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Old 03-04-2009   #1
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(Why) Have we stopped reading fiction ?

I was re-reading Matt Cardins amazing interview the other day and when I got to the point where both Matt and Tom said that they didn't really read fiction, it occurred to me that most of my friends don't read fiction anymore.
I don't really read fiction anymore.
Why is this ?
When did it happen ?
I've got two theories.
The first is that the modern media and newspapers are so lightweight and low-brow that you have to go to specialist books to properly understand the current politics, economics or science.
And science and technology seem to be developing so fast and changing our world-view so quickly that you have to read specialist books to keep up.
The real non-fiction world has become more fascinating than the world of fiction.
My second theory is that we've changed our idea of the real and the imaginary. We look at everything realistically and literally. I've got friends who hate the theatre because they feel the whole thing is too contrived. It isn't real enough. To them the theatre is just a poor substitute for the movies. And when they watch movies they will say, "That wouldn't happen","That isn't realistic", as if these are valid criticisms of art which is only ever a fantasy. Even Realism as a genre is a fantasy.
The same thing with fundamentalist religion. The literal reading of a work of imagination, even a divinely inspired work, is taking a rational scientific approach to the imagination.
I'm not saying that we take a literal approach to fiction as well, but if you are distracted by artifice, if you are looking for the real, then fiction can seem like a poor puppet-show. You become aware of the author moving his wooden characters about. In the same way that my theatre-hating friends can't stop seeing actors as people- pretending on the stage.
Maybe post-modernism is to blame with all those narcissistic narratives drawing attention to their own artifice.
In an author like W G Sebald, who I love, I see this discomfort with fiction. The need for autobiography and photographs to make something more real. I think part of his literary success is because he points out our dissatisfaction with fiction. He writes fiction which is trying not to fiction.
Are we unwilling or unable to suspend our disbelief ?
Is it because we're moving into a rational age inwhich the imagination is as anachronistic and dangerous as religion ?
A primitive ability that's lost it's evolutionary purpose ?
Maybe it's not even true that people are generally turning off fiction.
And why does reading Thomas Ligotti give me so much pleasure ?
Although even with his work I'm starting to enjoy the non-fiction more than the fiction...
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Old 03-04-2009   #2
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Re: (Why) Have we stopped reading fiction ?

Honestly, I think it has to do with denial. The world is no more interesting than it ever was. People who are more interested in non-fiction are often the same people who claim to have no love for humanity. Yet, I'd bet they still see 'faces' in the woodwork.
Fiction, for the 'user' is not just a journey into someone else's house, it is also, when it is good, going home. It appeals to our sense of wonder. If the imagination is dying, these are the people murdering it.
But the imagination is not dying, nor reaching obsolescence. We can see so much more of our world these days, there's so much more to imagine. And we've created this world with our imagination, a world where what we imagine can become reality so much more quickly than it ever has in past.
Not to mention, we all want to be original as artists and with so much out there to contend with, perhaps part of us resents and is afraid of it. We don't want to seem as if we've been influenced. Hence the slew of remakes. Another paradox.
Of course, nothing gets me like a good turn of phrase, no matter if the character saying it is fictional or 'not'.
It is more difficult, in my opinion, to delve into the dark reaches of your own soul while reading about the exterior worlds 'real' atrocities.
The whole idea of 'Reality Media' is hilarious. On one hand, it is designed to get you and the coming generations used to being watched. Numbed, frightened and watched.
On the other it opens up whole other avenues for exploring the meaning reality, the image as experience.
"I don't want to see live theatre or go to the damn movies! Those are just people up there acting stupid. It's so much more entertaining and interesting to me to watch people who actually are stupid. And I can feel better about myself from the safety of my own home."
People are stupid. They do stupid things. No getting around it. The trick is to find which brand of stupid you are and be that.
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Old 03-04-2009   #3
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Re: (Why) Have we stopped reading fiction ?

