Friday, 23 November 2018

Why don't I read fiction?

Nanowrimo is drawing to a close.  It passed me by, as one would expect.  Why?  Because I don't read fiction.

This dislike is a fairly harmless one (don’t like it? Don’t read it), although I remember it lead to a paint-blistering argument with my ex.  Perhaps because it is trivial, I seldom analyse why I have a visceral aversion to this type of writing.  However, it's been something discussed a bit on social media of late, so it might be an interesting post.
The most common objection raised to fiction is that “it’s not real”.  That doesn’t actually much trouble me. A great many things one might consider factual also have a tenuous grasp on reality: the last two volumes of CMH Clark’s History of Australia are a case in point.  However, this is a clue to something that does cause me a visceral response: it’s a lie.  Fundamentally when you permit someone to tell you something that isn’t a faithful reflection of reality, you’re trusting them with your mind, and (more seriously) giving them control of your imagination.  I feel nauseated by the thought of surrendering my grip on reality that way, especially when one realises how many fiction writers are people you wouldn’t trust to borrow your car. Trusting such a person with your mind is like going joyriding with the most irresponsible person you know.

The second objection is that defences of fiction always seem to involve one of my least favourite concepts: empathy.  One writer refers to -
... the empathy-boosting abilities of a great story. "Imagining a character's situation can help you become more empathetic toward people in real life. That's because when you read a story, you connect to personal experiences, according to researchdone by Raymond Mar, a psychologist at York University in Canada,"....

Empathy is the most parasitic reaction I can imagine: feeling someone else's emotions does no good at all.  If they are feeling joy, they don't need your involvement.  And if they are in distress, it should be something you can detect.  Further, if they are in distress, then you should do something to alleviate their pain because it's the right thing to do, and not just because you can somehow feel it yourself.

A close cousin is the claim that reading fiction is the key to business success -
Developing the entrepreneurial superpower of empathy requires a determined dedication to discovering the subjective truths and experience of others.
When you pick up a well written novel, you hand yourself a key to that.
The master novelist is a master precisely in decoding the subjective experience of others. A novel succeeds – when it succeeds – by allowing us to know as fully as possible what it’s like to be another person.
Great entrepreneurs learn that this empathetic appreciation of other people’s experience is the key to building incredible, wildly successful products and services.
Allow me to save you the trouble of "decoding the experiences of others".  Fundamentally, people are driven by two things: fear and desire.  Save for a rare few people in the world, the objects of their fear and desire are blindingly obvious: fear of pain, poverty or embarassment, and desire for purchasing power or comfort.  All that is needed is to pull their levers accordingly.

It's also possible that I came to loathe fiction because I was forced to study it in Year 12 and found myself stuck with Patrick White's generally disliked The Aunt's Story.  That, at least, seems to have been when the rot set in.  Since that year (1995), I think I've only read four works of fiction right through, and the experiment hasn't induced me to try more -
  • Lord of The Rings: Needs no introduction.  Well written and imaginative but in hindsight looks like Wagner's Ring Cycle performed by Winnie-the-Pooh.

Look Piglet! Orcs!
  • John Boyne's The Absolutist: Gay soldier meets bisexual soldier on the Western Front in World War One.  The first ends up shooting the second.  Their sexuality is far less memorable than how profoundly annoying they both are.  Probably the first time I've wondered if the use of mustard gas may have been excusable.
  • William Faulkner's Sanctuary: Psycho rapes girl with corn cob.  Paycho dies.  Some other guy dies too.  Have a nice day.
  • Ernest Hemingway's Snows of Kilimanjaro: Prose style is Hemingway's unsparing best, although the version I read seemed to be a set of odds and ends with the title of a more famous book.
I've also tried a number of others in the last year or so, thinking maybe I'd find some type of finction writing I cared for -
  • Mark Gimenez's Accused
  • Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera
  • Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms
  • Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath
  • Whatever the first Harry fucking Potter was
Epic fail.  After about a dozen pages of each I concluded none of them would be a good use of my time.

Added to which, as you can see from my bedside table, I've bought more books by Faulkner, Bruce Chatwin, Hilary Mantel and Tom Wolfe.  I have literally no idea why as I'd literally rather drill a corkscrew into one ear than read them.

See something you like?  Make me an offer.
Would I benefit from reading fiction?  We'll never know.  Pass me my copy of Robert Conquest's The Great Terror and we can call it a day.

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