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Fiction Cannot Die

William Deresiewicz says that there’s something about our natures that requires fiction. Excerpt:

The very idea of fiction is relatively recent. Traditional societies didn’t have it, and when it arose, couldn’t wrap their heads around it. Homer’s audience thought he was writing history. 2,500 years later, Robinson Crusoe was presented as a true story; no one would have cared about it otherwise. Only slowly through the 17th and 18th centuries did the notion emerge that a story could be meaningful without being factual, that between or beside truth and falsehood lies a third category, where something can be realistic without being real, referential without referring to actual events, believable without attempting to evoke belief. Paradoxically (or not), the concept of fiction solidified simultaneously with the emergence of science—that is to say, with the very idea of fact as we now understand it.

Maybe. I dunno. I continue to puzzle over why some people (like my wife) adore fiction but don’t read much non-fiction, and others (me) are exactly the opposite. I gave up on “Anna Karenina,” not because I didn’t like it, but because I found myself not picking it up, instead choosing to read one of the non-fiction books I have on my bedside table. This happens all the time. I really don’t understand it, and actually don’t like it — I mean, I wish I found it easier to lose myself in fiction, the way I can lose myself in a work of history, or biography, or politics, or popular science, and so forth.

It’s not that I think non-fiction is superior to fiction. It’s just harder for fiction to work its spell on me, for some reason. The last work of fiction that I couldn’t put down was Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom,” which left a sour taste in my mouth. But I think the reason I enjoyed it so much, until it petered out with a greatly dissatisfying ending, was because it was a novel of ideas that tracks closely with things I think about all the time (e.g., rootlessness, rival versions of liberty, the autonomous self). I couldn’t turn off the part of my brain that kept analyzing what I was reading in those terms (“This is just like…”). Tom Wolfe’s novels are like that for me. In both cases (Franzen’s and Wolfe’s) the characters are quite realistic — I didn’t get the sense that they are abstractions who exist to illustrate a point — but what I find their novels work out ideas in the lives of their characters. I suppose all fiction is like this, but the social realism of Franzen and Wolfe appeals to me, probably because they care about the questions I care about.

Anyway, I wish I could explain this to myself, because I find myself constantly wishing I read more novels. The main reason I read at all is because I have a deep curiosity about the world, and want to learn more. I concede that fiction at its best is not an escape from the world, but rather an indirect mode of engaging it, and in that sense a different way of learning about it than directly, through non-fiction. I concede that in theory, a novel may tell us more about how this part of our world is than a work of sociological analysis (say). I admit that fiction and non-fiction can be complementary methods of investigation. All of that is true … and yet, nine times out of 10, I will pull the non-fiction book off the shelf, while my wife will do exactly the opposite. I wish I knew why.

I don’t suppose it’s an important question, but it seems important to me, in part because I am often frustrated by the sense many people today have that the world is entirely rational, and that mystery is nothing more than a puzzle we don’t yet understand. This is profoundly wrong, even dangerously wrong. Aside from being enjoyable purely for aesthetic reasons, fiction as a way of knowing strikes me as a powerful counter to this tendency. What frustrates me is that I don’t love fiction as I wish I did, and I don’t know why. In non-fiction, I read widely and hungrily. Fiction? No.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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