Recently, while on a wilderness expedition with several others, I found myself talking with a man, a counselling psychologist. Apropos of nothing in particular, he said that when it came to novels he always read the last few pages first. It sounded like he was bragging. At this point, another member of our group told him I was a writer, a novelist.
‘What sort of novels do you write?’ he asked, not the least embarrassed.
I described them as contemporary fiction, character based, that while they told a story they also explored ideas.
‘The book I’ve just finished, Invented Lives, explores the notion of exile, the one before, The Memory Trap, looked at the complexities memory.’
He said he wouldn’t like my books. ‘They sound like too much hard work.’
I asked him who he liked to read. He said Dan Brown.
‘So you like plot,’ I said. ‘You like a fast-paced story.’
‘But still you read the end first.’
He nodded and smiled. Very self-satisfied he was.
‘You’re clearly not a man to take risks,’ I said, letting politeness off the leash. ‘You want to know the destination before you embark on the adventure.’ It was a comment made sharper by the fact that we were currently on a real-life adventure.
The barb missed its target. He was happy with his performance, indeed, he seemed a man entirely contented with himself. If he was aware of having insulted me, he didn’t care. It was hard to see him as a counselling psychologist.
I would be appalled if someone accused me of being risk-averse. It conjures up a warm-water-bath life, the years mounting up into decades of sameness. And I was appalled as a writer. Writers spend years shaping the journey, and this Dan Brown reader basically says, ‘Fuck you’ when he goes to the last page.
I was relating this incident to a friend of mine, one of Australia’s finest writers. D said she often consults the end of a novel first, in order to get the plot out of the way. She wants to savour the journey, and not be swept along in plot’s white water. She wants to linger in the language and the evolving fictional world. This is a desire I understand – and share. But I choose a different approach: I’ll succumb to the pull of the narrative on a first reading and return for the language and the nuances on a second – at least that’s the plan, but with so many books waiting to be read, the second reading is often little more than a cursory glance.
I suppose I should have been grateful that the counselling psychologist at least read fiction. Many men don’t. They read non-fiction and news sources, books and periodicals, but not fiction. They admit this not as some sort of shameful confession, but rather as a boast, as if to say ‘I am above the fluff of fiction. My time is too important to waste on stories.’ Their not reading fiction is not a fault in them, but a fault in fiction.
It is true that many women do not read fiction either, but in their case, they’ll announce – generally apologetically – that they are not really readers. They don’t read fiction because they don’t read anything.
At a cursory glance fiction can appear to be a curious anachronism in the fast-paced, multi-tasking digital age. The long, slow immersion in fiction, spending a weekend with Christina Stead or Julian Barnes becomes increasingly unlikely when 24/7 connection is the measure of not simply one’s place in the world, but of identity itself – a shockingly frail sense of identity, it must be said, one that can soar or collapse with a battery of likes/dislikes. And gauging others in this fast-paced world is similarly fraught when confronted with an avalanche of ever-changing data; it seems that the kitbag of tools once available for making considered judgements is emptying fast. We follow people like us; we visit sites that confirm our opinions; if we read news outlets (and most of us don’t) it will confirm our political views. The whole world is just a swipe or tap away, and yet for many people the day-to-day world seems to be getting smaller.
I’ve long believed that fiction makes the reader more understanding, more tolerant. The reason is obvious. Through fiction, you are exposed to characters – people – who are different to yourself: different life experiences, different family circumstances, different culture, different eras. For 12, 15 or 20 hours you are immersed in a world not your own, seeing it from the point of view of people who are not yourself, actually experiencing it from beneath the skin of strangers who are no longer strange. The other becomes a familiar through the process of reading a novel. This is an intense learning experience: it’s also an intensely enjoyable and stimulating experience, one that exercises concentration and attention and memory. There is no other activity that exposes a person to such a diversity of human experience in so concentrated and economical way.
So many works of fiction appear in lists of great books: The Iliad, The Divine Comedy, all of Shakespeare, Don Quixote, Wuthering Heights, Moby Dick, and so many more. Fiction exposes our complex human longings, it shows anxieties, jealousies, crueltie; it reveals shame, anger, joy and love. Fiction provides a context for understanding what drives us, what tempts us, what destroys and uplifts us. Fiction stops the flashing lights and flabby noise of our on-on-on lives and allows for reflection and understanding.
Imagine it: an hour at the end of every day. You make yourself a coffee (or tea, or pour a glass of your favourite tipple), collect your novel and adjourn to the couch. You kick off your shoes, settle into its cushions, the dog (cat) jumps up, lies down next to you head on your thigh, your phone is out of reach, in fact, it is out of hearing, you open your book, remind yourself of where you are up to, and slip quickly and easily into a world of other people. This is bliss.