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Why Teach Fiction?

My adult ESL class is reading The Great Gatsby. I teach the advanced reading class and the goal of the class is to prepare the students for university. I also assign essays related to Gatsby, articles about the American dream and the like.

Students in past classes enjoyed the novel. Some students even liked the Robert Redford film. One of my favorite classroom moments came from that novel. I paired students up and assigned one member of each pair a part in the novel. One student was Gatsby. Another was Nick. Another Tom. And so on. Then I told the other student in the pairing that he or she was a journalist sent to interview the characters about the events in the story. Yes, I know some of the characters were dead, but I asked the students to imaging those individuals had survived.

I walked about the class to listen to the conversations. They were all entertaining, and some pairs took to the exercise with more confidence than others. At one point, while correcting the pronunciation of one student, we were all stopped by the sound of a hand smacking hard onto a desk. “What!” roared the student pretending to be Tom Buchanon. “What kind of question is that for someone like you to ask someone like me!?”

Everyone stared for a moment, and the student ‘Tom’ broke into a grin. “He’s a fun character to be!” he said. We all laughed.

So, another semester has begun, and I’m teaching Gatsby again. One student today though protested. “Why are we reading fiction? It’s not true. What’s the point? I like to read real things. Useful things. I want to learn.”

I admit I may not be quoting exactly. I didn’t have recording device with me, but you get the point. Why do we teach fiction?

Someone sent me a link to an interview with Ursula K. Le Guin. She’s amazing. Go read Left Hand of Darkness. In the interview was this:

It has something to do with the very nature of fiction. That age-old question, Why don’t I just write about what’s real? A lot of twentieth-century— and twenty-first-century—American readers think that that’s all they want. They want nonfiction. They’ll say, I don’t read fiction because it isn’t real. This is incredibly naive. Fiction is something that only human beings do, and only in certain circumstances. We don’t know exactly for what purposes. But one of the things it does is lead you to recognize what you did not know before.

This is what a lot of mystical disciplines are after—simply seeing, really seeing, really being aware. Which means you’re recognizing the things around you more deeply, but they also seem new. So the seeing-as-new and recognition are really the same thing.

Why do you think we teach fiction?

One thought on “Why Teach Fiction?

  1. Good article and good quote from Ms Le Guin. In fiction we learn through the oldest of human traditions – that of story telling. We learn more truth from fiction than we learn from non-fiction, because we learn about ourselves and can place ourselves into any life, any country, any planet. Fiction is a look into our true hearts and souls and dreams. It is our escape and a place to find ourselves.

    And what your student said “he’s a fun character.” It doesn’t get better than that.

    Good job teacher. Wish you were teaching at our school!

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