Not to mention, fiction also gives us a glimpse into our future. Is it possible we have become so obsessed with current events because we grow increasingly afraid of that future? So afraid it leads to a weird narcissism? Who benefits from that?
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Old 03-04-2009   #4
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Re: (Why) Have we stopped reading fiction ?

I think a larger problem is people simply aren't reading -- period. Book and newspaper sales are plummeting. Some major book retailers, like Borders, are on the verge of bankruptcy. The small amount that people do read is often limited to text messaging and blogging. It's sad.


This fiction vs. non-fiction topic is interesting. It made me realize that one of the reasons I like Thomas Ligotti is because often he feels like non-fiction. I don't mean to say I believe his characters and locations are real; rather, they may represent potential cosmic truths allegorically; a kind of horror-philosophy that transcends the fictitious elements. I think all fine fiction does this to some degree.

"Too much of anything is bad, but too much good whiskey is barely enough." Mark Twain
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Old 03-04-2009   #5
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Re: (Why) Have we stopped reading fiction ?

Maybe I'm not qualified to answer this question beacuse I read hundreds of books a year. This includes all catagories. I am re-reading the collected stories of Kathrine Anne Porter at the moment and I am finding things I missed on my previous readings. I am also reading The Big Caper by Lionel White. He wrote the novel that Kubrick's film "The Killing" was based on. I love to read.To be able to read as much and as well as I do I have had to make some deliberate choices. I don't watch television. I spend little time on the internet. I get my news from KPFK (Pacifica Radio) or NPR and the LA Times rather than television.Most people don't realize how much the world ahs changed in the last 30 years - especially in the last 10. It's not better or worse but it is very different. The overabundance of ways to communicate has brought down the level of communication. Reading fiction requires effort, but if you read the right fiction the effort is rewarded in ways that many of todays folks no onger understand. Supposedly this generation is advanced visually, but even visual media have had to be dumbed down to accommodate the new lower level of comprehension.Too much television and video games may us stupid. We don't realize the effect that these things have on us until we get away from them for a while. Let me give you an example. At work I had an assignment at the United terminal for 6 months where we had an hour and a half break every day. We started bringing in movies to watch at lunchtime. (We ahd time for about half of a movie between flights. Usually someone brought in the latest movies but one day I brought in one of my all time favorites, Point Blank.I work as a Customs Officer at LAX. All of my fellow employees are college educated. However, the younger officers couldn't understand the movie. They couldn't follow the story line. They didn't understand what happemned to Walker at Alcartaz. They didn't understand his relationship with his wife. etc. It was too visual. They couldn't put the pieces together in their minds. If this is what is happening to supposedly educated peopel then what is happening to everyone else who doesn't have the same background? Even the supposedly visual smart generation couldn't understand a very straightforward crime story that had a few elements of the French New Wave Cinema. I fear for the future.

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Old 03-04-2009   #6
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Re: (Why) Have we stopped reading fiction ?

It seems to me that there are two different issues being discussed here: why people read less fiction in general, and why people read less fiction as they get older. At age 43, I read far less fiction now than I used to, and I think it's because my tastes have changed over time. When I was a kid, I read lots of fiction for sheer enjoyment of story. That's a state of innocence I can't quite get back to. As a teenager with writerly ambitions, I became interested in literature as an art form, and I read a wide range of higher-quality authors with real appreciation. By my mid-twenties, I was a pretty jaded fiction reader, and nonfiction (in numerous areas I wanted to learn about) seemed more interesting to me than most fiction. Also, by my mid-twenties my taste in fiction was much more formed, and thus narrower. This seems like a natural progression to me, and while it feels that I've lost something I also think I've gained something by having a more definitely formed taste.

I'm still interested in literature -- in fact, it's at the very center of my interests. I have a very "literary" turn of mind, so I can't simply move away and find a new mental home in some purely nonfiction field. I read a lot of literary criticism. I also like to read works by nonfiction writers who take a somewhat literary approach to their subject matters (e. g., Nietzsche, S. J. Gould, Cavell, Hitchens ...). I would read more fiction if I could find more that is to my taste, but I've become persnickety. I glance at stuff and dismiss it -- sometimes too quickly. In recent years when I've found fiction I've really enjoyed, I've read it avidly. But these discoveries have been rare. Ligotti, Bernhard, Sebald, Richard Powers's The Gold Bug Variations. And in the case of all these writers, I was aware of their work years before I actually found the patience to read it (due to that glance-and-dismiss syndrome).

