Readers often talk about the idea that reading fiction can expand one’s worldview and open one’s eyes to new ideas and new perspectives. This ability of fiction to broaden one’s mind and teach one new things is, of course, one of reasons that readers love reading in the first place.
On the flip, side, however, I’ve seen some debate over exactly how POV-changing reading a book can be. For instance, if a man who thinks periods can’t possibly be painful reads a book about a character who is doubled over in agony and vomiting from terrible cramps, will he suddenly think, “Wow! Periods must be excruciating for some women, after all!” Or will he write this off as “just one character” whose experience isn’t common? Or write it off as entirely a fabrication that doesn’t apply to anyone real? Confronted with this question, sometimes I’ve seen people suggest, “Well, reading fiction might not be the best way to ‘understand other people.’ Some readers will be more persuaded by reading factors and figures, or reading nonfiction.”
“Reading nonfiction will change people’s minds” sounds as good to me as “Fiction can change your mind.” Personally, I believe both. But then I remember the experiences I’ve had reading and discussing Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado Perez, and it strikes me that some people aren’t persuaded by research and facts and figures either, not if the information is something they don’t want to hear.
Invisible Women is, as the title states, about all the ways our world is designed for men. Office temperatures are set to be comfortable for the “average man.” Car safety features are tested on the “average man.” New medicine is tested on the “average man.” The height of the handrail in your local bus and the route it takes and the lighting at the places it stops are likely designed for the “average man.” All this means that women in the office tend to be cold, women are more likely to injured if in a car crash, women are more likely to have adverse effects from medicine or not get the positive effects the medicine touts, and women are less likely to find the bus goes the places in the city they need to go.
Nearly every single time I have brought up this book and its research with a man, however, he’s not impressed. He doesn’t say, “Wow! I never knew or thought about that, but all these facts and figures have convinced me!” Instead, he launches into a lengthy explanation of why these things are so and why they SHOULD be so. “Oh, well, it’s better to be cold than hot in the office. You can put on a sweater; I can’t take off my shirt” or “Oh, well, men drive more often and buy more cars, so cars should be designed for them,” or just “Oh, none of that can be true.” I brought up the section in the book about piano keys and how they are spaced more comfortably for men, who on average have larger hands than women, but pianos with small keyboards aren’t common, and one guy gave me a whole lecture about how pianos with smaller keyboards sound entirely different and of course no one can or should use them as a serious musician. Reader, I looked it up. The pianos do NOT sound different. My friend simply assumed this was true and lectured me about it, ignoring any and all actual facts.
So is nonfiction “more convincing” to certain types of reader? I would say so only if the reader is actually open to what the book is saying, is willing to consider with an open mind that what the book is saying is true. There’s a lot of research about how people are predisposed to believe things that confirm what they already think and dismiss things that challenge their beliefs. It’s not a question of whether nonfiction is more convincing than fiction and whether certain people are more into statistics than anecdotes or fictional experiences. It’s a question of whether the reader is willing to consider that what they think is wrong and they might actually need to open their mind to new information, whatever form that information comes in.