Fictophobia: baby, don’t fear the reader

Call me naive. It wasn’t until my first novel was published that I discovered some people are fictophobes. They disdain fiction. Granted, I knew that some folks hate romance novels, or loathe science fiction, just as I know that my husband would jam knitting needles into his ears before he’d listen to Snoop Dog. I understood this as a matter of taste and personality. And yes, I made up the word “fictophobia”, just now. The point is, I’ve been taken aback at the number of people who refuse point-blank to read novels.

I found this out when signing books at Methven’s, my local bookshop. A customer picked up China Lake, read the blurb on the jacket, and set it down. “Oh, it’s fiction. I can’t read that.”

I realized what she meant, but still said, “How awful. Is there anything they can do to help you?”

She screwed her face into a frown and wandered away. Eccentrics, I thought.

Turns out she was much less eccentric than I imagined. Since then I’ve had family and friends tell me they only read self-help books, or military history, or legal journals. Hold up a novel and they shy back like Nosferatu from a sunbeam. They don’t read fiction, no, never. The innuendo is in their tone: they’re accomplished people who can’t afford to waste their valuable time. If they read, it will be to improve themselves. They seek instruction, betterment, increased productivity.

They’re so far removed from the world of fiction that they know almost nothing about it. Excuse me, someone asked me recently, but who is Stephen King?

Wanna talk horror? That’s horror.

Blame my upbringing. I grew up around English professors. I thought all homes heaved with literature – that every room had books in it, including the garage. Hell, my dad’s old Datsun could have doubled for the library bookmobile.

But I’ve heard from enough fictophobes that I’ve come to think people misunderstand what fiction means. So I was delighted to run across this quotation today:

“[The novel] is an exercise of make-believe that, like yoga or a religious festival, breaks down barriers of space and time and extends our sympathies, so that we are able to empathise with other lives and sorrows. It teaches compassion, the ability to ‘feel with’ others. And, like mythology, an important novel is transformative … If it is written and read with serious attention, a novel, like a myth or any great work of art, can become an initiation that helps us to make a painful rite of passage from one phase of life, one state of mind, to another. A novel, like a myth, teaches us to see the world differently; it shows us how to look into our own hearts and to see our world from a perspective that goes beyond our own self-interest. If professional religious leaders cannot instruct us in mythical lore, our artists and creative writers can perhaps step into this priestly role and bring fresh insight to our lost and damaged world,” – Karen Armstrong, “A Short History of Myth.”

I wouldn’t dare call myself an artist or a mythmaker. But as a storyteller, I say: thanks for that. I couldn’t have come close to explaining it so well.

(Via Andrew Sullivan.)

21 responses to “Fictophobia: baby, don’t fear the reader

  1. Good one. One of my best friends from high school was a near-total fictophobe. As far as I know, the only non-non-fiction he ever read was Shakespeare and Arthur Conan Doyle. I could never understand it.

  2. Good quote, thanks.

    By the way, several years ago I read a quote in the SF Chronicle about the French. The quote said that the French are a country of great readers where not many people write, whereas in the US many people believe they have a good book in them but few people want to read.

    Just my luck, to be born in the wrong country. Thanks again–btw, I’m a Raymond Chandler fan. don’t know if you care much for him; I’ve been wondering who the best actor to play his Philip Marlowe is. Would enjoy hear your opinion, if you’d care to check out my post on it.

  3. Aristotle said that for a civilization to endure, the people must embrace the fine arts: art, literature, music, dance, etc. For the arts lift what is best in mankind, and shun what is base.

    Though I think today many of our arts have become showplaces of the base, I still believe that the best citizens of a society are those who tap into the arts as a source of knowledge, guidance and celebration of beauty.

    I have only a sense of sadness for those people who chose not to “waste” their time pursuing the arts. We can gain better understanding through art than we can ever achieve through our own personal experience.

    When I speak with our Russian neighbors, I can tap into their history because of my love for Dostoevsky and Tolstoy and the other Russian fathers of literature. They have read Twain and Shakespeare, so they have a rough feeling, but a feeling nonetheless, for American and English culture and heritage. How sad if we only had the newspapers and television to provide the background for each other.

    I am a firm believer in the value of a classic education, with emphasis on language and art. That is the key to relating to the magnificently diverse world around us, without fear deriving from misunderstanding.

    Wasn’t it Macbeth who said, “Read on, MacDuff?”

