Earlier this week I was pointed to an article in thenation.com that prompted such a strong reaction in my gut that I felt compelled to write a blog post about it. The article talks about the value of fiction when compared to non-fiction, visual arts and poetry, and explores the virtues of ‘difficult fiction’. I was shocked to read about the declining interest in literature and the reduced comprehension rates when reading on a computer. The more I read, the more I realised how much I care about preserving the kind of fiction that demands your full attention.
If you haven’t read the article, I recommend you do. It’s an insightful and well-researched piece. My aim is not to argue with or criticise it, but to explore the elements that resonated with me. Firstly, let me state the obvious. Fiction is a bundle of lies. However, it also offers us the freedom to find our own truth between the lines. It enables us to be alarmed, unsettled and entertained by human experience whilst wrapping us in a safety blanket of make believe. Every story is unique to every reader that has ever picked up a novel.
One of the questions that struck me in the article was this. ‘Who needs fiction that requires readers to work to understand it?’
If you ask me, fiction is in trouble or rather, we are all in trouble if readers lose the desire to understand more than they already know. The market is being flooded with what could be called ‘factory fiction’. Dumbed down, easy reads that offer a familiar story time and again to readers who, in the end, don’t even notice that their literacy is being adversely affected.
Factory fiction is as harmful to the mind as factory farmed food is to the body. Ever notice how mass produced food doesn’t taste as flavourful as hand-picked or organic food? If you’ve ever eaten a home-grown strawberry you will know that to devour the fruit is a full mouth tingling experience that calls all of your senses to attention. Grab a ‘produce of INSERT RANDOM COUNTRY HERE’ strawberry and you may not taste much at all. Sure, it will satisfy your hunger but the nourishment and eating experience are lost somewhere along the production line.
It’s the same with fiction.You pick up a paperback along with your groceries, barely thinking about the choice you are making or influenced by a good promotional offer rather than a good literary proposition. Inertia sets in and before you know it you are on the conveyor belt and repeating the same patterns. You buy and read a book of a similar standard to those you’ve read before, and in that sense you are satiated, but when you try to tell a friend about it can you really remember what you consumed? Can you remember the sentence that rocked you back on your heels? Can you reconnect with the emotion it evoked as you read? Can you explain how it made you see the world a little differently once you had finished? That’s the whole body experience I am talking about. That’s when working to understand a story pays off. THAT’S what a great book should do!
If a book that connects to your heart is considered ‘difficult fiction’ then everyone should read difficult fiction. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a book snob. There are plenty of high-brow books that bore me to tears, classics I haven’t got around to and prize-winning tomes that I lost all enthusiasm for after a hundred pages. It’s not up to the likes of me to define what ‘difficult’ fiction is. Each reader should define that for themselves. I don’t believe that literature should be exclusive, or pushed out of reach of anyone who isn’t an academic. In fact, I loathe the elitist attitude amongst some readers. But I do think that whatever your starting point, you should always aim to elevate your experience.
Even a change of genre could open up a whole new world or rekindle a passion for the printed word. It’s not about forcing yourself to finish War and Peace, it’s about staying curious and interested. Each of us has been gifted with a brain and it is our duty to feed it as fully as possible within our individual capabilities. If you groan at the idea of needing a dictionary to hand when you read a novel, perhaps you should consider learning new words and phrases as a joy. Change your attitude, not your reading material. Every time you need to look something up or ponder a paragraph you are increasing your knowledge and your personal power. What’s not to love about that?
During a twitter conversation about thenation.com article, I was asked for my views on commercial fiction as a way of getting non-readers into reading. I just don’t accept that as a reason for mass producing benign fiction for profit. If you are literate you are a reader and your potential to explore and enjoy more challenging fiction each time you read is unlimited. The publishing industry has no right to decide that we are ‘not ready’ for tricky topics or mind stretching reads. That’s a decision to be made by individual readers, and should be encouraged from a young age by parents, guardians and teachers. It’s the role of mentors and motivators. If you are literate but are not ‘interested in reading’ then I suggest you are a reader who hasn’t found the right book… yet.
My eldest daughter would often tell me she was not a reader. You can imagine my sadness given my passion for the written word. I spent a bit more time trying to understand her point of view and in doing so, discovered that she just hadn’t invested any time in finding the right reading material. On further exploration, we have found several books she has actively enjoyed, and a couple that captured her imagination enough to inspire her to write her own stories. All it took was for us to spend a bit more time together to figure it out. Did I rush out and find ‘easier’ reads to simplify it for her? Lower her expectations of literacy until she found something she could read from start to finish without having to think? No. I worked with her to consider her personality and interests, the things that make her tick beyond the superficial, and then we went and found the books that met her needs. Bigger, braver and more engrossing books that she tackled with confidence and joy.
