Novel reading, continued

There were so many good things people wrote in answer to my questions from yesterday, that I want to highlight them up here in a post. My blog readers never do let me down! I might as well put my responses into a regular post, because otherwise I’ll be burying a post-length piece of writing in the comments section.

What Susan had to say cracked me up: “My mother always maintained that she didn’t want to waste her time reading something that was made up. She watched 3-and-a-half hours of soap operas every afternoon, though, and one of her favorite papers was the National Enquirer. It’s awfully easy to get a story fix without ever cracking the pages of a novel.” That’s true! If part of what we need from fiction is narrative, we can find narrative in all kinds of places. To claim that you don’t read fiction isn’t to claim that you don’t enjoy those aspects of it you can find elsewhere. Not that the narratives you find elsewhere are necessarily going to be satisfying beyond a basic level (the soap opera).

But what’s wrong with enjoying narrative on a basic level? And if people choose not to read fiction, I can’t exactly call it a moral failing, or even a failing of the imagination. What I object to is the attitude that reading fiction is a waste of time. That attitude shows a failure of imagination, I think.

But that brings me to a point several other people made, which is that nonfiction works are narratives too, and that the line between fiction and nonfiction is not entirely clear. Litlove says that “history, science and autobiography are all beholden to the laws of narrative,” and Sylvia says, “non-fiction can be crafted into a story as well, which of course involves real people and real events.” If you claim you read only nonfiction and never fiction, that’s true only in a narrow sense, because the nonfiction books you pick up contain stories and elements of narrative and often fictionalized elements.

Some of my favorite books, in fact, walk the line between fiction and nonfiction; I’m thinking of W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, a book I’m not at all clear how to categorize, or Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine, which is clearly a novel, but contains long sections of writing that could easily appear in a nonfiction text, and which also contains footnotes. How do you categorize Sophie’s World, a story and a history of philosophy all in one?

I liked Fendergal’s point that fiction writers face the problem of the ending – of wrapping things up (although some choose not to wrap things up, of course), because wrapping things up can sometimes seem awkward and maybe jolting after you’ve read a novel that up until the ending seemed very life-like. Stories in real life don’t end very often like stories in novels, do they? If a writer wants to provide the reader with the type of satisfying ending where everything seems fully concluded, all connections made, all lose ends tied up, then the writer pulls us away from what we recognize as real life. But that brings up the question of what fiction is supposed to do – to capture real life or to do something else entirely.

And then there’s the point to be made that fiction can tell a certain kind of truth that nonfiction may not be able to; Imani writes, “it’s entirely possible, if not probable for a novel like Middlesex by Eugenides (for example) to present a more truthful account of gender issues, that resonates, than an “autobiographical” account from a so-so writer.” And then there’s Emily who wittily says, “I don’t believe anything I read except fiction.” That’s probably not a bad idea, actually. The person who says that she doesn’t read fiction because it’s not true surely has a narrow understanding of truth. If I’m seeking out specific facts nonfiction is probably better, but surely there is much we learn from reading novels?

I just realized that I have my very own test case in front of me, if I choose to take it up: I just finished Geraldine Brooks’ novel The Year of Wonders, about the plague, and I have on my shelves John Kelly’s nonfiction book, The Great Mortality, also about the plague. I don’t recall ever reading fiction and nonfiction in tandem like this (except reading criticism of a text along with the text itself, but that’s different). While I haven’t read Kelly’s book, I imagine it’s chock full of information on the plague, and also that it’s full of stories, and I know that the Brooks’ novel has a good story, but also a lot of (horrifying) facts about the plague. And Brooks’ novel captures the feeling of living during plague times – what it might feel like to have your world crumble all around you. Maybe Kelly’s book does that too.

I suppose ultimately I respect people’s decision to read only nonfiction if they have good reasons for doing so (although personally I find that preference hard to understand), but what really bugs me is the implication that reading fiction is a waste of time.

6 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading

6 responses to “Novel reading, continued

  1. I was busy eating cake yesterday and missed out on the fun. But waht great comments! I’d get bugged too if someone told me reading fiction was a waste of time. It’s a good thing no one has said that to me! One of your questions asked if anyone read novels to learn. I can say that I do. Sure I want entertainment, but entertainment and learning aren’t mutually exclusive. I like to read novels in translation in order to learn about other cultures and ways of being. I learn more this way, I think, than if I had read a history book.

  2. I have enjoyed reading the responses to your question, too. I hope I am always at least open to trying all sorts of books, though experience teaches me I may not always like everything. It’s good to at least be willing to try and not miss out on what might be a good experience.

  3. Very good comments.
    Reading fiction isn’t a waste of time. Neither is reading nonfiction. They both have value. (I was going to say ‘purpose’ but sometimes they have no purpose beyond whim — and what’s wrong with that?) The line between the two become blurred sometimes, and it’s good to read a little of both. I prefer nonfiction, but that’s not exclusive. I wouldn’t want it to be. I’d be concerned with anyone who completely rules out either.

  4. Great roundup of comments, Dorothy. Gosh! Aren’t we all smart! People who say there’s no point in reading fiction are like those who say ‘I don’t eat chocolate’ and expect a round of applause. It may be a personal preference, but it does not come with any moral high ground.

  5. Hello, I haven’t been around in a while, but now that I finally have time for the internet again, I’m happy to get back to reading your blog.

    A lot of good points here, and I do think you’re onto something especially regarding the sense of an ending and in the other “kind of truth.” But what is the value of an ending, and how can we trust this truth?

    Another question occurs to me: if reading fiction is not a waste of time, then what is time for?

  6. Stefanie — I always remember one of my professors who said that before he went to Africa he read a lot of African fiction and it taught him a lot more about the place than nonfiction did. I think we do learn stuff, even though we may not set out to.

    Danielle — you strike me as someone who is very open to trying new kinds of books — and I say it’s fine if you don’t like everything, as long as you are willing to give it a try.

    Steve — I agree that someone who makes a categorical assertion about not reading a certain kind of writing ever probably isn’t the best reader. I would expect at least a little openness.

    Litlove — you’re so right that people who make that claim think they are being virtuous! Silly.

    Amos — thanks for stopping by! Good question about time. Why not read fiction in whatever free time we have? Personally, I think our time is for our enjoyment — why else should we live? About endings, I think we find them satisfying because we get at least the illusion of completion and finality and having everything wrapped up. But it is an illusion — life isn’t like that.

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