Blast from the past: Fictophobia

Today I read a think-piece about whether writing fiction is “indulgent.” This question surfaces now and again. My answer is always: No. Writing fiction puts food on my family’s table. It will never be indulgent.

Sadly, some people also think reading fiction is indulgent. I’ve met them. I wrote about this a few years ago. Today seems like a good day to revisit that blog post. From January 21, 2007, here you go:

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.

7 responses to “Blast from the past: Fictophobia

  1. Great entry, Meg. I think that some people don’t read fiction because they believe that they have nothing to learn from fiction. That couldn’t be further from the truth. If you want to get to know a people, a culture, read their literature. It isn’t all the same. Each author puts his or her country’s psyche into that fiction. My sensitivities to the world are dictated by my nationality, as are those of Poles, and Norwegians, and South Africans. We can’t help but be influenced by our lives, and where they are lived. I am in awe every time I read a new author, someone not from the U.S., because I gain some new understanding (no matter how rudimentary) of their lives, of their culture, of their perspective on the world. Fiction has much to teach us, and much to persuade us about the world.

    I mean, after all, I wouldn’t know HALF of what I know about England if I hadn’t read Game of Thrones! (Sorry, couldn’t help myself.)

  2. Really like this piece but it’s a little perturbing – I can’t fathom the opinion of fictophobes as you’ve written it here. Imagine (irony!) finding all fictional works to be a waste of time. That’s horror, too!

  3. Alternatively we could lock them in rooms lined with great and low works of fiction and force them to gorge on it… But I concede your point 🙂

  4. I hate to say this, but when I walk into someone’s home, I look for the bookcases. Like your dad, I have books EVERYWHERE. If there isn’t a book in site, I wonder what the hell is wrong with them. ha!

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