Friday, October 17, 2008

nothing but the truth

fiction/non-fictionFor years, I’ve avoided fiction. When I read, I gravitate towards history, current events or commentary and analysis of one kind or another. It’s been a long, long time since I’ve picked up a novel without a sense of dread.

Of course, the line between fiction and non fiction is notoriously blurry. Even if fiction is defined in its simplest sense as writing about things that aren’t true and non-fiction as writing about things that are, we end up with Pilate’s all-too-familiar question: what is truth?

For example, this blog, for the most part, presents itself as non fiction – things that happened to me, the narrator, Niobe. But you all know that my name isn’t really Niobe, that, while the things I write about may have happened, they didn’t happen in exactly the way I describe, or, even if they did, that I’ve selected and culled the details to make my point. Non fiction, as well as fiction, reveals truths that reality obscures.

Still, fiction bothers me. I find novels depressing. I get impatient with the characters and annoyed with the author for burdening them with these failings and dilemmas. Irrationally, I’d much rather read a tragedy that really happened than one that someone made up and I’d rather read a review of a novel than the novel itself.

There are some exceptions. I can and do re-read novels that I first read back in the days when I used to love fiction, before I was, say, 23 or so. Poetry and most plays and even some detective stories are fine. But I almost never read any actual, you know, stories.

What I can’t put my finger on is why. I suppose it has something to do with a preference for thoughts over feelings or an inordinate pleasure in collecting and arranging facts or a general failure of imaginative empathy. But those don’t really get to the heart of the matter, don’t explain why novels make me flinch and go cold inside.

The closest I can come to an answer is this: fiction reminds me too acutely of the person I used to be, who saw life as a story and herself as the main character, who believed in plot and narrative and wanted to find out what happened next.

What about you? Do you prefer fiction or non fiction?

32 comments:

Molly said...

Mostly fiction, but I have been turned on to a lot of good non-fiction recently, which breaks up the cycle and makes me read in a different way. Yet another way books continue to amaze me. Oh, books, how I love thee so.

Le sigh.

thailandchani said...

I do like fiction.. as long as it exposes me to another way of life or I get a glimpse into another way of thinking.

American novels? No.


~*

Cara said...

I am with you on this one.

Before loss I used to gobble up Nora Roberts and Nicholas Sparks novels like candy, blissfully picturing my picutre perfect ending as the characters triumphed evil.

Ironically, it was Sparks' singular non-fiction book that brought me back. Now, I love memoirs. I love biographies. I can sometimes read "historical fiction" if is more history than creation.

In short, non-fiction for me! (although - and this is very odd, I now have the burning desire to WRITE fiction - go figure)

erica said...

One of my favorite versions of a fairy tale ends, "And all was restored to her." This so plainly is not what my life is about now - there are things that cannot ever be restored - that it hurts. But I still love fiction and I think the derth of happy endings in real life is part of why. If, for a short time I can immerse myself in a world where things resolve happily, or at least beautifully, a place where there's the chance of all being restored, I'm still willing to pay the price of the shock upon reentry into reality.

Mrs. Spit said...

Both. About 2 years ago, I made a resolution to read more non fiction. And I've done ok on it.

niobe said...

Cara and Erica: Maybe I just (try to) read the wrong novels.

Happy endings don't really bother me. It's more that I often feel this overwhelming and irrational sense of pity for the characters and annoyance with the author.

I realize this sounds idiotic, but it's almost as if I want to help the characters out, to protect them from the horrible fate the author has created for them. But I can't. Mainly because they're (duh) fictional.

Amelie said...

I like novels, or at least, some of them. They usually happen in worlds different enough to allow me to escape from mine for a while. If I get (too) annoyed with the author, I stop reading. Also (more likely I think) if I get bored. But if you can get my attention, I'm unlikely to let go -- R by now has very little patience for my "just one more chapter" pleas...

Molly said...

Wow, I am very much the same way. I love nonfiction because I feel I am learning more about the world, or what really happened way back when, and it's much more exciting to me than something made up.
And as for rereading old favorites, I just finished up Gone With The Wind.

Tash said...

For the longest time, my job was nonfiction (history) and so in my free time I wanted to put that down and read make believe stuff. Now I kinda do both, and interestingly, my favorite genre is History Mystery.

I've never got science fiction though. Does that count for something?

Lori said...

I think you and I actually had this conversation some time back. I used to be able to read fiction and haven't been able to since the loss of my twins. Oh, I have read a couple of fiction books since then, but not much. I don't seek it out.

I think it is the uncertainty of it all. I'd rather read something more analytical, or something I know to be true and sort of already know the ending. I don't like surprises too much anymore.

the dragonfly said...

I love stories. My favorites are fairy tales, any kinds of fairy tales...the simple tales we tell to children or the long re-told versions that have been written in recent times. It has to feel "real" to me though...I don't mean that it can't have magic (most fairy tales do) but the people have to act and react like real people...if they don't, I stop reading.

All that said, I also like memoirs quite a bit.

susan said...

Fiction, mostly--especially mysteries, although of late more general novels. I like happy fiction. That said, I do read a fair bit of memoir/biography/food writing or travel writing, too. I just like escaping into other worlds as I read.

Road Blocks and Roller Coasters said...

I like fiction, but generally I prefer my novels to be a bit off kilter. I'm a fan of distopia for some strange reason. I like my novels depressing and thought provoking. Yes, I have issue. :)

Maggie said...

