Why is Literature Important? The 3 Social Functions of Fiction

What’s the purpose of literature?  Of fiction?  Of course it’s enjoyable – it sweeps our emotions this way and that and allows us to ‘experience’ so much beyond our everyday life.  Enjoyment is almost definitely the driving reason many readers end up making purchases at Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

However, over the past few months while working with the Humanism & Ethics Curricula Committee for the Camp Quest network, I’ve become more and more convinced that fiction plays an incredibly important role in shaping society and character development.  Here are some of the biggest functions fiction has.

So Discussions Don’t Get Personal


Romeo and Juliet by Ford Brown 1870

Romeo was an idiot and guided only by an inexperienced, hyperbolic idealization of love.  Just look at how he wallowed in self-pity over Rosaline hours before he met Juliet.

What do you think? Maybe you agree, or maybe you disagree.  But tell me why. What are the consequences of Romeo’s actions?  Should Romeo have followed through with his passions?  Or is it important that we try to step back and look at things more coolly in such situations?

The first role of literature is simply to create a reference point for discussions.  We obviously have lots of other things to debate, discuss, and muse over like, political figures, current events, friends, family, and so on.  But the problem that literature overcomes here is that all of these others things are emotionally charged and loaded with vested interests.  Literature, in comparison, disassociates itself from real life so that debates aren’t taken personally or warped by our unique perspectives and interests.

So let’s say we want to talk about the silly and often destructive passions of youth.  We could talk about our mutual friend and his particular situation.  But unfortunately, we’ll likely end up stepping on someone’s toes and offending either him or others.  Fortunately there is fiction.  In order to get at the same issue we could instead talk about our swooning Romeo – a young man neither of us knows personally and who lives in a world neither of us has any stakes in.

Models for Character

Be Patient like the Tortoise: did you see how his diligence finally beat the lazy Hare?  Be strong and courageous like Achilles, but don’t be too proud since everyone has a weak spot.

Personally, I’m a Virtue Ethicist, which is one of the three modern theories of Normative Ethics, and one of the oldest too, being originally formulated by Aristotle.  But its age doesn’t imply in any way that it is archaic and outdated.  Positive Psychology is more and more drifting toward a consensus of virtues, or character strengths.  But there is already a consensus that the main way that both children and adults develop these habits, sensitivities, and social reflexes is by modeling those we see and hear.  Unfortunately, we are rarely ever surrounded by paragons of virtue in real life.  But that’s where stories come in.  Stories allow us to develop and shape character education – while making it fun!  Homo sapiens are the Storytelling Animal (psst, check out the book I just linked to) spending billions on movies, TV series, video games, and books not merely because we enjoy it, but because it is our deepest source of inspiration.

Theory of Mind & Perspective Taking

There has been a range of research that literature affects our psychology shaping some of its most fundamental social functions.  First, Theory of Mind refers to our understanding of others as conscious beings, as people, like ourselves.  Martin Buber put it nicely when he coined the terms for I-It vs I-You relationships.  In the first we treat people as objects to be used at our whim, while in the latter we intimately relate to them as beings with their own goals, values, and dignity.  There is a range of research that shows that fiction helps us relate to others in an I-You relationship as well as more accurately interpret others’ mental states.

Dodola and Zam, refugee child slaves bound to each other by chance. This massive graphic novel tells a story of religious conflict, child brides, harems, industrial sprawl, and nearly everything else.

Dodola and Zam, refugee child slaves bound to each other by chance. This massive graphic novel tells a story of religious conflict, child brides, harems, devouring poverty, what love really is, and – most importantly – storytelling itself.

Second, literature often gives us keen insights into another’s world, allowing us to get brief glimpses through unfamiliar eyes.  From Huckleberry Finn to Habibi to Frozen we get a chance to see a perspective we would otherwise never experience.  From this experience there is a range of academic literature that shows we “create [an] empathetic connection with the screen”.  One common theory is that mirror neurons, which help us track and empathize with others, also help us “empathize with fictional characters”.  Steven Pinker in Better Angels of Out Nature argues that the increase in literacy, reading and otherwise consuming fiction is one of the drivers of the observed decrease in violence over the past few decades and centuries.

Paul Chiariello (Chief Editor, Rutgers & Yale University)
DSC_0484Paul Chiariello graduated from Rutgers in 2009 after studying Philosophy and Anthropology and has been running around the world ever since. Currently he is on the Board of Directors of the Rutgers Humanist Community, Co-founder of the Yale Humanist Community, and Director of the Humanism & Philosophy Curriculum for Camp Quest, Inc.  Paul has a MSc in Comparative Education from Oxford, completing his field research in Bosnia on ethno-religious identity and conflict, and has spent a year studying philosophy of ethics and religion at Yale on a PhD fellowship.  He has also worked with research organizations at the UN and in DC, as well as schools abroad in Uganda, Kenya, India, Indonesia and Germany.

5 responses to “Why is Literature Important? The 3 Social Functions of Fiction

  1. This is a really great summary. I think reading novels is an especially rich experience that allows us to see inside people in a way that we can never do in real life. I think creating habits of reading fiction is essential.

    The Stake just recently published this piece about needing broader humanities outreach in the popular culture. But who is up to the task?



  2. Pingback: Power in Diversity: Storytelling as a Social Catalyst | Applied Sentience·

  3. Pingback: The Importance of Hard Science Fiction | Applied Sentience·

What Do You Think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s