Monday, January 31, 2011

Friends of Fiction

by Hannah Sternberg

"I never read fiction anymore. The last time I read a novel, I was in school."

I hear that from a lot of my friends. I'm sure you do too. We're all busy, and with the internet enabling many of us to work from home, work increasingly encroaches on precious reading time. On top of that, many of us spend our free time reading to improve our professional position, keep up with current events, or pursue an interest in that topic we wish we'd taken a class on when we'd had the chance. I work in media and public policy, and I confess that I've devoted large amounts of my supposedly-free time to catching up on the latest news analysis on the day's hot story, or hunkering down with weighty history or philosophy books to fill in the context of situations I'm less familiar with.

Don't get me wrong. I love to learn--my heart goes pitter patter when my eyes scan Amazon's history recommendations. I have a bad habit of collecting foreign language dictionaries (so far, my most unusual is a lexicon of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics). And with the complete works of Aristotle available, free of charge and instantaneously on my Kindle--don't get me started.

But I've noticed another current in some of my friends' remarks. "I don't have time for fiction. There's too much to learn." "I just don't find fiction as interesting as stuff that actually happened." "My class discussions just ruined fiction-reading for me."

I'd counter them by saying, You just aren't reading the right fiction.

I find a lot of people get fed up with the tired offerings of so many of the major publishers that are just trying to piggyback on someone else's trendy concept. Others find too much pretension and too little insight in the current "upmarket" or literary fiction offerings. Still others were so weary of their professors' over-analysis that they forgot how simply moving a good story can be.

To these, I'd say: reading nothing but nonfiction is like reading only the news reports without touching the analysis or opinion. You'll learn a lot, but you'll be missing a critical element: the debate, the contextualization, the connections. Fiction is like an editorial on the human condition. And, like a good editorial, good fiction combines top-of-the-line reporting (observation of the world) with thought-provoking insight. Just as much can be learned from reading good fiction as can be learned from reading history, philosophy, and a truckload of self-help books combined.

Giving my Kindle a click-through now, I find, in various states of partial completion: Thomas Paine; George Eliot; Alexis de Tocqueville; Jane Austen; the Old Testament; Aristotle; a short story collection by David Foster Wallace; J. R. R. Tolkein; my mom, Libby Sternberg's mysery novel, Death is the Cool Night; and a practical guide to daily life with Asperger's Syndrome (research for a novel).

I can say earnestly that I've learned from all of these books, not just the nonfiction ones. Sure, plenty of fiction is mindless escapism. But a good yarn can--and should--be both entertaining and (brace yourself for an over-used word) enlightening. Excitement and insight don't have to be mutually exclusive.

I suppose this is part of the philosophy that inspired me and my parents to start up Istoria--to show readers once again that there's more to fiction than tired genre-mongering or pretentious wheezing. If you long for our kind of fiction too, keep your eyes on Istoria Books. And if you're just as passionate as we are about writing that kind of fiction, don't leave without taking a look at our submission guidelines.

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