Fiction. And mostly for the same reasons that you used to love fiction. But also, for another reason - because when things are impossibly good, I believe that things like that exist only in imagination, a delicious work of fiction. And when things are bad, I believe that only the most dark and tormented of minds could ever have thought up such an unhappy ending, the likes of which are only seen in works of fiction.

flutter said...

my writing? decidedly non fiction. My reading FICTION through and through

Lollipop Goldstein said...

Both--I like both--but there is something about reading a memoir and connecting it to an actual, breathing (or um...non-breathing) person vs. a fictional character. Then again, there are fictional characters that my heart literally aches over because they're not real.

Christine said...

i lean towards fiction. but i need to open my self up to fiction more because every time i do i am impressed.

christina(apronstrings) said...

for a long time i only read nonfiction. i am back to fiction now. i think my reading of nonfiction had a lot to do with my being in law school. where artful wording-and even extra words-aren't tolerated. in facts, points are deducted if you use them.
but i am over it. and reading no fiction too.

Aurelia said...

I used to love fiction because I could see all the characters true emotions and thoughts, and although I like non-fiction for political analysis, etc, I've never seen anyone write about their true emotions in an autobiography.

I've come to the conclusion that I like pseudononymous personal blogs best.

cinnamon gurl said...

Before I became a mother, I read fiction almost exclusively, and the purely escapist kind. Now, I'm heavily into memoir, although I still enjoy fiction, just not so much the Literary kind.

Bon said...

the linearity and contrivances of the novel form try my patience, though a little less than they used to. i like to pick up non-fiction and start anywhere, beginning where the book falls open.

and the person you used to be? touche.

zarqa said...

I used to be an ardent reader of fiction, the literary variety, no pulp stuff for me. But, I see what you mean about fiction reminding you of who you used to be. I think readers of fiction are enamored by the idea of possibility. It's exciting to meet new people, learn about them, and, if the story is good, learn something about our own selves in the bargain.

I couldn't pick up a work of fiction until a few years after my loss. I guess grief told me all I needed to know about the life of the mind. I would try to read various characters' trials and tribulations and keep thinking: you think you know, but you have no idea! Grief fiction, on the other hand, when it's good, works for me. (try Goldengrove by Francine Prose!)

Now I am reading fiction, sometimes only to be able to review it. Reading as an excuse to write.

Magpie said...

Yes.

Amy said...

I mostly read fiction...life is real enough for me, so I prefer a fictitious escape most of the time.

crunchycarpets said...

Pretty much fiction and pretty much only geeky sci fi and fantasy.

I love hard sci fi..books that carry me along AND make me think.

Used to read mysteries too.

Books are my escape

Elizabeth said...

I'm in the escapist camp. Love sci fi and fantasy. This past summer was the first time I really started getting into non-fiction at all and really enjoying it. I see myself as a disappointed idealist, so I guess in novels I find my way back into idealist mode. I see you as a committed realist.

My sister has no patience at all for fiction, I don't think she's read a novel since her last lit class in college. 10 years ago. She likes knowing things. I like flights of fancy.

Furrow said...

I get in fiction funks. I'm in one now. I can't decide what I want, and I keep slogging through unsatisfactory novels because by now, it's a habit. I do read quite a bit of non-fiction, as well, but my favorite thing is a good historical or geographical novel. I like to get to get some Jeopardy-esque facts along with a good story.

OneTiredEma said...

I read mostly fiction. I am in two book clubs and we try very hard to select fiction--memoir, history, biography, etc., while often very interesting and well-written, do not produce really great discussions, I've found. And I do love excellent fiction set in different times and/or places from the modern US. I've learned a lot of cultural history through well-researched novels. Plus the escapist factor can be really nice.

For breaks I do read non-fiction: try (and fail) to keep up with New Yorker articles, social history, thoughtful food writing (Pollan, Kingsolver, and such).

OneTiredEma said...

Oh, and I wanted to add--the one thing that I think I've changed as I've gotten older re: my reading habits? If I don't like a book, I don't feel compelled to finish it. (Unless it's for my book club, and even then, if I hate it, I don't.)

Life's too short to be unhappy with what you're reading--I did enough "required" stuff in college/grad school. I'm over it.

Kami said...

You will forgive me if I indulge the part of myself that feels she can better direct someone's life than the actual person can.

You are reading the wrong novels! Pick up some good science fiction. Iain M. Banks is great. Lots of details, good characters, later "culture" books are the best. You can't go wrong Neil Stephenson either, but his later books are looooong. Try Snow Crash or Zodiak. If Sci-Fi isn't your cup of tea try Lamb by Christopher Moore.

Can you tell I prefer fiction? In fact, the only non-fiction I read are not stories. I like to read books that pull together the current research on a particular topic such as how the brain works, or the state of the environment or how to be happy (not philosophically, but what type of people are the happiest and how they think)

red pen mama said...

I devour fiction, but I have a difficult time reading when I don't like the protagonist. I have put books down because of it (Frances Prose's Blue Angel comes to mind).

I have been expanding into non-fiction, from Eat, Pray, Love, to Obama's Audacity of Hope. I tend to prefer "real-life accounts", although not "true crime".

ciao,
rpm

Ahuva Batya said...

I love fiction, but I also love history. History that's written in a fictiony-way is the best of both worlds. I have a very hard time working through non-fiction that has too much of a textbook style to it. I don't ever get an uncomfortable feeling of looking in on myself when I'm reading fiction that mirrors myself or my life. I'll tell you a weird thing about me, though, which I only recently realized. Whenever I go to a play, I spend most of the play looking down at my program. I can't bring myself to watch the actual actors on stage; something about it makes me supremely uncomfortable, like I'm too close to emotion, even if it's only being acted.