People Who Don’t Read Fiction
By Duncan Smith
Every so often I meet people who don’t read fiction. They’re proud of it too, in the way other people are proud of not drinking or gambling. But why? Today I’m going to try to understand the strange mentality of those who take up permanent residence in the fact world. They come in various types.
Mind you, the first two types can be forgiven for they are victims.
1. The BFZ — Book-Free Zone
The BFZ grew up in a house without books because reading wasn’t valued. They were never taught the pleasure of getting lost in a book. You’ve got to feel sorry for these guys. They’re doomed to spend a lot of time on the train playing games on their phones.
2. The RLM — Ruined by Literary Masterpieces.
The RLM also grew up as a non-reader, but decided to give it a try. Then he had the bad luck to start with some awful prize-winner or overhyped ‘masterpiece.’ Said masterpiece turned out to be an overwritten mess with no story and the RLM returned to watching Netflix, convinced fiction is not for him. He may still read non-fiction, valuing the directness and lack of artifice, but has been scared off fiction for life. (By the way, I will use ‘he’ and ‘she’ alternately, but all types come in both genders).
Some other RLMs have been made that way by being forced to read clever but dull literary works in high school.
Enough of the victims. We now move on to the hardcore anti-fiction types. These people make a point of actually avoiding fiction.
3. The OWSI — Obsessed With Self Improvement
The OWSI takes herself very seriously. She’s not concerned with self help, like poor cousin the OWSH, but self improvement. She has native high intelligence and wants to take it as far as possible. The OWSI has a commitment to learning. Her ultimate goal is to understand the true nature of the world before she dies.
The OWSI can be a little paranoid and wants to empower herself by learning about as many topics as possible — from business, to politics, to neuroscience. Ambitious and driven, she sees anything that doesn’t teach her a practical skill or improve her mind as a waste of time. She tends to dismiss fiction is a frivolity. This is a blind spot in her armoury, for the division of life into ‘true and false’ is too simplistic. Fiction would also enhance her sense of empathy — a highly practical skill.
4. The LAE — Life as an Exam
A close relative of the OWSI, the LAE is also obsessed with learning — partly from innate curiosity, but also the deeply instilled fear of failing exams. That ‘exam’ could take the form of dinner party chat on a topic the LAE hasn’t read up on, making bad investments, or falling foul of some local custom while overseas.
The LAE makes a point of reading serious non-fiction on as many topics as possible, and always at the back of his mind is that childhood nightmare of getting 49% on the ‘exam’ through lack of study.
The LAE is the type of person who takes a holiday but thinks only of work — because life is serious business and leisure is for losers. In other words, the LAE is a workaholic and proud of it … and that’s not helping.
5. The OFAR — Only Facts Are Real
No doubt the definitive type of person who won’t read fiction, the OFAR doesn’t want to know about anything that is ‘just made up’- although by that logic he should also avoid songs and movies.
With his insistence that facts are real but fiction is made up and therefore worthless, the OFAR is extremely literal-minded. His view is that facts = real = useful, and fiction = non-real = useless.
He will read newspapers, textbooks, or other ‘factual’ works. At a stretch, he may read a biography, but not a book about the life of a fictional character. An extreme OFAR may even regard movies as a waste of time. Indeed, if you’re trying to sell fiction to an OFAR, your only chance is by luring him into the next category.
6. The BOATS — Based on a True Story
The BOATS is an OFAR who has softened her stance and decided to read a novel (or watch a film) because it is Based On A True Story! Yes, it is for these people this catchphrase was made and tacked onto the end of movie posters. Imagine you’re trying to appeal to an OFAR. The conversation might be something like this:
“Have you read X? What an amazing story!”
“What is it — a novel?”
“Yes. It blew my mind. Wait til you read it.”
“I don’t read fiction.”
“But it’s incredible.”
“Exactly. It’s not real — it’s just made up.”
“But,” (winces internally) “I heard it’s … based on a true story.”
“Wait, what? It’s based on a TRUE story, something that really happened? OK I might check it out.”
And now, some honourable mentions. The following types will read fiction, but only in a particular way.
7. The CFL — Condescending Fact Lord
For a time, novelists were regarded as authorities on life, human nature, and other weighty topics. For the CFL, this role has been seized by those kings of the fact world, the scientists. The CFL now sees authors as little more than court jesters providing light entertainment for their betters.
The scientist Richard Dawkins is a cultured, well-read man, but also a CFL. He quotes with approval the late Douglas Adams. Adams said that while he once looked to writers for the great truths, it is now only scientists who can provide them. His own light comedies were perfect examples of Adams’ willingness to play court jester in the new world of the CFL.
8. The GPA — Guilty Pleasure Apologist
The GPA does read fiction, but only what she describes as ‘trashy novels.’ She’s a serious person over-concerned by what others think of her cultural habits. Believing she’ll be judged, the GPA allows herself to indulge her real tastes by using the ‘guilty pleasure’ disclaimer. Also known to apologise for ‘dancing to cheesy love songs after a few drinks.’
