In defence of fiction

Sir David Attenborough famously does not read fiction, he has too many scholarly articles relevant to his areas of interest to read to permit him the time.  I can understand this, though it wouldn’t work for me – I’m too much the dilettante, when it comes to my knowledge it’s very much a case of “never mind the quality feel the width”.

From time-to-time, celebrities also admit (boast?) that they do not read fiction, though in most cases I rather doubt this results from their free time being entirely consumed by attempts to grasp the implications of quantum chromodynamics.  The most recent I spotted making this revelation was one Noel Gallagher – best known in this house for membership of a reasonably successful Beatles tribute act and not getting on with his brother.  I think his grounds for avoidance was that it was about things that didn’t happen.  His posturing spurred me to write a post in defence of fiction, albeit to write it several months later in a medium he will probably never see.

I am willing to “out” myself as a fan of fiction – and not just hokey TV drama as the last post might have led you to believe.  As this blog has previously established (at tedious length), I visit the theatre quite often and also the cinema but I probably consume the majority of my fiction through books.  The old-fashioned kind which fill all-too-many shelves with their papery goodness.  This is my longest running addiction, I literally cannot remember a time when I did not have over-flowing bookshelves (and I can assure you that I do know what the word “literally” means).

I think that fiction can fulfil at least two basic human needs – if we briefly assume that storytelling itself is not a basic human need.  The first is the same one satisfied by glossy TV dramas – the need for “bread and circuses” which I prefer to call divertissement (mostly because it sounds much more intellectual in French and less like I’m being distracted from more important issues by our evil overlords).  Sometimes I want to escape from my drab, wretched life into something more exciting, amusing or (frankly) just better written and plotted.  I suppose this is where genre fiction (that awful phrase) enters the frame – with my most common genres being science fiction and/or fantasy or detective fiction, though I am far from faithful.  Interestingly, music and art can achieve some of the same ends (for me at least) – albeit in very different ways – and are generally more highly regarded for some reason.

The second need I find satisfied by fiction is to understand the world, and especially the people, around me.  One can read as much neuroscience as you want, and I’ve done my fair share, but knowing that the “I” who thinks he is writing this blog does not exist in any meaningful sense is of little help in negotiating the vicissitudes of life.  It is from fiction that I have learned much of what I know about other people and why they might think and act differently from me – and that they may well have very good reasons for doing so.  I think fiction has made me a better person – and all while just sitting down scanning black marks on sheets of white paper.  An everyday miracle perhaps, but a miracle nonetheless.

Two (OK , three) things have spurred me to finally write this post.  Primarily a book I have just read, secondly why I had it on my shelf for several months before reading it and (thirdly) to try and restore my pseudo-intellectual street cred after the whole Arrow/Teen Wolf incident.  Oh yes, make no mistake, these last three posts were written in a very specific order – there is a very definite narrative arc going on in my head (if nowhere else).

The book I have just read is The Universe versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence – it is a wonderful book and I recommend it to you all.  Despite the title, this is not science fiction – an unlikely event occurs to young Alex and he forms an unlikely friendship and the book explores the consequences of these things.  It is funny and very moving and Alex is a wonderful character and a proper hero (a saint, even).  None of the things in the book actually happened, but the emotions, actions and thoughts of the characters are all based in the real world and tackle real issues.  The book caught my eye in Foyles many moons ago and went on a list of books to acquire.  Soon after moving here it was acquired, but its reading was postponed – several times.  The postponement I will blame on Southampton library – it lacks the scale of Cambridge Central Library and its opening hours are scarcely better than Sawston village library, but it does have new (to me, and in some cases the world) stock.  Each time I was about to start on Alex, I’d spot a new and desirable book in the library and feel I better take it out now or I may never see it again (regular readers will understand my fear that my library may be taken from me at any moment, possibly by fire).

One man was responsible for quite a large portion of the delay, despite having shuffled off this mortal coil a few years back: Robertson Davies.  I first encountered Mr Davies in my 20s, when I read the Deptford Trilogy (can’t remember why, but I bought the book) which was brilliant.  I always meant to read more of his work, but somehow never did, until a couple of years ago.  Cambridge library then allowed me to start work on the Salterton Trilogy, which I completed from Southampton library.  This was at least as good as I vaguely remember Deptford being, he manages to be both a serious (even scholarly) writer (I’m not sure I would have understood many of the references in my 20s) but still writes a great story and is very entertaining, with a wonderfully dry wit.  I just love his characters – several I really want to meet (though, sadly the whole fictional thing makes that rather difficult).  Soon after finishing Salterton, the Cornish Trilogy (in a single volume) became available, and so I was forced (yes, forced I tell you) to devour this as well.  I am now in the bittersweet position of having read all three of Robertson Davies’ great trilogies – but luckily he has written a few other books, so I can obtain a few more fixes more the well runs dry.

Over the years, I have very much enjoyed the books of Christopher Brookmyre, who I suppose you could say writes thrillers – some with a detective side, at least one positively science-fictional (though he still managed to get a dig at Daily Mail readers in!).  Some time ago, I discovered that he was also a big admirer of the work of Robertson Davies.  Reading the start of the Cornish Trilogy I discovered just how much, it is clear that Jack Parlabane is named after Mr D’s disreputable monk.  There is a strange joy in finding such connections for yourself and, indeed, books have often made connections for me to other books and sometimes music (and more) which I have then gone on to love.

I think fiction makes me a better and more productive member of society and it even helps to keep me economically active (which should please the government which does seem very keen that we should shop).  You can really never tell where a chance encounter in a bookshop or library could take you – so, I do worry where future generations will find these opportunities.  So much of the internet seems geared to showing you stuff you already like (although it is not yet very good at it), which if we introduce kids to it early enough will leave them with very narrow interests indeed (milk and breasts?  As you can see, I am no great loss to the field of paediatrics), whereas so much of the fun and value in life comes from things you don’t already “like”.  One of my next books (there is always a small queue as it is good to have targets and very bad to run out of reading) is well-reviewed, but tackles a serious subject and I fear might be “harrowing” – still, I can cope with it in the theatre so I should be fine at home and I will be trying something I don’t (yet) like.

Go on Noel, give fiction a try!  There is more to life than the literal enumeration of actual events or facts.

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