Author of The Bliss of Solitude, Time’s Fool, Do Not Go Gentle, and the new novel Permanent Makeup as well as many nonfiction works including The New Harvard Guide to Women’s Health, Alternative Medicine for Dummies, and Nameless Diseases.
04-04-17 IS TODAY A TIME FOR FICTION?
More and more people tell me that this is no time for fiction. Nor do they themselves have time for fiction.
Even lifetime novel lovers say they feel that today’s times call for information, not retreats into fantasyland. Serious readers say they find it hard to immerse themselves in fictional worlds. One writer friend even admitted that she no longer has the attention span for books of any sort, including nonfiction, that don’t have immediate and obvious bearing on current events.
“Ever since the presidential election sticking my head in a novel feels like counting the angels on pins,” she told me. She says that now and then she does read an article in The New Yorker, but even that has to have immediate and obvious bearing on current events. And she’s a novelist herself!
Stranger Than Fiction
Between the distractions of breaking news on social media and fears that paying attention to politics could be a matter of life and death, numerous people have told me it is hard to immerse themselves in a long book, or even article, about another time or place. Recent political developments, and the resurgence of political activism, have turned reading time for them into hunts for information and ideas.
I’ve heard statements along these lines from people on both sides of the political spectrum. Whether they were pleased or horrified by the recent presidential election, they are equally concerned with the divisiveness and hatred dominating our days. They feel they must devote their precious reading time to understanding the roots and implications of current events rather than indulging in make-believe.
To others, fiction simply pales in comparison to the drama before our eyes. As novelist Nathaniel Rich recently wrote in the New York Review of Books, “[T]he election of as president as a menacing clown, abetted by white supremacists and Russian espionage, confimed that we had entered a reality that has already outpaced the most brazen conceits of speculative fiction”
To Rich, today’s reality is one of “…rather slipshod design, the kind of world you might expect to have been thought up by a teenager with only the most sophomoric understanding of dramatic irony, the perils of cliché, and the importance of narrative plausibility.” It seems that we’ve entered a time when truth is stranger than the strangest of fiction
The Case for Fiction
Last month I asked specifically whether people were still reading fiction. A few people assured me that fiction reading – whether as a frivolous distraction, a joy, a comfort, or a source of wisdom – is still going strong.
Nancy Daffner of Alpharetta, GA, for example, says that she has been a lifelong reader of both fiction and non-fiction. Fiction, however, is her go-to choice for pure leisure and enjoyment, perhaps, she says, even as an escape. “My entire life, outside of the classroom, I have read both [fiction and non-fiction] but more frequently chosen fiction. I read a wide range from historical fiction to science fiction and fantasy….I’ve always regarded my reading as my leisure time so the value is ascribed by how enjoyable it is for me.”
When she reads non-fiction, on the other hand, whether it’s to be a better employee, mother, homeowner, or investor, the goal is self-improvement. “I don’t consider it a choice I made,” she says, “but a necessity.”
Lyn Horan, an artist from Holyoke, Ma, expressed similar sentiments. “I’ve always read both non-fiction (particularly autobiographices) and fiction,” she says. “Sometimes I read for escape, and mostly to learn and feed my curiosity. ” She observes – and I agree – that some novelists believe “immersing facts in a story line is the very best way to convey non-fiction.”
So it seems that whether it is used as pure escapism or as a deeper lens through which to view the world, today’s time is as good a time as any for fiction – if not more so.
A Time for Fiction
I myself seem to be on a novel-reading roll lately. The more I check Twitter to see the daily atrocity, the more I check CSPAN or MSNBC, the more I crave a dive back into the novel at my bedside.
In the past couple of months my fiction list has included Frederik Backman’s A Man Called Ove, Louise Erdrich’s The Round House, Mira Jacob’s A SleepWalker’s Guide to Dancing, and even a dip back into Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks for one of my book clubs.
Rather than distancing me from the fictional world, the turmoil in the real one drives me back into it. And yet I don’t see this as escapism. If anything, the fiction I read helps build both the armor and the vision I need to survive.
I enjoy reading of all sorts. I have plenty of non-fiction at my bedside, too. But, interestingly, most is not related to the crisis at hand. It is history or science or philosophy. It is more about the larger world and context in which today’s atrocity du jour has arisen. I can turn on CNN or MSNBC for that mess. But books, whether fiction or non, take me to a far, far better place from which to see it.