Alice Soon

My Literary Life & other obsessions…


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Why You Shouldn’t Only Read Non-Fiction

All right, I’m deliberately calling out to you readers of so-called “NON-FICTION ONLY”.

How many times have I asked someone what they like to read (especially men), and their most common answer to me is: “I only read non-fiction.”

Like, really?

Sometimes I wonder if they are telling me that because they think reading non-fiction automatically makes them seem smarter, or they couldn’t bother with something so useless as fiction, because who wants to read stuff that is made up anyway?

Granted, I have tended to heavily skew my reading repertoire towards fiction for most of my life, but this year for some reason, I have been reading more NON-FICTION than ever.

And although I can always glean wondrous facts from all of these non-fiction works, be they biographies, business books, memoirs, academic texts, I still find I get a lot of out reading fiction.

This got me thinking about the difference between Fiction readers vs. Non-Fiction readers.  Of course, reading anything is better than reading nothing at all, but I will argue that all of you NF folks are really missing the boat.

Here’s 5 reasons why:

1) GET SOME IMAGINATION

Though it’s very important to learn about facts, sticking exclusively to non-fiction can make you seem very cut & dry.  Like you’re that stuffy, snobby guy in a silk jacket smoking a pipe, regurgitating scientific facts, but you can’t stretch your imagination to imagine a world with unicorns, wizards, magic, flying on hoverboards or a human colony on Mars. Remember, many of the best inventions and concepts the world has ever seen came from very imaginative people who thought outside of the realm of possibility and didn’t just allow their brains to be imprisoned by facts.  They daydreamed, they conjured up impossible theories and they changed the world.

Alice Soon Photo

Alice Soon Photo

2) IMPROVE YOUR CRITICAL THINKING SKILLS

When you are reading a piece of good fiction (and I’m talking about quality fiction here, not escapist literature), you are forced to THINK and analyze what it is you are actually reading. Exceptional fiction is always filled with multiple points of view, unreliable narrators, creative twists and turns, and conflicting themes.

So what’s a reader to do???

Make up your own mind, of course.

Employ your critical thinking skills, and examine why it is that you feel the way you feel.  And it is this act of thinking; this ability to clearly articulate your point of view, that makes someone a good communicator vs. a blathering moron.

Reading a good piece of fiction, even if you disagree with it, will always makes you THINK.

3) LEARN HOW TO WRITE BETTER

I think it’s pretty arguable that most fiction writers are just better writers in general.  (e.g. Michael Pollan recently admitted this on Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday.)

What this means is not that they are better at grammar.  You can say the same thing in 10 different ways, using a variety of word choice, word order and punctuation, but NOT all sentences are created equally, even if the meaning is the same.

This difference is called STYLE.

When you read a wonderful piece of fiction, you are learning how the writer has used a creative metaphor to express a place or a feeling; filled the pages with images and symbols that make your head spin. In short, can express the most complex, deepest, truest feelings of a human being using 26 letters.

4) YOU CAN LEARN FACTS TOO

Many good fiction books employ hundreds of hours of meticulous research to fill their stories with believable characters, realistic settings and a sense of history. Many writers even spend months or years in a particular city or country where their story takes place or painstakingly interview countless people to get their facts right.

(e.g. THE ORPHAN MASTER’S SON  or A BRIEF HISTORY OF SEVEN KILLINGS).

As one 70-year old bookseller I met in New Orleans once told me: “I have learned more truths from reading fiction than from any non-fiction book.”

5) INCREASE EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE & EMPATHY

This is my favourite and final point.  Studies are beginning to show that readers of literary fiction actually score higher on emotional intelligence and empathy. One study by the New York School for Social Research (featured in THE WIRE), found that:

Readers of literary fiction must draw on more flexible interpretive resources to infer the feelings and thoughts of characters. That is, they must engage Theory of the Mind (ToM) processes. Contrary to literary fiction, popular fiction, which is more readerly, tends to portray the world and characters as internally consistent and predictable. Therefore, it may reaffirm readers’ expectations and so not promote ToM.

In other words, by forcing you to think, empathize, and assume instead of handing you prototype characters whose actions and personalities can be squarely understood, literary fiction is literally making you a more caring and emotionally intelligent person.”

Another study done by a trio of University of Toronto scholars led by psychologist Maja Djikic  (featured in SALON Magazine) reported that:

People who have just read a short story have less need for what psychologists call cognitive closure. Compared with peers who have just read an essay, they expressed more comfort with disorder and uncertainty—attitudes that allow for both sophisticated thinking and greater creativity.

Therefore, it requires people to become insightful about others and their perspectives.”

