Reading fiction about real life. Huh?

life-of-piThat sounds like the makings of a good oxymoron yet the vast majority of what people love to read and write about is ‘made-up’ events and imagined characters based in the real world.  Why?  Why do people want to read imagined happenings in a world they already inhabit?  Why read something fictitious when you can pick up a newspaper, tabloid or pseudo intellectual journal article with all the juicy, titillating and sordid minutiae needed to satisfy your curiosity of being a hooker on the other side of the tracks, killer in the school corridors, witness on a grassy knoll, rape victim in an overcrowded apartment complex or sitar player from the slums in Delhi.  I am not being factitious here, I really need to understand this.  For me, reading is a escape into a fantastic magical world filled with places as yet undiscovered and characters you are unlikely ever to meet in the McDonalds, country pub or at a bow-tie bedecked banquet at the Country Club.  Sure there are real world similarities in the books I like and some things are even based on real equivalents but everything is just familiar enough to suspend disbelief and take me away from the mundane existence of the real world and just for a while, make me feel a little like a kid, experiencing the world for the first time again.

Don’t get me wrong.  I see nothing wrong with any of this, I am just trying to understand why I don’t like reading fiction set in and about the real world and I figure if I understood why others do, it would give me a different perspective.

I read a great deal about many many things and I enjoy non-fiction and history, but when it comes to fiction novels, I tend to shy away from anything that is plausible and set in the real world. We live in the real world and reading about it has very little appeal to me.  I like to read fiction quite simply because it is fiction and not real.

Fiction is the form of any narrative or informative work that deals, in part or in whole, with information or events that are not factual, but rather, imaginary and theoretical—that is, invented by the author. – Wikipedia entry on Fiction

Invented by the author.”  I love that phrase.  By it’s very definition it is made up, fake, imagined, possible, even plausible, but not real.  I love fantasy and sci-fi and supernatural thrillers/horror specifically for this fact – these genres have spurred my imagination since I first read the Sword of Shannara and those game books by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone way back in the dark ages.

Lord of the Rings is and has always been my favourite book – my copy was dog eared and falling apart long before Jackson decided to bring the rest of the world to Middle Earth. 1984 is one of the few prescribed school books I actually enjoyed reading.  A world where your every move is watched and controlled.  The Road tells of a desolate near future without hope that while very real and shocking is still only a possible future we have yet to reach so its not really real.  The Stand, by Stephen King, is another ‘real’ setting that takes us to some alternative battle between good and evil over the remains of the earth, but it does not toe the line of normal and possible.  Even the latest work I am reading, Life of Pi, is based in the real world but is so highly unlikely a tale that it is more surreal and fantastic than a traditional novel.  Not one of the books I really like has anything to do with the mundane real lives that seem to fascinate the average reader.  Who wants to know about someones throbbing member and heaving bosoms   Who cares if Detective Smith catches the mysterious clockwork killer?  Why is it so fascinating to read about the life of a fictitious nurse caring for a burn victim in a field hospital?  Why is it great to read about the love life of a young woman in English aristocracy?  All fiction – nothing real?

And what about books that win awards?  Ignoring awards specific to genre (like Hugo and Nebula for fantasy/sci-fi) and style of writing, what about the MAN Booker Prize?  If you glance at the list on the Wikipedia entry for the MAN Booker Prize, you will see that most winners are general novels – just the things that I am entirely uninterested in.  As a writer, I make a point of trying to read award winning books – not because I aspire to win anything but because I aspire to write well and these should be prime examples of our craft – but it is like pulling teeth to get past the first few pages of elegantly perfect prose and having to deal with themes or stories that bore me just make these works downright impossible for me to complete.  A few years before Life Of Pi won (one of the only ‘fantasy’ type novels that have ever), a fellow South Africans work took the prize and truth be told, the real world story put me so off that I have not read a winner since – in fact, it has kept me from reading Life of Pi all this time.  If I saw a book with the little gold sticker saying “Winner” I would immediately look elsewhere – just assuming that it would be another boring real world story.  Well written, but still dull and real.

I need to clarify one thing.  I have no problem reading non-fiction of the same mundane themes – there is something about knowing that what I am reading is a true account that makes these books far more interesting than something imagined.  I would rather read or watch a documentary about the pheromones that make two people attractive to each other than read romantic drivel.  Perhaps that’s a contradiction but its like watching a movie based on a real event – just knowing what I am seeing is or was a real event (or as close as possible) makes it far more interesting even though it’s similar to some made up fiction that would normally bore me to death. Remember the Titans and Moneyball come to mind.

Yes, I feel strong emotion when I read a true life journalists report of a brutal rape or school shooting but reading about a similar event in a fiction novel just makes me entirely uncomfortable and I am not sure why. Sure, things like that happen in adult fantasy/alternative fiction but I am sufficiently removed from the real world to be able to experience the event and emotion in an acceptable way.  No one can deny that the The Road is going to shock and sadden you.  Maybe reading something sick and shocking invented by an author but still entirely possible in the real world destroys my attempt to escape into fantasy land for a little while.  Maybe some of the imagined things are too real or too possible that I can’t read about it for fear that it could actually be real and happening somewhere in the world?  An example of this is the fact that ever since having kids I can no longer read or watch anything to do with children being hurt (physically or emotionally) without reacting very strongly.  Maybe I read for different reasons than the average person?

So why do the most people find general novels with everyday themes and made up lives of the average man so appealing?




2 thoughts on “Reading fiction about real life. Huh?

  1. Pingback: Are you Thirsty Richard Parker? | Lance Phillips

  2. Pingback: 5 Detective Novels Vol. 20 No. 2 (Summer, 1951) | The Great Pulp Magazine Index

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