The Artistic Sphere


Why write? Why read? - by Richard Swan

Have you ever read a novel?


Most of us never pause to wonder why we read novels, yet many of us spend an awful lot of time doing it. This article considers what is happening in this process, and argues that although most people talk of 'reading for pleasure', in fact something much more important is going on.

I shall argue that reading - all reading - is one of our crucial tools for making sense of the world around us; it is one the key ways in which we construct our lives and our world views. I shall argue that this applies not merely to 'serious' literature and the 'classics', but to any kind of creative fiction at all, right down to genre and 'pulp' fiction. Our minds automatically relate everything we read to everything else we have read, and to the rest of our circumstances and life experiences, and our thinking is adjusted to suit.

This is most clearly seen in the case of children's literature, both because children are busily ingesting and digesting all kinds of stimuli in order to construct their own understanding and build their map of the world, and also because children's writers tend to be fully aware of that process taking place, and write accordingly.

The second part of the article will therefore examine what is happening from a writer's point of view: why write? Ignoring the (rare) solely pecuniary motive, I shall argue that writers are doing exactly what readers do: they are using fiction in order to make sense of the world around them; what they do is to create universes in terms that make sense to them, a process that Tolkien calls Secondary World creation. They then hope to share with others the understanding they have gained through the process. Again I will focus particularly on children's literature and the example of my own forthcoming novel, Melody's Unicorn.

In the course of the article I will point out that personal or private reading is a very new phenomenon, a few centuries old, and also note the obvious fact that only a proportion of the world's populace, even now, is literate and has time and opportunity for reading. I will therefore consider what the alternatives to reading are in non-literate and pre-literate societies, but will conclude that reading offers an 'easily digestible' alternative to the learning that has traditionally taken place through, for example, communal story-telling and song.

I will finish by noting that we are in a golden age of literacy and availability of reading material, so that the opportunities for both readers and writers are unprecedented.

'al that written is,

To oure doctrine it is ywrite, ywis.'

Richard Swan is a sometime Head of English and Vice Principal at a Secondary School, and now a writer and academic. He is a medievalist, specialising in Anglo-Saxon and medieval literature and arts. He divides his time between academic work - he has published several study guides to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales - and writing novels, poetry and short stories. He also gives talks on anything from Beowulf to T.S.Eliot and Lana Del Rey, and helps to organise public debates at the annual Battle of Ideas in London, run by the Academy of Ideas. His children's fantasy novel Melody's Unicorn is published in May 2018. More details can be found on his website, ferende gæst, at