A few days ago our editor, Joseph Bottum, observed with a shake of his head that none of the many Junior Fellows at First Things in recent years reads novels with any regularity.Now, I don't share Mr. McDaniel's hang up in this regard at all, though I do find that I don't read as much fiction as I used to as a teenager. But as I say, several good friends have surprised me by expressing similar opinions. Helene Hanff who wrote 84 Charing Cross Road and Q's Legacy, two of my favorite books about books, observes at one point in 84, "I never can get interested in things that didn't happen to people who never lived."
I had to confess I was no exception, thus perfecting his despair. “The dominant Western literary form for the past two hundred years” he said “but you all say, ‘Nope, we’re done with that.’”
Why is this? I can’t speak for anyone else, but, for my part, I just don’t get drawn into fictional narratives the way I did as a child.
I turned towards the philosophical and historic in my mid-teens, which gave me Plato’s kind of impatience with lying poets. At some point I found that I had to force myself to turn the next page because I really did not care in the least what happened to imaginary persons. The only narratives I now read with easy pleasure are travelogues, histories, and biographies, packed as they are with the red meat of the real.
But I’m making a good-faith effort to regain a taste for novels. I’ve started with Jane Austen, hoping that the goodly helping of edification will help me painlessly transition from my addiction to propositional truths to a healthy appreciation of the formal properties of a well-wrought story. I’ve read Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility and am now in the middle of Persuasion. She’s quite as wise, perceptive, and delightfully ironic as everyone says, but I’m still having the hardest time staying interested in the plot.
Some of this is, I think, simply a matter of personal taste. However I wonder if some of it also has to do with a modern idea of what fiction is. There are two contradictory ideas of fiction which I hear often:
1) I am the author and I have created this story, which is mine and is precisely what I say it is, for your entertainment. Read it and be diverted.
2) The author has created a text which does not necessarily have an inherent meaning. You as the reader must encounter this text and determine what it means to you.
Both of these, if one actually internalizes them, strike me as rather boring. If a story is simply something which a particular author thought up in wholly artificial fashion and presents to you for amusement, what exactly is the point? Why should I care that that author made up that particular sequence of unreal events? If the story does not have meaning in and of itself -- if meaning is something that I apply myself -- why should I care about the story? Clearly, anything worth knowing is already in my head, and reading the story is like staring at an uncarved block of stone and imagining a sculpture.
On the question of why we read and write fiction, the works of ancient authors like Homer and Virgil have always struck me as interesting. Both to some extent, I think, believed in the myths they were recording. (Virgil less so than Homer, and neither in a literal sense, perhaps.) Yet both knew they were making up the details of these stories as they went along. And their readers in the ancient world both knew that the stories they were hearing or reading had been composed by human authors, and also believed that they in some sense reflected real stories about the gods and heroes.
The key insight here, I think, is that worthwhile fiction describes something that is at root true -- indeed it shows reality in a more distilled fashion than actual observation -- even if the details are made up. When fiction ceases to be seen as describing something true, it ceases to be worth reading.