  4. Meg, I chuckled with delight at this topic. My parents are readers and I also grew up in a house jammed (in a highly organized and systematic way) full of books. Since my bro and I left home, the library has only expanded and our former bedrooms have become home to sections of it. Mine contains literature, science, and gardening and my brother’s religion, philosophy, and cooking. Art is in the living room, while reference occupies the family room, history a wall in Dad’s study, numismatics the remaining two walls, and my mother’s has languages, and her numismatic interests. There is still, in the interest of traffic flow, a “no books in the bathroom” rule. My house is a version of that. Recently, a fairly new acquaintance was in my living room, looked around slightly bug-eyed, and said, “Have you READ all those books?” Er, yes.

    My Dad, though, for all of his reading–and he proposed to my mother by opening a volume of Emily Post to the section on Engagements and said, “what do you think?”–was a fictophobe. He understood the value of some literature and had deliberately read some Shakespeare, Dickens et al. However, when I was a 9 year old book worm he asked my mother, with real concern in his voice, whether she was worried about the amount of fiction I was reading. It was one of the few times in their marriage when my mother, without thinking, just laughed at him. Then she said, “where do you think she picked up all that information about archeology that she’s been spouting lately?” Not long after that, Dad discovered crime fiction. It was love…

    Snart, what you said above is in large part why I’m an English professor. On a much less grand scale, I think that one of the reasons my son has done as well as he has is that he reads. Fiction has given him other people’s experiences and their solutions to problems not unlike his own. He gravitates toward plotlines that involve kids finding home, especially if there’s magic and some fighting. He lives in alien worlds and it not only makes him interesting, but gives him experience to draw on in his life. It helped him identify himself with our family because Braces are readers. It also leads to statements like, “Mom, I really need to work on my sword fighting.”

  5. Patti, what fun to read about your parents’ home and your own, and about your son’s imagination. I can’t tell you how many people have asked the same question about the number of books in our home, amazed that we’ve “read them all.” I always answer, no, I just ordered by the books by the yard to fill the bookcases.

    Living in California as I do, I am well aware that in the event of an earthquake, my books could likely kill people in almost every room. Ghastly thought, but where am I to store them otherwise?

    Friends wonder where I got my “trivial garbage” knowledge…I explain, it comes from reading fiction. I know how to douse for water, tie a variety of knots, and hollow out a tree for a domicile by burning it slowly. I’d never know this kind of stuff through my own life experiences…but I know they’ll come in handy one day!

  6. Snart, there’s nothing like a little borrowed experience. As for the possibility of death by books, well, it’s worth the risk. Better that than to die of thirst because you never learned how to douse for water or exposure because you don’t know how to create a shelter. A more day-to-day risk for me happens around bedtime reading. It is crucial to heft the book and decide whether it threatens imminent death if dropped onto the face or neck by a reader overcome with sleep.

  7. Is it just me, or has anyone else noticed that in general, fictophobes (nice name) seem to have had a sense of humour bypass?


  8. Absolutely, DJ. The bypass went immediately to the knee-jerk nerve.

  9. Meg's Webmaster

    Wow. I’ve come across many people the don’t read (except for The Sun and the back of the cereal packet at breakfast); “no, I don’t read books, I don’t have enough patience/grey matter/eyesight” etc. I can honestly say thought that I’ve never come across someone that says they can’t read a particular genre. How sad for them, I mean, fiction is just so rich. sigh.

  10. As with Meg’s Webmaster, the concept of Fictophobia is new to me. (I must ask the Pub Trivia team about it tonight.) I mean, I know everyone has their favourite genres, and those they don’t care for, but I never thought of the entire range of Fiction as a genre to be eschewed.

    Snart and Patti–the concept of Death by Books is intriguing. The police might never suspect a thing. After all, if a person goes around risking their life by stockpiling all those books in their house, what can they expect?

    For a wonderful read (non fiction) about Bibliophilia, I hugely recommend Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader. She comes from a family of book lovers, and there’s even a whole chapter on (the GGU will love this) Compulsive Proofreading, which also runs in her family.

    7:00 pm here.

  11. Wayne C. Rogers

    The British actor, Clive Owen, has just been signed to play Phillip Marlow in a movie based on one of the Raymond Chandler novels. There was no mention as to which novel will be adapted for the screen. Look for it sometime in 2008.

