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Why Read Fiction?

Now that I'm rereading a series of novels, adding up to many thousands of pages, it would certainly be nice if I actually accomplished something. The good news is that I am starting to realize that fiction has something to offer: but strangely enough, it really isn't the "story."

I admit to being a die-hard non-fiction reader. Mostly history. Many years ago, it was philosophy, until I decided that it was mere wordplay. Fiction always seemed like a waste of time. What did the plots of novels really consist of but rags-to-riches, revenge, whodunnit, mistaken identity, improbable reversals of fortune, and -- above all else -- adulterous love triangles? Yawn, especially the latter.

It was a good choice to reread Patrick O'Brian's "Aubrey/Maturin" ("Master and Commander") novels because they are written more to please men than "lady novel readers," who have an insatiable appetite for romantic drivel. (It was they who bought most of the fiction of the 19th Century, was it not?)  O'Brian's novels take place on the high seas -- not in parlors. Or bedrooms.

Therefore I wasn't resenting the overall plot. This advantage was huge, because it allowed me to relax and look past the overall plot. I started paying more attention to the interstices in the overall plot. Vignettes of behavior. Different personalities react differently to uncertainty and risk, loss and disappointment, betrayal, boredom, pain, and all the real challenges of life.

Left in the hands of philosophers and academics, the "stuff of life" becomes sterile wordplay, with no ability to inspire you or change your own behavior. Whenever I find one of these vignettes of behavior to the real challenges of life, I should hit the brakes. A reader can become "velocitized" -- numbed -- like an interstate highway driver. These are opportunities to let the eyeballs rest, and then type or cut-and-paste the juicy paragraph into your blog or journal.

And then put the damned book down. Take the dog out for a walk and think about what you have read. Dream that juicy paragraph up into a little essay, perhaps for your own blog.  See it as a chapter in your own life. Isn't this a better topic to write about than shopping, the weather, or pretty sunsets?

Odd, ain't it? For years I would roll my eyeballs when philistine blockheads would badmouth opera: 'It's sung in EYE-talyan, so Ah cain't unnerstannit!' Or maybe the uncivilized brute would say, 'The plots are just stupid Boy-meets-Girl, Boy-loses-Girl-to-the-Duke' type junk.

All true, but so what? The plots of operas are just flimsy excuses to move on to the next song, which is what counts. Even more, it adds something to your appreciation of music to tie it to a human and emotional context. That can happen in operas, despite the silliness of the overall plot. Why didn't I see the analogy with appreciating fiction -- years ago?


John V said…
First of all, I'm glad you grew out of your philosophy phase. I generally stick to historical non-fiction, but it was reading historical fiction from Michener and Clavell when I was younger that fueled my interest in history. I can't see why anyone would badmouth opera. The Who's "Quadrophenia" and "Tommy" are two of the best operas ever. :-)
Puccini is rolling over in his grave.
XXXXX said…
Glad to hear you are starting to enjoy fiction.
It's interesting, your statement referring to the need/wish to be accomplishing something and somehow thinking fiction didn't fit the bill.
Of course, there is what you would call silly fiction but in that case the need is probably a form of escapism. We all need that, you know.
But, as you say, you have found value in the characters and one can easily put oneself in their place and imagine "what would I do?" a form of character analysis and development.
You know, lately it has been sounding hard in my mind that the only species on earth who makes meaning out of everything is we humans. And, interestingly, we all seem to make different meanings out of everything and then analyze, judge, debate and finally argue every detail.
Philosophy, Law, even recorded history(since it's always written by the winners), is nothing but this.
After a point, why bother? Your perception is just as real to you as mine is to me.
Fiction is that wonderful world of experiencing a situation vicariously and so trying out within oneself different decisions one would make at each turn of the road. Sort of like those character development scenarios I remember in college. In that case, it was always the no-win kind no matter what choice you made.
Well, if not worthwhile, then at least it keeps one's attention.
Opera is terrific because it's the only form of art where the action stops while a character contemplates a profound feeling and, with all the power of orchestra and voice, allows the audience to share in that feeling for several beautiful minutes. I think this qualifies as being fully alive, much like "the breaking point."
Let's be honest. We are all guilty of many "silly" emotions.
Jim and Gayle said…
Can't we consider the Kardashians operatic?
"and so trying out within oneself different decisions one would make at each turn of the road." That's a good way to put it, George. I need to make a habit of this when I read fiction.