Study Finds That Fiction Plays a Key Role in Illuminating World Issues

by Staff

A recent study found that literature can be a useful tool in shaping the public's understanding of political and economic issues, perhaps having more of an impact than academic writing on the subjects. The report, written by researchers at Manchester University and the London School of Economics, focused mainly on how fiction has shed light on topics related to global economic development and concluded that many modern works have played an integral part in igniting public interest, humanizing issues, and educating on a broad scale.

The report cited as particularly influential novels such as Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner (Riverhead Books, 2003), for its portrait of life in Afghanistan under the Taliban, and Aravind Adiga's novel The White Tiger (Atlantic, 2008), which concerns capitalism in contemporary India. Brick Lane (Thorndike Press, 2003), a novel about a young woman who moves to London despite speaking no English by Bangladeshi-born British writer Monica Ali, was noted in the report as a work that has "contributed to wider public understandings of global development issues in ways that no academic writing ever has."

"While fiction may not always show a set of presentable research findings, it does not compromise on complexity, politics, or readability in the way that academic literature sometimes does," said Dennis Rodgers of Manchester University's Brooks World Poverty Institute, who coauthored the report with institute director Michael Woolcock and David Lewis of the London School of Economics.

"Storytelling is one of humanity's oldest methods of possessing information and representing reality," said Lewis, who specializes in international development. "The stories, poems, and plays we categorize as literary fiction were once accepted in much the same way that scientific discourse is received as authoritative today."

Tom Clougherty, a policy director at the U.K. think tank the Adam Smith Institute, presented to the British newspaper the Telegraph a counter argument, stating that while literature does play an important role in familiarizing the public with global concerns, it works often by appealing to readers' emotions rather than their reason, and when it comes to informing solutions to problems, "fiction absolutely can't replace factual, evidence-based analysis."

The full report, which includes a list of recommended reading, is available on the U.K. Base Realignment and Closure Research and Evaluation Division Web site.