Modern Reading

(originally published in Hourglass Literary Magazine

Credit: David Evers

There is a group, let us call them the anti-fictionists, that proclaims the death of fiction. They call for an end to the make-believe, the fake, the imaginary. Who needs fiction, these anti-fictionists say, when there is the scientific method, progress, development.

We may be a society of readers but how much of that time is spent reading books? Certainly it seems the traditional novel is dead or dying. Is there really any need to read fiction?

It is true that we are reading more than ever, hour after hour spent staring at screens, reading, scrolling, scanning, reading, reading, reading… but the role of fiction in the modern world had never seemed more hopeless.

This group, the anti-fictionists, believe that if fiction is needed at all it should be a commodity. A product that can be pushed into the idle hours of our day, marketed as a consumable, valued according to economics.

Our daily lives, in the real world, provide us with enough challenges, they say. How to improve productivity, analyze the margins, dissect the data? What we need is fact-based content not fiction.

If needs be, at the end of a long day, of course a short TV show or film is allowed. They are not monsters, these anti-fictionists, they realise that a good book can provide a short escapist thrill. But there is really no need to waste effort reading whole books, certainly not books that are ‘difficult’ or ambiguous.

There are some small communities which rally against these anti-fictionists — literary magazines, writers collectives, reading groups — but the truth is they have already lost the battle as the readers happily carry on reading, scrolling, scanning, reading, reading, reading…

For all the hours spent reading we still cannot ‘find time’ to sit down and read a lengthy piece of prose. Recommended books pile up but are never finished. Publishers go out of business as they report falling sales.

And the underlying reason for this, the anti-fictionists claim, is that the economics of literary fiction is failing. The demand for fiction remains low compared with ‘online content’ because its cultural value is low. Market forces should be allowed to prevail. Once they take their course then we will finally see the end of fiction.

But despite their best efforts we are no closer to ridding ourselves of fiction now than when Homer first composed the Illiad. Every utterance on Facebook, every political commentary, every news item, issued as fact is never fully rid of insidious doubts.

What they forget, these anti-fictionists, is the aqueous nature of fiction. Its ability to flow and seep into every corner of every sentence. Its ability to blur the lines around its edges.

No matter how authoritative the source, how clear and concise the delivery there is no human communication totally devoid of that quantum of uncertainty which lies at the heart of literature.

Old standards we once followed no longer hold true. Our politicians operate in a ‘post-fact’ world happily spouting fictions that populations swallow without question. News agencies report differing versions of the same events with blithe indifference.

The diligent reader who has spent all day reading fact-based content, may occasionally pause to scratch their head and wonder why the ‘facts’ no longer have much to do with reality but they never pause for long as there is always some new, fresh content to consume.

The anti-fictionists grumble that progress is slower than expected but for the most part they are happy. Happy to be getting on with the work of the real world. Happy that they are winning the war. Happy to have stopped wasting time on make-believe. Happy to be reading…

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