Readers do not need and should not be encouraged to stupefy themselves with mindless fiction out of convenience. The occasional bit of chick lit is great, as is the occasional chocolate fudge brownie, but it’s not going to do you any favours in the long term if that is all you ever consume. And you can be sure you will soon lose your appetite for anything other than brownies. So I’m back to the food analogies again. I know I’ve already made the comparison, but I really think that is the starkest way to illustrate the change and potential damage caused if there is a demise in the quality of fiction writing for all ages.
The follow-up argument may also be similar to that often attached to food sources. It’s too expensive to buy quality fiction. That’s simply not true. On the face of it, those two for one deals sound appealing for your pocket. So you grab two titles off the shelf simply because they are included in the special offer, and you ignore the rest. Well, don’t get me started on the ins and outs of marketing promotions (that’s another post for another day), but do trust me when I tell you its all a bit of a con really. First, you should know that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of literary classics available to download instantly for free on Kindle, Kindle app or similar reading devices. Prefer a paperback but can’t afford the list prices of individual titles not included in the in-store offers? Join the library. Start your own mini library with your neighbours. Borrow it from a friend. Do whatever you need to do but please don’t cheapen your choices due to cover price. The deals can sometimes offer great savings on books you might otherwise miss, but more often than not it’s a false economy and you end up buying and reading more rubbish because the books you are choosing just don’t hit the spot.
If your budget is tight, save your money, do some research, read the reviews and invest carefully in the authors you can be pretty sure will entertain you in the long term. If you choose your reads just because they are free, what are you really gaining and just how invested are you in your reading experience? A novel represents an agreement between reader and writer. Enter into it without being fully committed and of course you will not get the full benefits available to you. Sure you might stumble across the occasional masterpiece but more often than not you will be disappointed and you will have wasted precious time. I made a personal decision never to give my novels away for free (though I try to make sure they are available via local libraries for those unable to buy and I will sometimes give copies away in competitions). I made this decision for several reasons but mainly because I do not want to contribute to a market populated by a huge number of poor quality free ebooks. I didn’t write to count the pennies earned from my novel, I wrote it because I had a story to tell that I hoped readers would connect with. It may sound strange, but if you don’t feel that my story is worth paying for then I don’t think you should read it at all. I’m not trying to be contrary, I’m trying to be honest. If you wouldn’t waste your money on it, you certainly shouldn’t waste your time on it. Time is the most valuable thing we have to give and on that basis readers should be encouraged to choose wisely and invest only in those books they feel compelled to read based on the promise of a fulfilling story.
Non-fiction should recount life and events as accurately as possible. Fiction should reflect life in all its glory and shame. There is no easy ride in life and whilst we don’t always have to have our noses rubbed in the dirt, we should not try to run away from it either. There is beauty in the ruins. There is art in the pain of being human. There is a sense of satisfaction to be gained from closing a book and knowing that you will feel more deeply, think more clearly and listen more carefully as a result. Easy reads can give you light relief when you need it, but in my experience they cannot transform your thinking or help you grow and that is something we should all reach for from time to time.
I’d like to round off with a comment I received from one of my beta readers when I was finalising the manuscript for my novel.
‘I haven’t read a novel like this for a while. I have been reading chick lit or similar for the last few years, and really enjoyed reading something different. It took me back to university and all those classics I read and loved for European Literature – Therese Raquin, Madame Bovary, and the like. It has inspired me to broaden my current reading.’
Here was a reader who had read and loved some incredible literature in the past, was intelligent and capable of devouring the classics but had simply got lulled into a habit of picking up whatever was on the shelf of the local supermarket. I believe that every reader; in fact, everybody wants to feel and be engaged. Maybe we’ve forgotten how that feels or maybe we just got lazy. Whatever the reason, let’s not stop trying to engage with and understand the world around us. Art, in all its forms, is subjective. It’s up to all of us to keep searching for the work that moves us, challenges us and changes us somehow. What do you think?
Vanessa Matthews is an author and poet. Her debut novel The Doctor’s Daughter is out now on Amazon UK, Amazon US and Amazon sites worldwide. You can also find it on Barnes & Noble, Waterstones and in selected Waterstones stores in the South West of England.