Monday, October 12, 2009

Fiction Is The New Dumb...

by Sean Chercover

Wanna see something really dumb?

The Daily Beast just published their list of America's Smartest Cities. As they say on their website, "We’ve gone out and ranked the relative intelligence of every major American population hub [metro area pop. over 1 million], from first-to-worst."

You might think I'm going to complain that Chicago came in at #24 (tied with St. Louis), with a civic IQ of 108 - or, as the Daily Beast says, "a big fat C+." But no, I don't care about that.

My problem is with part of their criteria. TDB came up with an (admittedly) unscientific formula to measure the per-capita IQ of each metropolitan area. A significant component of their formula came from "nonfiction book sales."

They explained it thusly:
"We focused on nonfiction as an imperfect proxy for intellectual vigor, because overall sales are dominated by fiction works that, while entertaining, aren’t always particularly thought-provoking."
Here are a few bestselling nonfiction titles, which The Daily Beast seems to think better represent "intellectual vigor" than that silly fiction stuff:


I'll give them credit for spelling encyclopaedia correctly. But an encyclopaedia of ... Bon Jovi??


With just one book, you can teach your daughter to cook, and get her started on her body-image disorder!


Here's the deal: Put stuff on your cat, take picture of said cat with stuff on it, submit picture to publisher. Then, I kid you not, they publish an entire book of such pictures.



This one speaks for itself.

Once again, the reason that The Daily Beast excluded fiction is because works of fiction, "while entertaining, aren’t always particularly thought-provoking."

Looking at the above titles, it is obvious that works of non-fiction are the flip-side of the equation: always thought-provoking, even when they fail to entertain.


Sure, there are plenty of dumb novels in the world, just as there are plenty of dumb non-fiction books. But to read fiction (at least, to read it well) requires thinking in abstraction and metaphor, requires the simultaneous use of both the intellect and the imagination. In short, reading fiction requires the use of more of the reader's brain. To suggest that non-fiction is inherently more intellectually demanding is, well, just dumb.

And yet, we've all encountered people (never extremely bright people, but...) who somehow equate non-fiction with intellectual rigor and fiction with fluffy entertainment.

Why is that?


Sara Paretsky said...

i kant koment 'cuz i reede 2 much fixshin

Steerpike said...

I'm kind of interested in that chick magnet book... I could use all the help I can get. Girls never seem impressed when I put stuff on my cat.

Great argument, Sean. Sure, some nonfiction is very intellectual, but claiming that it's inherently more so than fiction kind of slaps the Updikes, Faulkners, Shakespeares, Caldwells, Chercovers, Ellises, D'Amatos, Dymmochs, Guilfoiles, Heinzmanns, Hellmanns (Heinz- & HellMEN?), Paretskys, and Sakeys of the world right in the face.

Silly Beast, fiction's not just for kids.

Dana King said...

I think it's because I read fiction, and i always rated Daily Beast well down on my list of Smartest Web Sites, about tied with LOL Cat (which is far more entertaining.)

David Heinzmann said...

Brilliant post, Sean. However, I believe the comittee on social thought at the University of Chicago has been teaching that stuff on cats book in their seminars this semester.

R.D. Ray said...

Were we to compare numbers of Nobel Prizes won by universities located in various cities, Chicago would be #1. There have been more Nobel Prizes won by the University of Chicago than all of the other universities in the U.S. put together. And then there is that Nobel Peace Prize by a Chicago resident. A guy named Obama, I think.

Dana King said...

I don't know about that Nobel comparison. The New York Yankees have won more World Series than anyone else. Does that mean New Yorkers are the best baseball players?

Deciding which city is "smartest" needs a broader base than that, though the Daily Beast is still well off the mark.

Sean Chercover said...

R.D. - I'm with Dana on this. The survey wasn't trying to find the city with the smartest individuals, but the "average" intelligence of cities.

It's a fools errand to begin with, and TDB's metrics were deeply flawed - beyond the mistaken thinking about non-fiction vs. fiction, I also submit that the possession of a graduate degree does not equate to a higher IQ.

There are plenty of idiots with graduate degrees - some even standing at the front of lecture halls.

I do think adult reading is a pretty good metric, but you'd have to include fiction, and you'd have to include library circulation. Just measuring book sales artificially weighs the results in favor of wealthier (and younger) areas.

Bill Cameron said...

Eons past, in my personal Era of Gainful Employment, a guy visiting the office declared, "I only read non-fiction. I don't have time for fiction. I can't learn anything from fiction."

My boss replied, "So what you're saying is you're not educable."

He was a good boss.

Corey Wilde said...

Excluding library usage from TDB's criteria makes no sense. Buying books doesn't mean a person is smarter than one who borrows them from a library, it just means the buyers have more disposable income. Or maybe it means the borrowers are the smart ones, saving their money for other uses.

♥Jen♥ said...

Damn, and I wasted all my money on an education that got me a degree in English Lit. What was I thinking? Should have gone with a degree field that required more non-fiction reading...yeesh, what crap!