I realized this when my agent told me he represented a book that had been nominated for the National Book Award. Despite its critical acclaim, it had sold, he said, only two thousand copies.
Afterward, I was talking to my publicist at HarperCollins. And she was discussing how it was nearly impossible for a first-time novelist to get significant press.
In the meantime, most of the people I know who had one day dreamed of writing the great American novel are not writing it anymore. Instead, they’re working on the great American memoir.
Most of us know that literary fiction, these days, is a third-class citizen.
However, what many don’t realize is that the genre seems to be overlooked by book buyers for the wrong reason.
Here’s what seems to be happening:
People often tell me that they only read non-fiction. And, even though all my books are non-fiction, this pains me to hear. This is because I wouldn’t be writing non-fiction if it weren’t for reading fiction. (See tomorrow’s blog post for more on those specific books.)
When I ask them why they favor non-fiction, they explain that it’s because they like getting information and learning things. At first glance, this makes a lot of sense. We have moved beyond the information age, and are now in an age of information neediness.
Whatever your area of interest may be, whether it’s Washington politics or celebrity gossip, the news changes in a matter of minutes. Subscribing to a magazine no longer serves the purpose of keeping up; only an RSS feed can keep a person current.
We’ve also become needy in our personal development: we are constantly blitzed with images of people who are prettier, wealthier, healthier, happier, and more spiritually evolved than us. And we are then sold on the possibility that a book or a course is the path to this ideal. Consequently, some people believe that it’s wasteful to spend their time reading anything that doesn’t appear on the surface to make them better at something.
Thus, most people have the notion that if they are going to set aside part of the day to read – and it’s getting harder for most to find time to read with the Internet competing for their attention – it should be something useful.
And non-fiction has somehow become synonymous with usefulness.
This, then, is the misconception that needs to be corrected in the popular imagination.
The truth is that a long list of numbered points is a lot more difficult to learn from and internalize than a story. The human mind learns best through metaphor. Everyone from Aristotle to today’s child psychologists have noted that, outside of actual experience, metaphors best facilitate learning.
“Without metaphors, ideas are dry and slip through your ears without a second thought,” Jonathan Frye puts it nicely (and metaphorically) in a blog I stumbled across while researching the topic That’s why many of the mainstream self-help books that become national phenomena, whether fiction like The Celestine Prophecies or non-fiction like Tuesdays With Morrie, weave simple advice that could be summed up in a page into the form of a book-long story.
Personally, I’ve learned a lot of small lessons from non-fiction, and certainly accumulated a wealth of facts. But it is ideas that fuel one’s life, not facts. And the ideas that have sunk into my consciousness over the course of a few hundred pages of fiction are the ones that have come to define my principles and influence the life decisions I’ve made. In tomorrow’s blog, I’ll go over a few of those books.
So while non-fiction may have a greater quantity of information, literary fiction has provided me with not just better quality information but also more useful information – all of which I’ve been able to absorb at a much deeper level.
Finally, for those utilitarians who still insist on the practical superiority of non-fiction, the truth is that fiction is much more efficient. It takes most people at least five times longer to finish a 350-page book of facts than it does to finish an equally long story that pulls readers through each page and excites them enough to dedicate every free second to reading more.
So, at the very least, to those reading this who only consume non-fiction, consider at least alternating between truth and fiction. The richer and more diverse your literary intake, the richer and more diverse you’ll become as a person. After all, as anyone who’s bought into the latest advice glut of books and documentaries about the power of positive thinking knows, the road to self-improvement and self-discovery begins in the imagination.