Ella Berthoud and John Crace discuss ‘What is fiction for?’

By Emma Gibbs

What is fiction for? For some of us the instant answer might be escapism, relaxation, or even illumination. But for bibliophile Ella Berthoud reading is therapy for life issues. Berthoud boldly believes that prescribing literature can cure almost anything, from a ‘broken leg’ to ‘murderous thoughts’, as she explains in her book The Novel Cure.

John Crace is a feature writer for the Guardian, known for his Digested Reads, in which the great and popular novels of the late 20th and early 21st century are reduced to 700 words or fewer – most recently Kevin Pieterson’s autobiography and Stephen Fry’s latest tome. He is also a celebrated humorist novelist.

Crace and Berthoud opened the talk by asking the big question: “What is fiction for?”. Crace humorously responded that for those in the audience leaving early, the answer is: “We don’t know.” 

The audience listened to excerpts from Crace’s Brideshead Abbreviated, which parodies a wide variety of classic novels – he received a laugh with every sentence. Crace revealed that one of his favourite classic novels is Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier – and then proceeded to read his parody of it, proving that “there is no book you can’t have fun with.” On this note, both Berthoud and Crace agreed that fiction “should be fun”. Berthoud also revealed that she prescribes Rebecca to clients who have “low self-esteem”.

Ella Berthoud’s reading of The Novel Cure looked into the issue of murderous thoughts, for which she prescribed Thérèse Raquin by Émile Zola, which also received ripples of laughter from the audience.

On knowing what books of the 21st century will stand the test of time, Crace acknowledged that the question is “the big unknown’. But he offered up Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies, which won the 2012 Man Booker Prize, as a viable suggestion.





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