Should the main purpose of fiction be to entertain, to educate, to provoke thought, or a combination of these? While Victorian fiction ushered in the focus on realism that continues in much of modern fiction, many readers prefer less realistic works, choosing fantasy tales and other forms of escapist literature.

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For me, fiction is mostly a diversion from the real world. Good fiction will encompass all of the ideas you mentioned; if it isn't thought provoking, it's probably not of a very high caliber. But entertainment should certainly be the foremost emotion received when reading fiction.

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I certainly agree that it is a combination of everything because what really comes into play is the connection that the reader makes to the text. What one reader feels about a work if fiction is different from what another reader feels.

For example, while a puritan and over-virtuous and hypocritical "select" in Victorian England felt insulted and shocked by the publication of The Picture of Dorian Gray (pardon my constant mention to Oscar Wilde), a smaller section of society felt impressed by Wilde's gall in exposing the reality of the so-called London gentlemen who actually paid for services of low rate men escorts while leading a prudish life at home with their wives and children. Others felt inspired to continue to "open the can" and investigate these practices, as a result of that publications. Others, as it was exposed during Wilde's trial, dedicated themselves to observe the Criminal Amendment act of 1885 and fight against it.

Therefore, one simple work can inspire a series of emotions that, ultimately ,lead to some form of action. Fiction is what the reader wants it to be. Like I tell my students: Fiction finds you!

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A lot of great fiction does all of the above. I admire some fiction purely for the technical skill of the author. James Joyce might fall into that category in the past, and Jonathan Franzen is that way for me today. Two very different writers, but I appreciate them primarily as writers.

Other important works of fiction have far transcended art, and moved into the realm of activism. Uncle Tom's Cabin is a wonderful example of this. The Jungle is another. Not as well-executed as many others, but important beyond their literary merits.

Good literature can be written with a number of purposes in mind, and can affect readers in different ways.

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A combination.  In his Preface to The Great Gatsby, Michael J. Bruccoli writes,

Literature has staying power, but it is subject to metamorphosis.  Every reader's response to a work of fiction is determined by his or her presuppositional biases, beliefs, experience and knowledge.

Fiction can provide much more to the cultivated reader although it can provide entertainment, escape, and insight to even the rudimentary.

"Should the main purpose of fiction be to entertain, to educate, to provoke thought, or a combination of these?" is a question whose answer defines the meaning of "a classic."  Classic literature provides all levels and thus is timeless as it can appeal to the child, the ingenuous, the sophisticated, the jaded, the experienced, the poorly educated, the erudite.

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I don't think there is one finite answer and actually think you could argue that reading fiction can be a multifaceted and interdependent process. Some literature is entertaining because it is thought provoking. Some literature is thought provoking because it educates us about some aspect of life. For example, satire is highly entertaining (uses humor) for the purpose of educating (pointing out a flaw in human nature). For this reason, in addition to the points made above, I don't think there is one neat and tidy answer.

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The main purpose of fiction should be to do whatever the author wants it to do.  If the author wants the fiction to try to teach us lessons about the human condition, fine.  But if the author simply wants to be entertaining so as to sell more books and make more money, that's fine too.  There is and should be a difference between high culture and mass culture in fiction as in many other genres.

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The main purpose of fiction is to entertain, but it achieves its other purposes by entertaining.  Sometimes fiction informs us more because we are in the process of being entertained, and so we actually learn more or are persuaded more.

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