The best explanation of the difference between nonfiction and fiction, I feel, is that nonfiction’s primary purpose is to convey information, whereas the purpose of fiction is to evoke an emotion in the reader.
I think great books work on an emotional level. Fear is an emotion, a very powerful emotion. Perhaps people read thrillers and horror novels because it is a way of experiencing emotions that you ordinarily don’t experience in life, but without putting yourself directly in harm’s way. I think, also, that it is an effort to try to better understand the aspects of the human psyche that we don’t have answers for. The more we ourselves understand about human nature, the better we will survive. I know we operate that way, so all reading—of whatever genre or subject—has to also come down to the fact that we are trying to understand more of ourselves and others to better our own comprehension of life, and thus improve the quality of our existence.
Someone once said to me that there are two types of novels. There are those that you read simply because some mystery is created and you have to find out what happens. A puzzle or an unresolved question is presented in the opening, and from there you follow a tortuous maze of clues, misdirectors, and red herrings until the denouement. The denouement is satisfying or not, but still this is not the type of book you read for the lyrical prose, the scintillating turn of phrase, the stunningly descriptive passages. It is airport literature, and that term is not applied derogatorily. Such novels are compelling, and the urgency with which you have to reach the end is remarkable. You need to know what happened! Having read such a book, however, perhaps you would be asked some weeks later whether it was a title you had encountered. You would pause for moment. “Remind me again what it was about?” you would say, and that simple request would say all that needed to be said about the level of emotional engagement inherent in such a book. Wonderful plots, clever twists, but not a book to change your preconceptions about life.