Reading Fiction When the World is Burning
Last weekend, I've stumbled upon a Zoe Williams column, published in 2011 by The Guardian, where she claims it is unpatriotic to read fiction in times of crisis.
I wanted to like the piece. Its alluring title No time for novels - should we ditch fiction in times of crisis? made me hope it would confront my own passive nature as an audience. But it didn't. Williams' argument is that it's frivolous to read about fictional people doing fictional things when you could get informed about the real world and its many shortcomings. That literary novels are either shying away from important problems or clobbering you with data until you get bored.
Now, I don't believe that fiction is exactly the lifeblood of society. It could disappear in all its material forms and we wouldn't kill each other. But, I'm an advocate of fiction. It has a place and a purpose in our society. It always did. And it's heartbreaking to see educated, well-spoken people like Mrs. Williams being so narrow-minded and... welp, thoroughly British about it. So, allow me to defend fiction and squabble a few myths her article is still spreading to this day.
If you're going to question fiction, question everything
I like the idea of questioning the validity and usefulness of consuming fiction when the world is going to the dogs. It's even more true today than it was in 2011: Donald Trump is swinging dicks with Kim Jong-Un over nuclear weaponry, fascists are having rallies all over the world again and claim they have a right to exist, there are growing disconnects in the European Union, the list goes on. But Mrs. Williams article compares non-fiction about politics and economics with literary novels. Notably the works of Alan Hollinghurst.
If you're going to question fiction, question cinema, television, stage plays, comic books and every other ways it has permeated our society. If you stop reading high brow British authors, you're still exposing yourself to copious amounts of fiction every day. What would happen if you filled theaters and streaming platforms with documentaries and had Batman teaching calculus to kids instead of beating people up and you're going to have a reaction from the masses that might be more than you bargained for.
The writings of neurotic middle-aged white men represent an inconsequential fraction of all fiction and it certainly stopped being pertinent or influential around the turn of the twenty-first century. The reign of people like John Updike on culture is over. People flock to Christopher Nolan or Patty Jenkins' movies because they're smart, ambitious and accessible, and they have much more to say about the world we live in than the musings of a bored aesthete. Literary fiction writers don't have monopoly over good taste or meaningfulness anymore.
But still, it's an interesting thought experiment. Fiction plays a huge part in pacifying the masses and it's freaky to think what would happen if we replaced it with first hand education overnight. It would be positive in a vacuum, but it would not be pretty.
Fiction vs Non-Fiction is a false debate
So, Mrs. Williams argument against reading fiction states that it serves no purpose to entertain characters that aren't real. That it won't serve any purpose in the real world and the real world needs our complete and undivided focus now, more than ever. Now, I won't debate that our world needs us, but I have two problems with that argument, other than her exclusive focus on the British literary novel, an institution that hasn't been socially pertinent on a global scale since the advent of the internet.
Fiction and Non-Fiction aren't mutually exclusive. They constantly permeate one another, but it's especially true when it comes to the former. I've said it before and I'll say it again: writing fiction is the exercise of thinking about reality outside of its confines. Whether you're writing a sweeping good vs evil superhero fantasy like The Dark Knight Rises or something with obvious documentary value, like David Simon's The Wire, there's always a certain level of reality that permeates fiction.
Because fictional stories aren't born out of thin air, you know? They're the result of a dissatisfaction with the world that prompted the question: how could it be different? It tackles questions that don't have a clear answer to and therefore can't be answered by non-fiction. The Dark Knight Rises, for example, is a right wing allegory of fighting terrorism with brute strength at the heart of the American city. Christopher Nolan's hypothesis is that it would take more than vigilantism to do so. It would take sacrifice.
Fiction is a democratic language
The second issue I have with Mrs. Williams' argument is that she seems more eager to win debates with people who don't share her views than to understand them. There's a myth in reading communities that readers are an elite and that they should use their "gift" to good purpose. Reading is definitely not for the elite. It's the first thing you learn in school and since I've been working in publishing, I've met countless fucking weirdos who both read and write. Both fiction and non-fiction.
But if you truly want to make the world a better place, don't load up on stats and facts for debates. Try and find common ground. Word your empathy a little bit and try to put yourself in another person's shoes for one goddamn moment. And there isn't a better vehicle than fiction to do that. The late great David Foster Wallace used to say: "I don't know what you're thinking or what it's like inside you and you don't know what it's like inside me. In fiction... we can leap over that wall itself in a certain way."
Everybody is exposed fiction on a daily basis. Whether they read novel, watch television, movies or read the funnies in the newspaper. It's a language that everybody understands and appreciates. I'm not debating that it might be misused at the moment. I said it earlier in the piece: it has a big part to play in pacifying the masses with turgid good vs evil narratives that constantly make us feel like we're the good guys, but every now and then you get the mainstream movie that makes you feel just a tad uncomfortable in your own positions.
The world doesn't need less fiction. It needs more writers and perhaps a more responsible brand of fiction, but in this time of great divide, we shouldn't turn our back on the language we all collectively speak, no matter what our political inclination should be.
I guess it's fair if you believe I'm doing that to validate my own habit for fiction. I do read both fiction and non-fiction, though. It may be a 80-20 ratio or something like that. If you want to focus on non-fiction, it's your prerogative and I'm not judging that, but you can't dismiss a form of communication that's been around and has successfully made its points for 5 000 freakin' years. If fiction's been around since The Epic of Gilgamesh, it's become there's a real transformative power to allegory. Whether the British think it's real or not.