By Russel D McLean
There’s always the one guy. Usually at a party. The one who overhears that I’m a writer (I try not to bring the subject up myself, if I’m honest) and says, “What do you write?” The one who, when I tell him I write crime fiction says, “I don’t read fiction. Who has time for that?”
I wouldn’t mind if he stopped there. But he usually doesn’t (and believe me when I say its usually a man and he’s usually desperate to tell me all about what he does for a living which actually makes my life sound rather exciting even if all I really do is swear at a computer screen most of the day). Usually he goes on to explain how one learns nothing from fiction (and he’s desperate to tell me its not just genre fiction like I write, its any fiction). How there’s no point to it. Its an indulgence and really what does anyone get out of reading?
Today’s post is for That Guy.
Because I really don’t want to say it to his face.*
Because he won’t listen. And it doesn’t matter what I say, he’s made up his mind.
But, at the risk of lecturing** I think I need to get this off my chest. I think I need to talk about the value I think fiction – any fiction – has in our society.
Because fiction – not writing it, but reading it – is more essential than one might realise. And not just because it’s sometimes a fun way of slipping learning into life. After all, everything I know about jail I learned from reading STONE CITY and everything I know about New York I learned from Lawrence Block and Charlie Stella. And by God I’ve never been to Louisiana, but James Lee Burke makes me believe I have. And let’s not get started on the fact that watching The Sopranos**** taught me to be a better cook.
But all of that’s neither here nor there. That Guy would argue sure, but a guide book or cookery book would probably be a lot more accurate.
So then what’s the point?
The point is that fiction, at its heart, is about emotional narrative. Fiction is about people dealing with situations. Fiction is a way for the reader to see the world through other eyes, to react to someone else’s story. To figure out the world.
Fiction removes us from reality. But not in that negative, lazy way that so many people think it does. No, fiction allows to step back from life and start to examine it in an indirect way. It can clarify our lives in unexpected ways. Fiction allows to ask questions of character and situation in a safe environment and take the answers to those questions and apply them to reality. Fiction – reading fiction – is a kind of therapy, I suppose. It is not an escape from the world so much as a way of dealing with it.
Crime fiction is of course the perfect example. By examining people in extreme situations, we can engage in a dialogue with the text about a number of issues that may affect us in real life. How to deal with loss, betrayal, anger, hatred. Reading is not a one way street. Whether we accept it or not the way we interact with stories has an effect on us when in our daily lives, in our thoughts and attitudes. Sometimes its subtle. Sometimes it’s a clear and definite thing. Look at how many people were affected, for example, by Catcher in the Rye.
Fiction, in whatever form we can get it, is essential to our lives. It allows us to figure the world, to look at it from another angle.
And if nothing else, it’s just plain fun to read.
With thanks to Rachel Marsh for stepping at the last moment when I realised I couldn’t write last week’s post.
*Can I also point out That Guy is many guys and I haven’t run into them recently, thank goodness, but then I haven’t been to many parties recently…
**Sorry, Dave White***
***Also, sorry for the footnotes… I know you hate those.
****Yes, its television but its still a form of fiction. Deal with it. And, yes, Ralphie was spot on about mixing the spaghetti with the gravy for thirty seconds before serving…