I share Vegetable Theories' and New Nonsense's preference for fiction that is similar to nonfiction. To the list above I would add some writers I read much earlier: Proust, Borges, Malzberg, Coover, Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow. I know I'm forgetting some names. What these writers have in common is that they (in various ways) make fiction out of non-fictional ways of thinking. That's an awkward way to put it. They don't simply use fiction to express their ideas (as, say, Stapledon, Mann, and G. B. Shaw do); they make fiction out of their ideas and out of their peculiar ways of thinking. I do like Stapledon, Mann, and Shaw -- but it seems to me that they are a little too straightforward or un-aesthetic in their idea-mongering. But I'm having second thoughts about downgrading Mann in this way. I really loved The Magic Mountain and Doctor Faustus.

Anyway, I probably made a lot of dubious assertions in this post, so if anyone wants to take issue with it they're welcome to.

Last edited by gveranon; 03-04-2009 at 11:26 PM..
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Old 03-05-2009   #7
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Re: (Why) Have we stopped reading fiction ?

I think I read less than I used to, and I am fairly sure why: The Internet has seriously damaged my ability to concentrate and to enjoy being alone. It promises contact - on tap, so to speak - with a world out there, without delivering that much in the end. If you are bored with the Internet, are you bored with life? The Internet is somehow presented as 'the world', so what could be better than a connection to it? And if that fails to satisfy, then presumably nothing will satisfy, and, for me, a chronic restlessness has set in.

I still do read more than most people I know, however. I'm not sure if the proportion of fiction has gone down. Maybe so, but that's because I used to read fiction almost exclusively. I still read more fiction than anything else. I seem to be one of a very few people in the world who really lives for fiction.

I share the concerns mentioned that the future will be basically illiterate and devoid of any kind of attention span at all. I have no idea what to do about this. People embrace new things without knowing where they will lead. At least, no one now ever seems to feel they are in the position to turn down a new technology, whatever it might be. It's a selfish concern, but as someone who writes, I fear that I will be obsolete very soon. I am producing more and more complex fiction, and I feel like the human brain is, collectively, losing the ability to digest that kind of thing, as if I am writing in Latin or some other extinct language. As to what I will do when my obsolescence becomes complete, I don't know. Unlike some, I view the future almost entirely with dread. There may be a better age some day, but I don't know if it will be in my lifetime.

If realism is replacing imagination, that, to me, is not progress. Realism is a dead end. There are no quantum leaps without imagination. With realism, you're stuck with what you've got, a recurring pattern. It is realism that is primitive. The mechanistic view of the world represents a degeneration. Primitive brains, such as those of the flea, we're told, resemble computers, in that they have a few pre-programmed responses. More and more, human beings, losing their imaginations, are degenerating into a state of pre-programmed responses (realism), which they seem to believe is 'the future' in some shiny, ultra-cool sort of way. That's a boat I shall be happy to miss.

Having said that, I'm not entirely without hope. I know a number of younger people who buck this trend quite significantly, though, from what I can gather, they themselves are in despair at their peers.

"As the Director of one of the five greatest museums in our Eastern States has more than once remarked to me, From the Stone Age until now, what a decline!" - Ananda Coomaraswamy
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Old 03-05-2009   #8
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Re: (Why) Have we stopped reading fiction ?

