July 2021  

Thank you, Gillian, for once again hitting the nail firmly uoon the head. One wonders about the very first "novel" and what affect it had on the society of its time -- perhaps The Canterbury Tales ? From so far away it is perhaps pretentious of me to ask, but can one find out both the federal and the state governments' budgets for the support of lending libraries and therefore the encouragement of reading novels -- and much else ?

Meriel wilmot-wright | 30 July 2021  

" Novels are about imagined people living in places other than your own. . ." How aptly put, Gillian - and how pitiful that such a perception recognising the centrality of character in stories and the connectedness with others their prominence invites is now condemned in the rarefied world of politically correct 'Theory'. However, like the
novel itself, I'm confident memorable characters will long outlive their would-be silencers and executioners, and continue to speak across cultures and down the ages.

John RD | 03 August 2021  

And poetry, too.

Penelope Cottier | 03 August 2021  

I enjoy reading Edward Fido. An 'Anglo-Indian', in the older understanding of that term, he demonstrates a no-holds-barred swashbuckling style in his posts that endears him to me, coming to his commentary, as I do, from a similar background. Perchance this explains his fondness for Teddy Roosevelt, who I associate with a similar approach to politics, especially in terms of his involvement in the Spanish-American War as one 'drunk on his own self-regard', as the New Republic of April 6, 2011, describes him. Here, for budding historians, are to be found the real-politiks of the Munro Doctrine put into action as Teddy made inroads into Latin America that live on to this day in the form of loathsome dictatorships, a legacy of virulent anti-Americanism an, of course, the disastrously failed military adventures into Cuba and Vietnam. Now while I appreciate that Edward's somewhat romantic turn of phrase is owed to the legacy of swashbuckling redcoats who galloped across India and elsewhere, randomly bringing democracy and liberty to the troubled Mogul masses just waiting to be emancipated, there's another and more complicated story to tell about swashbuckling Ted, including his 'Rhodesian' hunting expedition to Africa with 500 kills to his 'credit'.

Michael Furtado | 04 August 2021  

This piece was definitely a step back in time for me. In a world governed by Reality TV, Sensationalist media and “information” novels are here to remind us that we are not robots yet... Thank you for this piece

Stathis | 07 August 2021  

Thank you for coming out to bat for the novel. I learnt and continue to learn so much from reading novels. One can read the factual side of wars, cultures, history etc but until these can be viewed through some character’s eyes it remains impersonal and unrelated to you. Recently I read a novel about the war in Burma, that I barely knew existed, and learnt such a lot that can be related to my understanding of past events and also how people manage to survive situations and maintain their humanity. Reading for me leaves a longer lasting memory than watching a movie, possibly because I put more of myself into it.

Robyn Jewell | 21 August 2021  

I love a good novel! It’s true one learns empathy from the characters but there’s so much more! There’s history, geography and science to be learnt as well from a well researched novel. Biographies are good for this too.

Robyn Jewell | 12 November 2021  

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