Musings post-Sydney Writers Festival 2015

One of the themes discussed at this year’s thought-provoking Sydney Writers’ Festival was — why do we read fiction?


One theory put forward in the SWF event, A Pack of Lies – Narration in Fiction, is that we read to make sense of our lives and to develop empathy. It doesn’t really matter if the stories are true or not, they offer us access to the lives of others.

Guest speaker Dr Paul Dawson commented there’s more to reading fiction than the opportunity to walk in someone else’s shoes, or the intimacy of being in another person’s head. Paul called storytelling cognitive play and if done well, narratives can provide referential truths for readers.

Photo credit: Michael Leunig

Photo credit: Michael Leunig

There are many reasons why we’re drawn to stories, and I think one of them is checking other people out. Apparently we all read autobiographically, i.e. through the lens of our own experience. Some of us read to answer the question — is it just me? Humans are social creatures, and we tend to like reflections of ourselves in others.  Delving into other people’s minds and mental journeys can reassure us. We compare ourselves to others, assess, check, validate, justify, and if we’re open to it, can be challenged and altered by the stories we read. They can offer us a hint of the other way out.

According to Professor Robert Winston, the most complex task our brain must do is socialise; to learn to relate to other people, to learn the cues for who to trust, how to read people, how to win the friendship of strangers and love of those who matter most to us. Novels may not give us the added visual cues of body language, but narratives still give us fascinating insights into how to master the above.

Fiction is the watering hole we gather around to dip our toes in, and see how different yet similar we all are. Diversity is so much more than the colour of one’s skin, gender, sexuality or place of birth. Diversity is every other difference too — variations in DNA, in utero experiences, parenting, personality, upbringing, education, birth order, culture, religion, opinions, wealth, intelligence, opportunities, social skills, looks, social mores, moral compasses, preferences, even variations in the ghost symptoms of this or that mental illness many of us are pre-disposed to (aren’t most of us a little autistic?) and yes, empathy. Here are the rich pickings of fiction.

Perhaps writers put their stories out in the world to test how alone they are or aren’t in the world. And perhaps people read their stories for the same reasons.


The question was also raised — why do women read more fiction than men?

I think there are many approaches to this answer. Fiction often deals with emotions. Perhaps women read more fiction because they’re more open about emotions, and have been socialised to share their feelings more than men. I have seen many women (not all) choose to do so in workplaces, mothers groups, study groups and book clubs. Women give advice, discuss husbands, children, relatives, schools, careers, recipes, handy hints, health, films, TV shows, holidays, cars, real-estate, pets, retirement plans, superannuation etc. Okay, and men. Many women are happy to share from the minutiae of daily life through to the 5 year plan, (just look at Facebook) and this includes recommending books to each other.

Why? Perhaps it’s an evolutionary thing? Did women who collaborated, were curious about the way others maintained relationships, found food, kept warm, and reared their young improve the chances of their survival and that of their offspring? Perhaps this desire to bounce off each other is hard-wired into us more than we realise? Hard core feminists can shoot me down, but it’s interesting to ponder why women read more fiction than men.

Having said that, many men have come to enjoy the literary or popular fiction novels their female counterparts have suggested/left lying around/forced upon them. I’ve been surprised and delighted that men enjoyed my first novel in the Arafura series. Feedback like the comment below on Amazon altered the way I approached the next Arafura novel – Unfinished Business (I’m still confused by the broad term, ‘chick lit’, which seems to be attached to any female author who has a female protagonist who falls in love. What if the dude falls in love too, and men enjoy reading about that?)

‘When I first heard about this book, I was warned that I may not like it because it’s ‘Chick lit’. Well, if only women can enjoy this tale, then I need to get my oestrogen levels checked, because I thoroughly enjoyed it. I’ll admit I wouldn’t normally pick a book like this, but I’m glad I strolled outside of my comfort zone.
I enjoyed the humour, the location, and the characters … hell what isn’t there to like about this book? If this is an example of how good ‘Chick lit’ can be, then I’ve been missing out on great stories for years. Two thumbs up.’ (Ben Brown-Perth)

Perhaps why women read more fiction than men is only cultural, a socially constructed gender issue? Let the publishing marketers loose with that.

Why can’t men read fiction with elements of romance? I look forward to Graeme Simsion and Anne Buist’s new novel, Left Right, which sounds like a romantic comedy told from the separate perspectives of the leading male and female characters. I’m sure many men will be reading Left Right after thoroughly enjoying Simsion’s, The Rosie Project, which is classified as a romance novel on the internet. Bill Gates loved The Rosie Project and recommended it on his blog (one giant leap for Graeme, but his novel IS a great read).


