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Hi, I’m Lady Paola of Londonshire, aka Italian-born wannabe best-selling author living in London dreaming on getting an OBE for services to writing. I’ve been contributing for itcher magazine since the end of 2013. I will be championing non fiction books.
Hi, I’m Jane, a Scottish writer, designer and most importantly, itcher magazine contributor. With a passion for fantasy worlds and daydreams, what else could I represent but fiction?
Today, I’ll be sharing my love of all things fictional, and hopefully convincing non-fiction devotees to push their imaginations a little bit further.
Oh, how I love novels. Just imagine all those unique universes hidden within the covers of each and every book on the shelf.
Non-fiction books demand a lot. They want me to change the way I do or see things, and while there’s a place for that, it feels more like an exercise than an engaging way to spend time.
I truly believe fiction makes for a better read, because:
I’ve always leant towards fiction – from fantasy to historical drama to versions of the real world, I just love the possibilities. But it’s not all fluffy stuff and escapism.
Recent research highlights the interactive nature of novels as a great way of developing all kinds of cognitive skills. Following a plot and stepping into someone else’s shoes was shown to exercise various brain functions simultaneously and increase empathy.
Literary fiction, over quick-read bestsellers, actually generated the best results for empathy, thanks to its added depth and complexity.
Hesitant to pick up fiction? Hopefully one of my all-time favourite fictional novels might persuade you, and what better way to start than to compare examples of fiction and non-fiction books?
Let me introduce you to Mary Queen of Scots.
Maybe it’s the result of growing up in a historical city, but I can’t help but wish there was a way to visit the past. Possibly Tardis-style, with modern amenities close at hand.
Antonia Fraser’s biography, Mary Queen of Scots (Antonia Fraser, 1969), is a masterpiece of non-fiction, detailing every event from Mary’s Versailles childhood to her sticky demise. My anniversary-edition reprint with embroidery detail cover will always hold a special place on the bookshelf, but…
For me, fiction brings fact to life in a completely different way.
Part of the Tudor Court series, along with The Other Boleyn Girl (Philippa Gregory, 2001), The Other Queen puts a fictionalised spin on Mary Queen of Scots’ years in imprisonment.
Author Philippa Gregory puts a lot of work into the factual research side, allowing her to come up with dramatised, but plausible, novels.
By putting reality to use as a background structure we get to sit in at court, pick through Mary’s wardrobe and see those historical figures as more than a name. This is the closest I’ll get, and I guess that’s good enough.
PAOLA: Such a shame that I never enjoyed history at school. For some reason history and history books cast a magic spell on my brain which refuses to engage. Go figure. But you make a good argument Jane!
I’ve already talked about Wuthering Heights and other Victorian novels, so I’ll keep it short.
Heathcliff and Cathy’s star-crossed Yorkshire love affair is a tangle of passion and destruction, tragically bad timing and other things you hope will change next time you read it (they never do).
Why do so many people come back to this book, year after year? I think it’s the emotional attachment we form, running across the moors with the characters and feeling the chilly air of their stone houses.
And as much as our own lives might be exciting and fun, we can’t live all the lives books let us into – and we wouldn’t want to, but it’s nice to visit for a little while.
PAOLA: Again, a well constructed argument. I must admit I still haven’t read this book but I might pick it up.
On one level, J K Rowling infused the Harry Potter books with hints of our world’s political and social issues, in a way that would never have reached the same audiences had she written a factual book.
And on another level, the series is an endless treasure trove of spells, fantastical creatures and other things that can only exist in our imaginations.
The Harry Potter books have captured readers’ imaginations to such an extent that we can now visit a magical version of the Highlands and King’s Cross in Florida. And yes, that’s a little weird, but it also speaks for the powerful connection between readers and fantasy worlds.
PAOLA: I really don’t understand what the fuss is about the Harry Potter books. I don’t think I will ever read them (I blame my short attention span). Maybe I prefer my own flights of fancy.
I think you are very passionate about fiction, Jane, and I love that. I don’t see myself ever reading fantasy or historic novels, however I see the value of classics, of course.
I would say I am 20% convinced about The Other Queen, 80% convinced about Wuthering Heights and regrettably 0% convinced about Harry Potter (sorry!).
I am a huge fan of non fiction books. Why? Because I am always on the lookout for new skills to learn and new topics to explore.
