Why is Non-Fiction More Popular than Fiction

The Guardian checks in with an interesting article on how the rising tide of non-fiction books threatens to swamp fiction.

Although fiction still sells in great quantities and continues to produce stars, the attention of publishers and booksellers has moved elsewhere. Everyone in publishing agrees it is getting harder to sell a new novel, even by a distinguished name, in this country; book buyers seem interested only in non-fiction.

Unsurprisingly, the article locates the appeal of non-fiction in its perceived capacity for self-help:

But the dominant flavour of the list is one of self-help, and, in promoting the list, Penguin has stressed this. ‘Bill Clinton read Marcus Aurelius and Thomas √† Kempis to help him through Monicagate!’ the publicity burbles…

The element of self-help in much of the non-fiction we currently seem to like is a strong one. Though the self-help manual and, indeed, the term self-help, goes back to the 19th century, it’s only in the last 20 years or so that volumes of advice about relationships, self-worth and self-promotion have started to crowd our bookshops.

Much of the current crop of successful non-fiction titles enlists some very unlikely candidates in the cause of self-improvement. Alain de Botton’s book, How Proust Can Change Your Life, may have been meant as a joke, a way of selling a book about Proust by appealing to naked self-interest, but in the rest of his career he has ruthlessly reduced Western philosophy to a series of implausible variations on become-nicer-by-reading-Schopenhauer…

This article is interesting in juxtaposition to the new book, Why Read, which I blogged on yesterday. That book advocates for a very similar, utilitarian, self-help-centered view of literature.

It seems completely unsurprising that in a culture that holds speed and efficiency in the highest esteem, the idea of reading for its own sake would be horribly out of fashion. People seem to think along these lines: “If I’m spending hours of my precious time reading a book, I want some tangible return from it.”

There are points to be made about the problems inherent when people don’t value art for its own sake, but I’m not going to go in that direction. Instead I’d like to talk about what this means for the spirit of discovery.

Reading a book is a commitment. You are pledging to spend time on whatever book you read, probably hours of your time, in which you could be doing a number of other activities.

This makes for a risky proposition. When you start a book there really is no way to be certain whether or not you will find reading it worthwhile. You are, in effect, giving up yourself to the possibility that you will spend hours with this collection of ink and paper and, in the end, find your hours wasted.

The trend toward non-fiction and self-help seems like a way to circumvent this risk. After all, if you read a non-fiction book and end up not liking it, at the very least you will have learned something. Saying a book can be useful for self-help is like adding a security blanket: even if you don’t enjoy it as art or entertainment, you will at least be a better person for reading it.

What gets lost in all this is the possibility of discoving something unexpected in a book. Reading books for utilitarian reasons drastically reduces the chance of the happy accident, of happening upon that unexpected masterpiece, of finding something which you had never conceived of before. It persuades you to limit your experience to what you already know by inducing you to not chance out into the unknown.

Yet just like in all of life, in reading we must occasionally fail in order to move forward. We must be willing to read a few stinkers, a few books that did not meet with expectations, a few titles we simply could not get through, a few items that just did not speak to us. We must be willing to take this chance in order to move beyond the sure-fire titles that will only whisper back to us that which we already know.

I don’t mean to say that books have no utilitarian value — they certainly do. I’ve learned a lot from reading and expect to learn more in the fiture. But reading books with only the perceived benefit in mind tends to keep one to the same territory, simply mulling over the same sphere of ideas over and over. In the short-run a utilitarian-based reading list may seem valuable, but in the long run it’s not.

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