Fiction Is Better Than Self-Help

The best self-help books are never self-help books, they’re novels

Harry J. Stead
Oct 29 · 7 min read

So often I hear people say, ‘I don’t have time for anything other than the truth; I only read books that will improve my life.’ And then they follow up with the question, ‘So, have you read, ‘Think and Grow Rich’? How about, ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People? etc, etc.’ This statement is meant to be impressive, as if it was they alone who discovered some far off fortune of information and wisdom. Such books, I am told, make up the essential reading for mankind, the definite guides for navigating through life. Indeed, I have read the aforementioned books, and many more of a similar kind. But every time whilst trying to read them, I grew so bored that I found my attention irresistibly drawn to the patterns on the ceiling or the dust sitting on the windowsill. If it was not for the promise, delusional though it is, that after having finished the books my life would suddenly glow with joy and productivity, then I would have stopped reading after the first chapters and binned the lot of them.

Such books are adored by the unimaginative, which in this age must be an awful lot of people, since the television and the internet have eroded our imaginations. And yet, at the same time, I do not doubt that they have changed lives for the better; that they have awakened people to a greater potential and persuaded them that a better life might be possible. My problem is not with the modern self-help books themselves; for they at least do not pretend to be anything more than they are — namely, products made by American hucksters, brochure-authors, and salesman, which are manufactured by some sort of factory process. Rather, I take issue with the nowadays common attitude that the only worthwhile reading is self-improvement and non-fiction, and that anything else is merely entertainment.

I do not believe it meaningful for any man to dig frantically for what modern gurus and entrepreneurs have persuaded him is pure knowledge. It is not as easy as picking up a book and reading its instructions and then implementing them; humans are not mechanical or automatic, nor are we even capable of logic half the time. The total sum of things to be learned is inexhaustible, and so too is our thirst for knowledge, to the extent that we take in so much information that we become constipated and heavy; then we are hesitant to practice this material, because we have committed ourselves to opposing worldviews, to contrary advice, to forgettable facts and figures, and now we are a citizen of everywhere and nowhere and stand for nothing except consumption. This information is so easily forgotten, and is, for the most part, not as radical as we would like to believe. Often it is driest repetition.

If we are to change at all it will be because we have managed to look at ourselves in a different way. This can only be achieved through art, imagination, wonder. Every novel reveals the power and possibility of man. The novelist is unique in that he has the great chance to imagine a new world, to achieve expansion in our understanding of beauty, of our fellow men. He is a restless spirit incessantly searching for meanings and values which might satisfy him. It is his role to write what might happen and what will happen, with such eloquence and emotion that by reading his work you inhabit his heart, his process, and empathise with new personalities and landscapes which otherwise would have been impossible. No man can ever talk to himself quite truly, but through the characters of a novel you are able to view yourself with a thousand eyes. The answers then of any life lesson which you are seeking are so often discovered somewhere in the dialogue between narrator and protagonist. As Phillip Pullman once put it, ‘Fiction can have more effect than any amount of truth. “Thou shalt not might’ reach the head but it takes ‘Once upon a time’ to reach the heart. We need stories so much that we’re even willing to read bad books to get them.’

The novelists are the beholders of stories and fables, the utterers of the ordinary and the brilliant; they create that which no other man can foretell, and draw their readers to a different perception of themselves and the world. The story, mythology and the novel evolved from the primitive ages, when tribes gathered around a fire and told each other legends and fables of old; thus storytelling makes demands upon what is primitive within us. It is beyond words, beyond images; stories are the human attempt to make sense of the penultimate, the eternal and the immutable. Why else are the Bible, the Upanishads, the Quran full of stories? Nowadays, in this atheistic age, people will mock anyone who openly mentions Noah’s ark or the stories of Job, Elijah, or any other Biblical story for that matter, and then they will say, ‘Give me the truth!’ But were the authors of these ancient scriptures fools? Or have we become so stern, so insipid that we cannot anymore appreciate poetry and metaphor? Though perhaps we should expect no less from a society which values efficiency above art, and which is determined to abolish beauty.

You cannot deny the demand for courage in writing a novel, and certainly there is no true author who is not also a champion. A good novel is always ahead of its readers; the novelist then stands alone as he is different from the rest; the novel itself is an expression of this loneliness. One soon notices that novels always seem to have the same fundamental quest: the main character is introduced as a weak, wounded youth who leaves the embrace of maternal safety and goes into a depth or into a distance, and then he defeats the demons and returns home with the golden-haired girl or a hoard of treasure. This pattern is, in one way or another, repeated in every novel, because it is the exact quest which the artist and the novelist must overcome in his life; in writing about his wound he eases the pain, and in his stories he projects the highest ideals of himself, the aspects of himself which are heroic, reckless and sinister. Thus in any story which enlivens your spirit, you discover this guiding-myth and are inspired to represent and emulate it, and are led to a larger existence than was possible before.

The best education is to find an author who you can resonate and empathise with, who appears to approach the problems which you are dealing with. Every one of us can remember when we became for a time the admirer and believer of a particular author or a particular book. In my adolescence I looked up to George Orwell and Ernest Hemingway, and to a lesser degree, Aldous Huxley, James Joyce, Charles Dickens, and Thomas Hardy. I remember reading Hemingway at a time in my life, perhaps around fourteen or fifteen, when things began to become more competitive and have real consequences, when I needed to harden up and demand more of myself. His novels embrace adventure and romantic love and strength, and his writing is simple and deliberate, tightly descriptive with trimmed dialogue, every word written as if carved in stone, and his characters are tough masculine figures who fight wars and have love affairs with beautiful women. As for Orwell, well, he is the rare example of a man who followed honesty and reason to their full conclusion, and who had the ‘power of facing unpleasant facts’, as he put it. His novels tell of his time as a policeman in colonial Burma, as a vagrant in Paris and London, and as a soldier fighting fascism in the Spanish Civil War. I admire Orwell especially for how he lived as well as for his writing.

Later I would discover the popular Russian writers — Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Pushkin — who, in my mind at least, were better than anyone at transmuting fact into poetry, though often grotesque, unpleasant, and sometimes ridiculous, but always deeply meaningful and philosophical. I remember buying ‘Crime and Punishment’, the Penguin Classic edition, for one pound and fifty pence at a charity book sale here in York, and not thinking much of it until a few weeks later when I finally decided to read it. Up until that point, perhaps the age of seventeen or eighteen, I had read only English novels and a few American ones, but I found Dostoyevsky’s exploration of evil and guilt to be far greater than anything I had read before. That book set me off in a different direction into the dark underworld of nineteenth-century Russian literature.

But aside from the Russian and the English classics, I have found even the average watered-down stuff, the detective and spy and war novels, the books you can buy in job lot for a couple of quid at a car boot sale, the books that hotels and local cafés use for decoration — even in these books you have a good chance of realising more beautiful insights into the human soul than in anything that those gurus decide to publish. Every novel, even if it is poor or about evil people, gives us the illusion of wisdom and power; it can make the world seem more achievable and manageable. The novel, art, poetry are alive; whilst information is dead, and when it is indulged in, it becomes heavy weight. It is within that perfect merger between fiction and reality, when life is awakened from its usual drowse and is excited with possibilities and intensity, where the most permanent source of wisdom is found.

Thank you, Harry J. Stead

Harry J. Stead

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