I also have one of the shortest attention spans ever: the thought of reading a 500 page novel gives me cold sweats all over.
To me, non fiction books are better because:
In preparation for this article I read a couple of fiction books recently, just to show that I am open-minded.
One of the novels I read was Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. I was totally hooked by the story and Flynn‘s engaging writing made the book “unputdownable”. I was reading it on the way to a book event where authors talked about their books. How bookish is that?
I read a couple of fiction books recently, just to show that I am open-minded
And then… I guessed the plot twist and lost interest. I still wanted to finish the book as I was curious to see how it ended, but I was a bit disappointed with the conclusion.
This is not to say that all work of fiction is disappointing, by all means. I think personally there is more a sense of expectation about novels compared to non fiction.
With non fiction books you either find them useful or not useful: there’s no emotional attachment to them.
With fiction books… well… there is a bit more of an emotional investment and involvement. You need to pick wisely and time is precious.
I have also found that most of my friends have completely different tastes in books compared to mine. Only itcher knows which books I like!
With nonfiction you can allow yourself not to finish the book (how many times did I leave books unfinished while writing my dissertation or preparing an article? Too many to mention). You see, I don’t feel guilty about not finishing nonfiction books: maybe I only need to read one chapter that is relevant to me at the time.
With fiction you enter an implied, non-verbal agreement with the author that binds you to finish the story
With fiction you enter a non-verbal agreement whereby you need to finish the story. It’s only fair to the author, who put heart and soul into writing that book.
I write non fiction books because I like to share my knowledge and experience with others. I could have chosen to write novels, but that would put a filter, an added layer to the way I communicate with my readers. Mind you, I still have a novel hidden in a drawer somewhere… which I wrote at about 8 years old and which will never see the light of day!
To paraphrase an article by The Guardian, I write non fiction therefore I read non fiction. Simple.
Fiction is more glamorous while non fiction is like working at the coalface: you get your hands dirty but it’s really satisfying.
I love self-help books (from stress management to business and finance via a touch of philosophy and psychology), memoirs and how-to guides. Here’s my three picks:
Years ago I used this book to decide whether I wanted to be an employee forever or if I wanted to become my own boss. Guess what I chose. You can find out more about Be Your Own Life Coach in my review.
JANE: Life-coaching yourself sound like a pretty great idea. I’m not sure I’d have the persistence to follow a self-help book (or that I won’t get irritated with it), but it does sound effective.
I have read my fair share of memoirs and I was fascinated by Tracey Thorn‘s story – you have all the elements of a good novel here, actually! There’s enough personal struggle and triumph to make scriptwriters rub their hands gleefully. You can find my review here.
JANE: Tracey Thorn’s story sounds fascinating. I’ve got to confess, I have read a couple of biographies like Starman: David Bowie (Paul Trynka, 2010), so this is one area I can see myself visiting more often – it’s interesting to read about the real people behind the music.
I have talked about this book before so you can find a more in depth review here. I was so taken with this book that I decided to go to Peru to check what the fuss was all about.
Guess what: it was worth it.
JANE: I’ve heard a lot about The Celestine Prophecy over the years (and always thought the title was quite intriguing), but as I’m not much of a self-help kind of girl, I haven’t approached it. But if it’s powerful enough to send Paola across the world, there must be something in it!
Overall success? I feel like I ought to be more tempted by Be Your Own Life Coach – it sounds really positive, but I’m not sure I’d keep it up, so it’s a 20% on that one.
On the other hand, I can make an exception for biographies because they usually tell a story, earning Bedsit Disco Queen 80%, and my verdict on The Celestine Prophecy?
Unfortunately, I’m not sure I’ll ever be the spiritual awakening sort, giving it a score of 10% thanks to the curiosity factor.
JANE: So, have I been talked round?
Hearing someone else’s life-changing adventures inspired by non-fiction makes me wonder if I’m missing out. I’ll probably never be a self-help queen, but knowing what to expect from these books does make me think I could find the right one more easily.
I’ll always love the escapism and imagination of fiction… but I might introduce some non-fiction to the rotation.
PAOLA: Yes, that is a very good point. And I do admire authors whose creativity allowed them to come up with alternative worlds. I might pick up a novel or two when I am not busy getting my life organised!
What do you all think? Please let us know in the comments.