Last October, Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa was awarded the Nobel Prize for his writing about the political power struggles of Latin America. In an article following the award, The New York Times called Vargas Llosa an “anti-totalitarian intellectual whose work covers the range of human experience, whether it is ideology or eros.”
This week, the acceptance speech the author delivered, titled In Praise of Reading and Fiction, was made available in print. Its topic, while perhaps “not surprising,” “presents a big argument,” says critic and professor Alan Cheuse.
That argument? Why fiction is valuable.
Vargas Llosa certainly does not write exclusively in fiction. But works of imagination are the ones which the author treasures most. He considers why this is so and recalls:
I learned to read at the age of five in Brother Justiniano’s class at the De la Salle Academy in Cochabomba. I remember clearly how the magic of translating the words in books into images enriched my life, breaking the barriers of time and space.
Furthermore, the author believes that fiction has helped his country and others embroiled in political and military conflict imagine themselves into a different way of being. “Without fiction,” he declares, “we would be less aware of the importance of freedom in making life livable.”
Curiously, the same year that Mario Vargas Llosa won the Nobel, the American novelist Philip Roth won the International Man Booker Prize. However, Roth is now claiming that he no longer reads fiction. In an interview with the Financial Times of London, Roth said,
I don’t read it (fiction) at all. I read other things, history, biography. I don’t have the same interest in fiction that I once did. I don’t know, I wised up.
As Alan Cheuse points out, Roth is hardly the only novelist or fiction writer to turn up his nose at what was once his craft. Tolstoy and Chaucer, among others, also renounced their former livelihoods. But it is their fiction we still read, and what makes those authors immortal.
Where do you stand? What role does fiction play in your life? Is it still meaningful or, like Roth, do you feel that fiction has outlived its usefulness?
Before you make up your mind, follow Ralph Waldo Emerson‘s advice: “If we encounter a man of rare intellect, we should ask him what books he reads.”
I can see why previous novelists turn up their nose to fiction. Fiction is for children, a way of broadening their minds and making them aware of world issues, or teaching morals in a safe, “This didn’t happen, but it could and does, in other places” sort of way. As an adult, you can certainly get your fill of world news, views, and social stories in the papers, tv, or the internet, if you must. I don’t agree with it, but I can see how it happens. Why waste time reading a book when you can be discussing real live issues with people who claim to understand what’s happening in the real world? I think these authors miss the point. Fiction is more than just education. It provides characters who think in ways that we as readers may not. It provides that other viewpoint sympathetically, that causes a reader to say in the end, well. I don’t agree….but, I can see how someone might think that. It creates flexibility in judgement, tolerance for others’ values, and appreciation for other ways of life. Sure, non-fiction might do the same. I’ve read biographies that make me think, well ok. I can see how that could be. But it wouldn’t have half as fun! Maybe that’s what happens. These self-important authors lose their sense of fun and whimsy. They’ve lost what makes a great story-teller.
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