Quote Originally Posted by qcrisp View Post
I It's a selfish concern, but as someone who writes, I fear that I will be obsolete very soon. I am producing more and more complex fiction, and I feel like the human brain is, collectively, losing the ability to digest that kind of thing, as if I am writing in Latin or some other extinct language. As to what I will do when my obsolescence becomes complete, I don't know. Unlike some, I view the future almost entirely with dread.
I agree -- but I look forward rather than dread this inevitable outcome... and I continue to write my (complex?) prose but then immediately put it on the public internet as some sort of acceptance of the type of thing you say. I haven't submitted anything to a book or mag publisher since 1999 and I feel that is the best way to remain positive in a negative way! I hope you see what I mean.

MY WEBSITE: www.nemonymous.com
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Old 03-07-2009   #9
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Re: (Why) Have we stopped reading fiction ?

I don't know if we have stopped reading fiction.

I mostly read fiction, and have a hard time whipping myself to reading non-fiction. I find reality to be quite an overrated phenomena.

However, since the world of today seems to contain more unreality than actual reality, maybe it's time to read about reality, real things, real phenomena, before the reality is irrevocably lost. I fear that may happen in my lifetime.

I work in a major bookstore, and fiction doesn't seem to be selling less, or losing to non-fiction. Most of the fiction people read is an abomination, of course, but it has always been so. Those glorious days when the masses rushed out to read Ligotti, Kafka, Roland Topor, Bruno Schulz, E.M. Cioran and Quentin S. Crisp never were, were they?

But in the last year, both Bulgakov's The Master and the Margarita and Thomas Bernhard's Der Untergänger (in Danish translations) have been on our top 10 list of bestsellers.

However, I have noticed that the sales of fiction seems to be concentrating on fewer and fewer books, which is definitely a tendency that is here to stay and grow stronger. I think the more interesting literature will continue to be present in the small presses, but I'm afraid it will lose all contact with the mainstream, which is a dreadful shame, both for the interesting and challenging literature, and the mainstream literature and readers who will continue to enjoy being fed ####, or at least not knowing anything better than to being fed ####.

With regards to age, I have noticed the pattern you have noticed. I work in both the non-fiction and fiction department, and the non-fiction department has a strong overweight of middle-aged to elderly men, who has tired of reading fiction and wants something with an aura of reality about it (an aura of reality mainly meaning books about "great men" and WWII, a field which apperently is exhaustible, as well as books about politics/debate), whereas younger men (and women in general) seems to go for the fiction departments.
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Old 03-07-2009   #10
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Re: (Why) Have we stopped reading fiction ?

"Reality. What a concept!" Robin Williams when he was on stage.circa 1978I've been thinking about this thread, started by vegetable theories, for days now. The reason it bothered me was that, in my niavete, I imagined that a website dedicated to one of the three or four most important short fiction writers working in English in the second half of the 20th century and on into the 21st century would be full of (for lack of a better word) militant short fiction readers. The longer I thought on this thread the clearer my ideas became. I now realize that we are as much a product of our times as anyone else.The modern novel and short story are private works of art aimed at one person at a time. The writer works in privacy and the reader reads in privacy. These arts were developed during a time of much less communication and before the joys or terrors (take your pick) of instant communication. If you wanted to talk to someone you had to physically move to where they were or you had to write a letter and wait for a reply. These limitations helped the novel and short story develop into such fine arts.In this new age with everyone stuck in the exact middle (and I mean everybody) of the Global Village with all eyes and electronic devices aimed at their faces day and night one can only wrench off small pieces of privacy through heroic effort. Most of us are city folk from birth, but the few of us who grew up in a real village know that, for whatever good there is in growing up among friends and neighbors, the one thig lacking in a village is privacy. Everyone knows everything about you and everyone is in your business always. In a village, electronic or physical, no one can think for themselves which means, practically, that no one can think at all. Or not without a sustained, deliberate effort. It used to be that every village was a little like The Village in the old Prisoner tv series. Now the whole world is a lot like The Village in the old Prisoner tv series. That show was even more prophetic than we ever realized.Reading is as much a craft and an art as writing. There are no patrons of the arts anymore, so the craft may die out for a while, but I'll keep reading. It might be a good idea, for this and for other reasons, to simplify our lives a bit. Our electronic toys are a ot more subversive than we first thought.

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