“I don’t usually read fiction” I was recently told by a friend of mine, “but I’ll make an exception for you,” the comment delivered with sufficient condescension to communicate that I had just become the recipient of an unlikely favor.
I get that comment a lot, especially from people who aspire to the distinction of intellectuals, policymakers, activists or thought leaders. It’s as if somehow the vociferous rejection of this particular art form is a credential that substantiates their position in society. Yet the comment never fails to baffle me. Unlike literature, I meet very few people who energetically assert that they “never look at a painting” or that they “don’t listen to music.” Yet, when it comes to a novel people feel that the unwillingness to enjoy a well-written story is evidence of some sort of superiority.
To be sure, there are a lot of poorly written novels out there (mine probably among them), and a lot of popular fiction is either obscene in an attempt to be provocative or ‘action packed’ in an attempt at pandering. But isn’t this also the case for other art forms – and isn’t it perhaps a matter of opinion? I, for example, do not like modern art and am not a fan of impressionism; but this does not mean that I don’t enjoy walking through the MET or the Art Institute of Chicago eagerly searching for something that touches my soul. Neither do I enjoy rap or country music; but this does not mean that I do not seek out the folksy tunes of Paul Simon or the passionate ballads of Ricardo Arjona in my desire to be carried away. Does my dislike of particular genres in any way affect their value to others? And why should searching out a novel to enjoy be different?
And I often wonder if this has always been the case. Did Leo Tolstoy’s friends turn him down when he presented them a copy of War and Peace? Did W. Somerset Maugham have a nose turned up at him after penning Of Human Bondage? Was J.R.R. Tolkien seen as the dunce of Oxford because he wrote fantasy (the word itself used with a disdainful smirk)? I don’t know; perhaps. Maybe it’s always been thus.
But I can’t help thinking, whatever the answer, that it’s a sign of troubled times. Just like other art, good literary fiction has a special way of challenging the reader as they are transported to another place. Gabriel Garcia Marquez gave us Macondo; a prototypical Latin American village where we could try and grapple with problems of poverty and violence and injustice as we interacted with his colorful characters. Jonathan Swift challenged the omnipotence of the king of England. Through Magical Realism we are brought to see the ridiculous in our political systems; through fantasy we engage in a binary world where evil fights good for world domination; through epic Victorian literature we are brought into the inner stories of the characters as they struggle for virtue and morality in a difficult period in history; and in Hemingway’s travels we experience firsthand the shock of the bizarre in cultures that are foreign to our own. Each experience deepens us, makes us more honest and somehow sharper. And they carry us away, filling us with new perspectives and understandings.
This is why I love to read, and to write. As I try and describe what I see and feel, I find in my humdrum normality something epic. I divorce myself from my daily life, rising above the administrative challenges and petty conflicts to gaze down and see the story as it could be – as it should be. Using what I see around me, I fill out my characters – making them human but so much more so. To be sure, I have been blessed; I have lived in faraway places and only need to take a deep breath and step back to narrate a story that is amazing (assuming I can tell it right). This does not make my writing better; it makes it worse. Like Hemingway (I’m going to share a dark secret here – I have never been able to finish any of Hemingway’s books), the thing that makes the stories are surroundings that are alien to the reader. A good writer – a really good writer – can go so much farther, taking things that are ordinary to the reader and filling them with magic. This is what Carlos Ruiz Zafon and Mario Vargas Llosa do; and it is what makes their writing great.
For those who claim they do not – I entreat you, read fiction. Read it to be swept away, to be challenged and to be inspired. Lose yourself in parallel worlds; and if you dare, write – shaping a universe as you would like it to be. You will not find that you have ‘wasted time’ – but maybe that in point of fact ‘real life’ is the true waste.
Joel D. Hirst is the author of “The Lieutenant of San Porfirio” and the upcoming sequel “The Burning of San Porfirio”