    To everyone else,
    I read an article several years ago (maybe longer) that stated only 5% of the population in the United States are readers and that the publishing industry has to depend of that percentage just to keep itself in business. I suspect it’s worse today with even fewer people reading books, whether it’s fiction on non-fiction. Many people do consider reading a waste of time, unless it’s an instruction manual, or a book for a college course that you’re taking. When I managed a regular bookstore in North Carolina, customers never had a problem with asking me to recommend a good novel to read. When I managed a self-help bookstore here in Las Vegas, customers would often ask what the last book was that I’d read. When I told them a novel by Stephen King or Andrew Vachss or James Lee Burke, they would look at me as if I had an incurable desease. I was expected to read nothing but self-help books. I don’t think so! You just have to accept the fact that people have their likes and dislikes. When I do customer reviews on here in the States, I get more feedback on my movie reviews than I do on the novels that I write about. Go figure!

  12. Wayne, one of the most depressing questions I ask my classes every year is what they read beyond books for their courses. For the majority, the answer is that they don’t have time to read anything else. My next question is “beyond sex, what do you do before you go to sleep at night?” I have to wait for them to pick their jaws off the floor before they answer. Most of that majority listen to the radio or other music and have never entertained the notion of reading for a few minutes. I never knew there was a route to sleep that didn’t pass through print until I met my ex (I think this might have been a contributing factor to the ex-ness). I bet your self-help, improving readers think it’s a problem to be reading more than one book at a time, too.

    Meg, forget researching high places from which a person might plunge and start weighing books. Susan, I would recommend the Riverside Chaucer (3rd edition, hardcover) as an eminently suitable candidate for death by single book. Unlike most of the big anthologies with their tissue-thin pages, this one has heavy, shiny pages and is much heavier than its thickness might suggest.

  13. From the book I’m reading, East of Eden:

    Lee poured a tumbler full of dark liquor from his round stone bottle and sipped it and opened his mouth to get the double taste on the back of his tongue. “No story has power, nor will it last, unless we feel in ourselves that it is true and true of us.”

    Patti, I cannot tell you how much I agree with you about the importance of stories to our children. They teach how to navigate the world. And for boys to learn that heroes can use magic but eventually must find their own strength to rise – and then to make their way home – is priceless.

    Susan: compulsive proofreading, what a wonderful neurosis. For a fictitious character, that is. And thank you for clarifying that you’re 5 hours behind Greenwich Mean Time, precisely.

    And for those who aren’t up on the British tabloids, Webmaster is being ironic when he refers to the process of ogling The Sun as “reading”.

  14. Meg, I liked your note on my post re Garner & Bogart, thanks!

    Wayne, Well, this is big news for our household. My wife thinks Clive Owen is the cat’s meow. Many thanks for the tip — I’ll expect she will be combing the web looking for news of which mystery will be chosen.

    And I have to say, I think Owen could be a great Philip Marlowe — he’s got everything the role needs. If he could shade a tad more toward American wiseguy, he’ll nail it. Needs to not be too Brit keen, more devil-may care. Marlowe has not just the gimlet eye, he can deliver a smart-aleck line, too, sugar.

    Whups, must snap out of it. Wasn’t calling you sugar, Wayne. Sorry, got carried away …

    Also, I got a pained laugh out of your stories from bookstores. It jibes with my experience working as an editor; that’s where the money is. I went from travel guides to social and behavioral science books to computer books to legal references. Fiction seems almost a third rail.

    An editorial assistant I knew at the computer book publisher had to field calls–somehow a poet got her phone number and called to pitch his book of poems to her. I happened to be there. She was trying to let him down as gently as she could. He insisted his poems were about computers. She said they didn’t publish fiction, it was computer how-to. He wouldn’t take no–it went on until she (still gently) said sorry, she had to go, good luck but the answer was no.

    Lastly, I’m with you on the movie reviews, too.

  15. Riverside Chaucer as blunt intrument, eh?

    Okay, now I’m worried. My copy of RC, 3 ed, is currently on loan to a student, who got my name from another student I lent it to the previous year (via Freecyclers). Word seems to be going around U of Toronto that I will lend my RC to perfect strangers. (and why not? I don’t exactly curl up with it every night, and it saves them a big chunk of change and I’m not depriving old Geoff of his royalties).

    I though my only concern was would I ever see it again. But now I have to wonder if it’s going to be found at the scene of the crime with my name and address and fingerprints on it.

    And how I’ll get the blood off the Wif of Bathe’s Tale.

  16. I can just hear the cop as he locks the cuffs around your wrists. “Wif of Bathe, my ass. You can kiss that tale goodbye, sister.”

  17. I hope this will make my Amazon stocks go up so I make some money on it 🙂

  18. Mr. Twain once remarked that there is little difference between a man who can’t read, and a man who won’t.

  19. Pingback: Writing myths « lying for a living

  20. Pingback: No fiction at all? « lying for a living

  21. Pingback: Blast from the past: Fictophobia | lying for a living

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