Yesterday, I wrote rather negatively about consumable content. Among other things, I argued that people no longer have the attention spans that they used to, that we flit from one thing to the next, consuming without thinking and assimilating without understanding. Today, I’m going to talk about how those lost attention spans have affected the art of the novel.
A few weeks ago, a rather drunk friend and I sat at our neighborhood bar and somehow got into conversation about fiction and nonfiction. He is not a writer, and we weren’t speaking about my vocation as a writer. There was a good deal of alcohol involved on his part, to the extent I’m not sure he remembered at that moment that writing is my forte. For that, I was thankful. It kept him honest.
“Fuck fiction,” he said with beer-infused gusto. “There’s no point to fiction. It’s not real.”
I argued that fiction helps people connect with human experiences that are not their own. He countered that nonfiction is a much better way to do the same thing.
“If I’m going to spend my time reading,” he said, “I want to read something that’s true. Something that really happened.”
Last night, at that same bar, a different friend and I spoke about a related subject, which was reading books versus reading things on the internet. “The last time I read an actual book was in my twenties,” said the 37-year-old photographer. “There’s no time for novels. If I’m going to read something, I’m going to read it online. Articles, blogs, maybe essays. Besides, nonfiction is more compelling.”
Full disclosure: I started out a fiction writer, but as of the last two years, have found myself writing nonfiction. The switch for me was organic; I had a true story I thought worth telling, so I told it. In many ways, I feel as though I abandoned a sinking ship.
I feel that way because I believe that fiction does have a place, one of such importance as to rival the needs for food and sleep and love. We need fiction because while it may not be real, the imagination is, and that’s something that needs to be exercised.
For better or worse, though, people seem to want only what they know to be true. This is, of course, a bit ironic, because no piece of journalism, essay, or memoir is entirely true. Apart from biography and scientific research, nonfiction is only one’s memory or interpretation of the truth, both of which are bound to have holes. We seek truth as though it is this singular, concrete thing, when in fact it is multifaceted and fluid. Whether blog posts, articles, memoirs, or short stories, there’s really no way to be sure that what we read is the truth.
(A funny thing happened when I was in graduate school. I wrote a new piece of fiction, and read it out to an audience. Afterwards, though he knew nothing of my history, my friend Colin said to me, “When are you going to give up and join us nonfiction writers?” He’d correctly identified my story as fictionalized truth, which is only a short step from memoir, and sometimes even more accurate. So much for fiction being something less than real.)
To say, then, that we have no time for novels, or that they are not real, or that they serve no purpose, is not always (or maybe ever) true. Novels serve the purpose of helping us to understand each other and the world. They are real in that they are a record of someone’s imagination, which is based on their own human experience. And we have time for novels—we merely choose to use it on other things that seem more accessible, more relevant.
‘No time for novels’ is a phrase that concerns me because it dismisses an art form that is as valid and important as the rest. It makes little sense in terms of truth and fiction because people watch fictional movies and television shows all the time. There can be no argument, then, that fiction, itself, serves no purpose. Thus it is the commitment to the novel that people seem to object to. What’s happened is that people don’t want to spend the time sorting through the language and the symbolism, the abstract that triggers the ah-ha moment of understanding, relatability, and ultimately sympathy. We want facts. We want answers. If we desire the other stuff, we want it shown to us. We don’t want to have to imagine it. We don’t care for our own imaginations anymore; someone else’s will do just fine.
Of course, this lament is somewhat self-centered. I’m a writer and I expect I’ll write fiction again. I speak here for probably a very small number of people. But being part of a small number never bothered me. If it did, I’d be a fool to write in the first place. What bothers me is that we don’t teach the importance of the novel at a young age. What bothers me is that we think reading is the same thing as engaging and connecting. What bothers me is that we have largely shifted to see novels as a waste of time rather than a welcome and necessary recess from it.
While it’s still cold, and the days still short, just give it a try. For old time’s sake. Pick up a novel and read it. See if you don’t feel something stir in you that hasn’t been there in a very, very long time.