It has typically been easy for me to identify as a reader. I love books and bookstores, my disposable income is often used to support my literary habit. My bookshelves runneth over. When I write I delve into what I have read and what it meant to me. I draw connections and sketch out possible implications. All of this powered by an nearly unquenchable thirst for carefully arranged thoughts in print form — I am a reader.
But of course I can’t and don’t read everything. No, like every other reader, I make choices, reach decisions, set priorities. I have preferences, too: styles, genres, authors I like more than others. I consider myself well read and also a literary lightweight because I have read only a smattering of “the classics” and do not intend to remedy that any time soon. But the real truth is this: early in adulthood I took non-fiction to be my reading bride and left fiction by the wayside.
I became a steady and loyal reader of the concrete, the explanatory, the analytical; avenues to a collated truth. Descriptive and real, anchored to the knowable, illustrated in studies, interviews and primary sources. I learned to love journalistic prowess, well researched arguments and surprising connections among seemingly disparate topics. Non-fiction reading has offered me an intellectual home base that has sustained me over decades.
But fiction rattles me in strange ways. I’ve written about it before but a recent encounter with a complex novel, an inviting book group, and the emotions that still linger as a result have brought my thoughts back to the very form of writing that calls to me and also makes me want to run.
In a previous post I wrote about all the good things reading fiction was doing for me.
Stories make me want things. I want the characters to be nicer to each other. To believe in themselves, to stand up to the people who are hurting them, to not do that absurdly risky thing that will get them into trouble or possibly leave them dead.
Inside someone else’s head, I’m willing to suspend all kinds of disbelief. For the time that I am reading and have fallen into the story I suddenly understand that I am experiencing other people’s non-fiction. And then it all makes so much sense.
Those points are still true but this last encounter took me to a different place: understanding my reluctance to embrace fiction as a part of my reading identity. To my surprise I recognized a surprising culprit: fear.
I avoided fiction for a long time partly because I was afraid of:
- lacking the patience for long descriptive passages,
- not getting the real message,
- failing to grasp what other people find “mesmerizing,” “spellbinding” or that makes a work “a modern day classic” and therefore being ‘less than’ in my capacity to appreciate strong fiction & what it can do.
Sounds silly, right?
I recently stumbled into a book group on Twitter that was preparing a discussion of Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing which I happened to be reading at the time. I was excited to compare notes with fellow readers and the chat moderators actively welcomed my participation. In fact, knowledge of the upcoming chat spurred me to finish up the book sooner than anticipated. A preview of the chat questions was shared and that old familiar feeling resurfaced: fear.
There were no trick questions, just ones that asked about the characters, settings and events and how one might interpret them. And yet, I felt so uniquely unprepared and unqualified to answer even having read the book. Immediately I decided I would need to take in the responses of others first before venturing one of my own. I saw myself back in 10th grade English feeling very dumb for not having a clue what or who “A Narrow Fellow in the Grass” could possibly be. Symbolism, foreshadowing, author’s intent, metaphors and pacing, I got the whole package in school but would never have called it mine. Even if I learned how to write a solid analytical essay providing the quotes, assigning the meanings, later in life such academic straining felt much more like an imposter’s game for me. Using all the right words to say all the nice things without feeling any truth in my claims.
And my latent fear kept me from reading fiction in community. I kept myself busy with rich non-fiction sources, reading largely in the singular. I document these realizations not as regrets but as fresh openings for understanding in middle age. As my community of fellow readers, writers and other text enthusiasts gradually expands, I am beginning to outgrow my self-imposed limitations. I’m finding that I can enjoy fiction with as much or as little analytical involvement as I choose. There will be no exam, no grade, no judgment about the quality or depth of my reading ability. I feel free to think along with other readers without needing to compete for a teacher’s positive recognition of my efforts.
It’s a peculiar legacy of my rich (and also expensive) educational journey: I’m not sure that I know how to talk about literature correctly. Or, if I even want to. It feels possible to get it all or partly wrong — to misidentify a theme or to miss it entirely; to misinterpret characters’ actions or gain no sense of the author’s grand design. I’m reminded of how visual art or fine wines or architecture can be analyzed in particularly specific, and for a layperson, alienating ways. In these contexts the art of interpretation feels more like a science and becomes one I would rather shy away from.
In her acceptance speech after receiving the National Book Award 2017, Jesmyn Ward said this:
I am deeply grateful to each and every one of you who reads my work and finds something that sings to you, that moves you in it. I hope to continue this conversation with you for all of our days.
In this frame I feel welcomed and wanted. In the author’s eyes, I require no special qualifications to participate in a world of her creation. This is worth taking to heart and remembering. It is not fiction, per se, that holds me at bay, it is my ideas of how fiction ought to be digested and discussed. It’s my faulty mental model of how smart people handle fiction out in the world. I don’t have to live in that model. Really, I don’t.
I will find the stories that sing to me and that will be enough.