13 November 08 | Chad W. Post

According to a recent report from the University of Manchester, fiction can be just as powerful as facts in teaching people about the world.

The report — “The Fiction of Development: Literary Representation as a Source of Authoritative Knowledge” — was written by David Lewis, Dennis Rodgers, and Michael Woolcock, and actually came out earlier this year. (I found out about it thanks to the Guardian.)

It’s steeped in academic, but the abstract lays it all out:

This article introduces and explores issues regarding the question of what constitute valid forms of development knowledge, focusing in particular on the relationship between fictional writing on development and more formal academic and policy-oriented representations about development issues. We challenge certain conventional notions about the nature of knowledge, narrative authority, and representational form, and explore these by comparing and contrasting selected works of recent literary fiction that touch on development issues with academic and policy related representations of the development process, thereby demonstrating the value of taking literary perspectives on development seriously. Not only are certain works of fiction “better” than academic or policy research in representing central issues relating to development, but they also frequently reach a wider audience and are therefore more influential. Moreover, the line between fact and fiction is a very fine one. The article also provides a list of relevant works of fiction that we hope academics and practitioners will find both useful and enjoyable.

They use some decent examples of how literary works can portray more about a culture than fact-based documents, such as Chinua Achebe and Naguib Mahfouz (and the list of recommended titles, which includes Fuentes, Vargas Llosa, and Frisch, is really quite good), and also focus on how the popularity of a work of fiction greatly amplifies its impact:

For example, the US invasion of Afghanistan and continuing “war on terror” have obviously played a significant role in the success of Khaled Hosseini’s extraordinarily popular novel The Kite Runner (2003), which has arguably done more to educate Western readers about the realities of daily life in Afghanistan (under the Taliban and thereafter) than any government media campaign, advocacy organisation report, or social science research.

I’m no fan of The Kite Runner, but regardless, it’s nice to see a formal, reputable report documenting what many of us (editors, booksellers, readers) have believed for years: one of the best ways to learn about the world is to read great works in translation.


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