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Writing and writers

Dec 25, 2016

“I don’t read fiction” and the ‘obligation to imagine and daydream’

A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is.― Flannery O'Connor.

Bob Gosford — Likes birds and people, not necessarily in that order.

Bob Gosford

Likes birds and people, not necessarily in that order.

books-12-2016

Of the millions of words I have read this year among the saddest were four found in this past weekend’s Financial Review. On the first page of the AFR Summer supplement was a fine example of the not-unexpected piece of flummery typical as a page-stuffer in newspapers at this time of year.

The Great Escape consists of ten seven-part questionnaires of People That Matter to the readers of the Fin. Apart from Senator Derryn Hinch and Glenn Murcutt I’ve not heard of any of them but then I live on the outer fringes of the known world in Alice Springs.

All were asked the same questions—Going where?; New Year’s resolution?; Connected or not?—you get the drift. Of particular interest to me were the responses to the question Reading list? Some were dead boring—”not much of a reader …”; “the biography of Winston Churchill by Boris”; cookery books etc. The most interesting responses were those from the good Senator and a female CIO who planned on reading Nigerian author Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, a wonderful look at Igbo culture during the 1800s and much more besides. Several admitted to loving the heft and feel of a real book or newspaper in their hands.

But four words at the end of a quote from Jane Lu, founder of the apparently successful online bling ‘n rags retailer known as ShowPo and a “co-founder” of a Facebook group known as “Like Minded Bitches Drinking Wine“, caught my eye and stuck.

“I don’t read fiction.”

Not “I’m too busy to read fiction” or “I don’t like reading fiction because … ” or “I read a lot more non-fiction [she is reading Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, a sort of self-help book for the brain and the management best seller compiled by Jim C. Collins, Good to Great]” but straight-out “I don’t read fiction.”

I’m not here to proffer advice on Ms Lu’s personal life or business—she seems to have those things well sorted—but I have to take some small exception to her apparent disdain for fiction and perhaps make a small suggestion that if she took the time out of her busy schedule to read some fiction from time to time she might advance her New Year’s resolution to “be a better person.”

There is no shortage of others who’ll agree with me but for present purposes some words by an author that I don’t read (my reading tastes may be catholic but I don’t like fantasy and sci-fi) will suffice.

In October 2013 author Neil Gaiman gave a lecture to the Reading Agency in east London. While his lecture (you can read an extract at The Gruniad here) was directed largely at children’s reading and literature, it served a useful wider purpose.

Gaiman says that fiction fulfils two functions (at least). First, it’s a “gateway drug” to reading.

[t]he drive to know what happens next, to want to turn the page, the need to keep going, even if it’s hard, because someone’s in trouble and you have to know how it’s all going to end … that’s a very real drive. And it forces you to learn new words, to think new thoughts, to keep going.

Second, fiction helps build empathy.

Prose fiction is something you build up from 26 letters and a handful of punctuation marks, and you, and you alone, using your imagination, create a world and people it and look out through other eyes. You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed. Empathy is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more than self-obsessed individuals … Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you’ve never been … Discontent is a good thing: discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different.

Gaiman calls out also to a higher purpose for reading in general and the value of prose in particular.

We all – adults and children, writers and readers – have an obligation to daydream. We have an obligation to imagine. It is easy to pretend that nobody can change anything, that we are in a world in which society is huge and the individual is less than nothing: an atom in a wall, a grain of rice in a rice field. But the truth is, individuals change their world over and over, individuals make the future, and they do it by imagining that things can be different.

I’ll be off upstairs for my mid-afternoon siesta soon and will work my way—and will again this evening as every night—through a few pages of my current read, John Le Carre’s A Perfect Spy. I’ve wandered back through most of Le Carre’s canon this year—as I have also through the ten Martin Beck police procedurals by Swedish authors Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö that set the standard for much crime fiction since they were written and released—one a year—from 1965 on.

As I have for at least the past twenty years or so, I’ll also re-read at least some of the novellas and short stories by my favourite author Flannery O’Connor.

The following quote is but one reason of many why I’m always drawn back to her.

A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is.― Flannery O’Connor.

If Jane Lu reads this then I hope she gets in touch. I’ll be happy to post her a comfort package of some fine fiction for her summer reading. And I’m sure there is a bookshop somewhere in Noosa.

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