Alice Soon Photo

                          Alice Soon Photo

Check out studies here – http://www.thewire.com/entertainment/2013/10/now-we-have-proof-reading-literary-fiction-makes-you-better-person/70191/ and here – http://www.salon.com/2013/06/15/book_nerds_make_better_decisions_partner/

Not convinced having emotional intelligence is proven to be an essential skill of top leaders? Read this article in Harvard Business Review – https://hbr.org/2004/01/what-makes-a-leader

To summarize, I think my arguments are clear: Don’t relegate yourself to the realm of one-dimensional non-fiction. Open yourself to the delights & thrills of a great fiction novel and watch your mind reach new heights.

Your brain will thank you. 🙂

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AUTHOR INTERVIEW – EDDIE MARK

I’m pleased to feature an interview with a fellow author and Torontonian, Eddie Mark, as he discusses the process of writing his debut novel, THE GARDEN OF UNFORTUNATE SOULS.

But first, here is a brief synopsis:

In 1980s Buffalo, New York, the recession has transformed the city’s proudest African American neighborhood into a ghetto. Loretta Ford, an eccentric single mother and religious fanatic, survives for years by masquerading as the owner of a dead woman’s house. Her reclusive life is interrupted when an unlikely incident brings the mayor of Buffalo to her home in the middle of the night. Their secret meeting sets off a chain of events that will leave two families altered forever. With all the passion of a Shakespearean tragedy and a cast of characters never to be forgotten, The Garden of Unfortunate Souls vividly depicts the consequences of violence, sex, and gender conflict in African American communities.

Now, the fun part – THE INTERVIEW:

1) Where did you get the concept for this novel and what inspired you to write it?

For years, I taught in an inner city public school where I knew quite a few children who were being physically and emotionally scarred by their parents’ use of corporal punishment against them. Often I would hear parents speak of it as a necessary evil to protect their children from the greater dangers of the urban environment (gangs, drugs, police violence, etc.). I’ve always questioned that theory and wanted to write a novel that explored this issue from the perspectives of the children and their parents—sort of present both sides of the debate. And then I wanted to look at it through the eyes of two culturally different African American families.

As for the specific scenes and characters, all of those are completely imagined. Some writers construct their storylines from actual experience. I get most of my mine from daydreaming, although the scene with the young man crashing into the main character’s home was inspired by a real-life event back in the nineties when this actually happened at a house I was living in at the time.

2) You have developed many conflicted and interesting characters – How do you conceive and develop your characters and decide how they will interact with one another?

For me, the key is to take an interest in people. Developing convincing characters is less about what I do on paper and more about how I handle my interpersonal relationships with others. The more a writer understands the motivations and backstories of real-life human beings, the more authentic and interesting his or her characters will be when it’s time to write the story. All people interest me, regardless of their backgrounds. I’ll meet and have a conversation with a university professor just as easily I’ll have one with a homeless man on the street. It helps me understand people in the world better, which leads to more complex and convincing characters on paper.
Garden
3) You are originally from Buffalo, NY. How much of this contributed to the setting of your novel?

Well, naturally, I’ve always found it easier to be authentic when I write about a place I know well. But Buffalo is the kind of city I’d love to write about even if it weren’t my hometown. It has its challenges, but few cities have as much history and scenic beauty. And the people are genuine. I think all of that is reflected in my novel.

4) What do you want readers to take away from reading your novel?

I’d want them to consider the long-term consequences of corporal punishment. Because in many ways, the rampant violence in our urban streets is simply an outgrowth of the violence practiced in our homes. When children are whipped, slapped, pinched, grabbed, and beaten with weapons, we’re teaching them that the way to handle conflict is to somehow hurt the offending person. So we need to find alternatives to corporal punishment. Sure, society often condones and celebrates it. But if the exact same level of force were turned against an adult, it would be a criminal assault. Just because the victim is a minor doesn’t make it better or right.

5) What is your favourite part about writing? What is your least favourite part?

My favourite part is probably the revision process. I don’t write very good first drafts. So it’s fun to watch all that bad writing morph into something more presentable. It takes a long time, but it’s worth it. My least favourite part is the long, drawn-out process of actually trying to get stories into print. Not a lot of fun.

6) What books are you reading right now?

As far as non-academic literature, I’m currently reading Dear Life by Alice Munro. I’ve actually been reading a number of Canadian authors lately, which is fitting since my next novel will most likely be set in Canada.

7) What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

Be patient. Writing something worthwhile and getting it published is not a quick process. Actually, it’s quite long and exhausting—full of rejections, revisions, and delays. But don’t give up. Good writing will get published eventually. Maybe not today. But eventually.

Thanks Eddie for your time!

Rosa Wang Photography (

Rosa Wang Photography


To purchase the book, visit:
http://www.amazon.ca/Garden-Unfortunate-Souls-Eddie-Mark-ebook/dp/B00WBXHLQ0