Why do we in the West feel the urge to allocate types of fiction and its readers into such tight pigeonholes anyway?

Another question—why are we drawn to violence and crime in fiction, was also raised at the SWF event, On Deception, with Michael Connelly, Liane Moriarty and Sascha Arango.

Sascha Arango suggested we’re drawn to crime and violent stories because they allow us a window into a world we’re no longer allowed to participate in. In The Human Mind, Professor Robert Winston supports this, saying as humans we share a universal battle to master our emotions and control our behaviour. In civilised society we must do this for the good of all, but it’s entertaining to vicariously tiptoe over to the dark side.

I did so by taking a tour of The Rocks a few nights ago in Sydney, and I agree with Sascha. The violent history of The Rocks is a world away from us now in 2015. No more public hangings, Bubonic Plague, men sold into naval slavery, murderous gangs in the streets, and often hand-to-mouth existences. But it was SO compelling hearing the stories.

I think we love to read or watch how far other people might go in certain situations, and why. We’re fascinated by what might happen when the boundaries are tested and the gripping consequences that might play out. Historical fiction (and autobiographical non-fiction) can be especially tantalising for some as they’re based on true stories, thereby offering cautionary tales made more shocking and potent by facts and actual human behaviour.

The theme for this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival was, it’s thinking season, and this was certainly true for me. I now also have a reading list a mile long!

Sydney Writers’ Festival

The Human Mind by Professor Robert Winston

This entry was posted in A Pack of Lies - Narration in Fiction, Anne Buist, Arafura - Blood The Wet and Tears, Arafura - Unfinished Business, Dr Paul Dawson, Graeme Simsion, Liane Moriarty, Paul Dawson, Robert Winston, Sascha Arango, Sydney Writers' Festival, The Rocks, The Rosie Project, why more women read fiction, why we enjoy violence and crime in fiction, why we read fiction and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Musings post-Sydney Writers Festival 2015

  1. I do read a novel hoping to learn something about myself. One sentence in a novel can change my entire outlook on life. One of my sons is an avid reader; the other three not so much, nor my daughter. I was brought up by a mother who read (and still does) avidly and our weekly outing was to the town library to borrow our allotted six books for the week. I’m very jealous of you attending this conference. What a lovely review that was 🙂

    • Hi Michelle
      I bet reading six books a week was an education in itself. That must be one reason why you can write so much now! 🙂
      We went to the Writers Festival as a family and parted ways to attend what interested us. Stayed overnight at The Rocks. I highly recommend it, with or without others.

  2. Carrie Rubin says:

    Wonderful discussion. You’ve raised some points I hadn’t considered before. I’ve always thought I read to be entertained and to get lost in a story. But perhaps there are deeper forces at play. Either way, I know I’ll keep doing it! 🙂

    • Hi Carrie. Ooh yes, getting lost is such wonderful escapism, isn’t it? Movies can do that too, but novels leave more to the imagination. You make a good point, deeper forces are at play with so many things. 🙂

  3. livelytwist says:

    Thanks for sharing your insights from the festival and giving me stuff to think about.
    If we read autobiographically, then perhaps we should write stories with two main characters of equal(?) strength, male and female… Perhaps make the narrator male, to get more men reading? 🙂

    I like this: Perhaps writers put their stories out in the world to test how alone they are or aren’t in the world. And perhaps people read their stories for the same reasons.

    • Hi Timi. That’s a great idea about a male narrator, and a challenge, or not? How interesting.
      I’m always surprised when someone tells me one of my characters reminds them of someone they know. I think, REALLY? Someone (can’t remember who) said that characters should start in the authors description and end in the readers imagination.
      Hope all’s well with you. 🙂

      • livelytwist says:

        Good one about characters. I will remember it as I write.

        A male narrator is a challenge for me, a woman because I don’t see life the way a man does. You?

  4. I love the idea of storytelling as ‘cognitive play’. When I’m on a roll with my writing I have the most fun I’ve had since I was a child!

  5. I can see that in your writing, Annabelle! 🙂

  6. Hey Sue, what an incredible and thought-provoking blog post! Thanks for that. Made me want to be down there at the festival too. Sounds like it was a truly rewarding experience. And great to see you posting again. 🙂 Write more soon.

  7. Hi Paula. It’s almost June and am no further than the outline for the third and final Arafura series! Would love to know what you’re up to. 🙂

  8. Love the discussion your post induced. I always read for pleasure. Now, I have added a new reason,to learn from other writers.

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