I attribute the above quote to “unknown” because I don’t know the originator of it. What I do know about that statement is its truth. Or if you prefer another . . . as Jenny B. Jones says it, “the ministry of fiction.” I am a reader of fiction. While I love nonfiction and truly appreciate the value of nonfiction and the place of nonfiction in my life, there is nothing quite as satisfying as a stunning work of fiction. I’m referring to that novel that sucks me in as soon as I read the first sentence and doesn’t let me go until I look up from the last sentence on the last page.
Fiction nourishes me in ways that nonfiction cannot. Fiction feeds my heart while nonfiction feeds my head. I read nonfiction to solve problems, learn how to do things, and to figure out why things are the way they are. I read fiction to learn about and to know myself.
If the novel and its author have done their work properly, I’ll find myself somewhere in the story. Each novel is the life story of one person, told countless times over, or it can be the life story of many people, told one time. My life story is told in the fragments, sentences, and paragraphs of the thousand or so novels that I have consumed since learning to read. I read fiction to make sense of how I feel, not to find out how much or how little I know of this world or the people around me. That sounds completely self-serving and egotistical, but if we don’t know ourselves, then we can’t really know anyone else, can we?
Years ago, when I was well out of adolescence, I had to read young adult literature for a graduate school course. One of the novels I chose to read was Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak. No one told me when I read this novel just how visceral my reaction to it would be. But it happened–I reacted completely to Anderson’s emotionally harrowing tale of a young woman placed in an untenable situation. Of every novel written from this perspective, I think Speak tells the story best, and I’m not the only one who feels this way. Of every woman I’ve spoken to who has read this novel, we’ve all had the same reaction–like someone reached inside us and twisted our intestines around a bit. Why? Because we’re reading about ourselves and our worst nightmare, and Anderson nails the emotions–the pain, the anguish, the shame.
Then, there’s the summer I spent reading the Twilight series . . . of course, I had the good sense to wait until Breaking Dawn was published before commencing to read all four novels in the series, but I’m not ashamed to admit that I enjoyed every minute of reading those four books that summer. What better way to pass a summer than reading romantic fantasy . . . Why? Maybe because I really wanted/needed to believe in some sort of fairytale . . . even if it involved vampire and werewolf Prince Charmings, of all things?! The girl is regular–as normal as she can come, and the guys are extraordinary. What woman isn’t going to love a story like that . . . and maybe that’s why it resonated so loudly for an entire generation of young women who are really tired of trying to be “uber” and “super,” when all they really want to be is normal and regular and we all know that there’s nothing more special than normal and regular.
Recently, it seems my fiction reading hasn’t been of my own choosing, but I’m working on it. I’ve got a book on the table at home right now–it’s an ARC–about a young woman dealing with too much grief and change, and she isn’t handling anything gracefully. How does she cope? She develops an eating disorder. I know this story–we all know this story. This is the 21st century, and there aren’t any of us who have not known someone who developed dangerous habits as coping skills. But, I’ve never read a book like this–it doesn’t start once the young woman is deep in the dark abyss of anorexia. No, it shows her slippery slide down the slope of counting calories and exercising too much and trying to make everything perfect in her life–like perfect 90 degree angled-corners–and that’s what pulled me in. The fantastic writing and the story of this girl and her desperate need for help. She finds help and is on her way to figuring it all out at the end. Not necessarily a happy ending, but the ending that is right and good and true.
And then there’s the novel I picked up simply because I loved its cover, and then I fell in love with its language and imagery, even though the story was the average love triangle. It’s been 8 years, probably, since I read that novel, but the words and the imagery evoked by them have lingered in my memory. On the first page or so, Claire, the heroine, was carrying a yellow umbrella to fend off raindrops (of course, the city was New York). Later, the hero refers to memories like things stored in a dusty trunk up in an attic. Ah . . . aren’t they just the most evocative images ever. Really, it’s the best book for beautiful language–Claire Marvel by John Burnham Schwartz. Ever since, I’ve wanted a yellow umbrella . . . and the book may not have inspired me in any other way, but I did wind up in France for a bit . ..
I could go on, but I’ll stop . . . for now.
I read fiction to find myself, and so far, the novels I’ve read haven’t let me down. They aren’t going to, either. It is inevitable, I suppose, that a writer will write about an experience that I will find similar to one of my own. And that author is hoping that I find his/her book and that his/her writing calls to my experience, and that there is a shared moment of understanding between author, story, and reader. Yeah . . . I know. It’s magical and mystical and completely unexplainable. Go. Find your novel, and share your experience with the printed word. There’s a reason the author wrote that story–maybe it was you?