9. The GOOJFIC — Get Out Of Jail Free Irony Card
The younger relative of the GPA, the GOOJFIC is also worried about how others see him. He’s supposed to only like underground bands, along with obscure books and movies. In reality, the GOOJFIC actually likes some popular stuff too. Recent invention of the Irony Card allows him to enjoy mainstream culture while pretending to hate and disdain it, because he is ‘liking it ironically.’
10. The NFS — the Non-Fiction Snob
The NFS belongs to several of the above groups at once, and enjoys a constant state of smug superiority over other people. He or she will always be smarter, cooler, and more successful than you. Then again, at the end of the day, the NFS will still end up dead like the rest of us.
These are some of the main types of people who don’t read fiction. It is possible I’ve got them wrong, in which case I’m happy to be corrected. Send in your comments. In the meantime, here are my top five reasons why people should read fiction.
1. Life is Not an Exam
Working hard is good; being a workaholic is not. Workaholics are one of the few types of ‘holics’ who are proud of their disease. People who reads only non-fiction through a need for constant learning are ‘leisure time workaholics.’ That is, they can’t do anything in their spare time unless it has a constructive purpose. They can’t just go on holidays and lie on the beach with a novel, they need to do something worthwhile.
To those people I say ‘Lighten up!’ Life is not an exam. Well, not all the time anyway. Read something for pleasure, not just the perpetual advancement of your knowledge. Besides, if you think you’ll only learn from non-fiction, you’re being way too literal minded.
2. Fiction is Truth in Concentrated Form
A good fiction writer can extract a truth about life and express it succinctly in a structured form. For ‘truth’ you could substitute the word ‘fact.’
A fiction writer can put a fact in a context that illuminates it. A good writer will clothe a truth through characters, actions, and a sequence of events, so it’s vividly understood. Anyway, documentary film makers work in much the same way, constructing a coherent narrative to show a truth — thus mirroring the techniques of fiction. The film maker selects from a large range of material to shape a story. More to the point, the distinction between fiction and non-fiction is far less than one might think.
I could point out that many novels are heavily researched or based on lived experience, but that’s getting a bit close to the ‘based on a true story’ spiel. It shouldn’t be necessary to sweeten the deal for the anti-fiction brigade.
3. Escape From the Self
One of the greatest tyrannies we face is being trapped within our own minds. A good novel frees you from this prison and allows you to enter the mind of not just the author but the characters in the book, whose personalities may be quite distinct from the author’s.
A novel can give you the power of time travel into the past, or the imagined future. As the saying goes, the past is another country, they do things differently there. This allows us to escape the pathological myopia of assuming the way things are now is the way they always were or will ever be.
Escaping from the self helps you realise there are other selves out there, each with their own concerns even if they are different from your own. In that way, reading fiction is a weapon against narcissism and chronic self-absorption, and in the age of the selfie we need that more than ever.
4. Fiction Is Better Than Life
The real world can be pretty damn tedious. There are plenty of things you would like to happen which probably won’t, due to blockages of various kinds. In fiction, you can skip past the tedium of mundane reality and the blockages of the fact world.
I’ll be the first to admit that in my own novels, what happens in, say, chapters 3–20 is dependent on events happening in chapters 1–2. In the real world, those events probably wouldn’t happen. This means that in life one is often stuck, so to speak, in the frustrating world of chapters 1–2. In fiction, you can get past those tedious limitations and reach the interesting world of chapters 3–20! And that’s fine, as long as you don’t turn it into a ‘Mary Sue’, in which case your preference for fiction will have become pathological.
5. Who Wants to Hang Around With an OFAR Anyway?
Some people are intelligent but not too smart. The guy who says only facts are real is usually on par with a robot still trying to pass the Turing Test.
The line between fact and fiction is considerably blurry. One has only to look at history. Many inventions and social changes started out as imaginative fiction before becoming facts. Many things once believed facts turned out to be fiction. Some of the great characters of fiction are far more real in the mass human psyche than actual people who have lived and died unremarkable — indeed boring — lives.
In the end, it’s unnecessary to set up any great opposition between fiction and non-fiction. Both can be enjoyable and educational. Yet reading is an end in itself, not just a means to an end. Still, if we’re going to take a utilitarian approach to the activity of reading, the bottom line is that reading fiction may or may not make you smarter or better informed, but it’s highly likely to make you a better person. There is no more practical outcome than that.
About the Author
Duncan Smith creates ‘music-novels’ — books that come with their own musical soundtrack albums. He is the author of The Vortex Winder and The Maelstrom Ascendant. His latest novel, Cultown, is about a charismatic man who creates the ultimate cult. All soundtracks, by Australian rock band Lighthouse XIII, are available through iTunes.
Duncan Smith’s website and blog are here
Annalisa Parent is an author and a featured speaker at the Writers Digest Annual Convention. She is the Writing Coach in Residence at the Writing Gym, which accepts writers who are serious about the craft without taking themselves too seriously, and helps PUMP their writing into publishable shape. To apply visit www.writing-gym.com.