Handling the (Reading) Truth: Fiction, Nonfiction, and Me (Part 2 of 2)

To pick up where we left off, I can tell you exactly when my reading preferences shifted from almost exclusively fiction to avoiding fiction as much as possible–it was late 1999, into early 2000 (I would say the “turn of the millennium,” but it was actually a year earlier)–and I can tell you exactly why.

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My husband (not the one I have now, in case that doesn’t quickly become obvious) started a relationship with another woman that fall, and we separated shortly before Christmas. The separation lasted not quite six months, but I’m not sure you can say we truly “reconciled,” other than to the reality that our marriage was down for the count (although it would be nearly a year and a half later before we officially ended it). That full story is for another time and place–assuming I ever bring myself to tell it at all–but what’s relevant to this story is that, as you might imagine, I was in a place of major emotional pain, and I was there for quite a long time. And when that pain was strongest, I had to stop reading fiction. 

Considering that my preferred fiction is of the character-centric literary variety, it’s not surprising that it became a problem for me to read it under those emotional conditions. As noted in this response to a recent study establishing a link between reading literary fiction and social and emotional intelligence,

“Reading sensitive and lengthy explorations of people’s lives, that kind of fiction is literally putting yourself into another person’s position — lives that could be more difficult, more complex, more than what you might be used to in popular fiction. It makes sense that they will find that, yeah, that can lead to more empathy and understanding of other lives.”

It was too much empathy for me to handle. Most of the conflict and drama in character-driven fiction comes through relationships, and until you have reason to notice it, you might not actually notice how much of that relationship drama is between spouses or romantic partners. I noticed. And I really didn’t need to spend time in the hearts and minds of characters in the midst of that drama–no matter their outcome, it rubbed salt into my own wounds.

Reading fiction had grown more uncomfortable than reading nonfiction, but not reading at all was absolutely not an option, and so I branched out. I’d always had some interest in history and biography, but I developed a sort of recency bias and wanted to read about people and events from the soon-to-end twentieth century more than those of earlier times. Although I found most “inspirational” books a bit off-putting (and still do), my own questioning about faith and religion led me to the “religious studies” shelves and to “faith” memoirs, which are more often about the writer’s own continuing questions rather than laying out answers. Those clicked. Thoughtful–and sometimes fun–books about popular culture clicked. I discovered topical narrative nonfiction, and learned that essays didn’t have to be dry and academic. Nonfiction could tell stories too, and sometimes they were even more fascinating and full of wonder than fictional ones–and it didn’t feel so much like any particular trick or special skill was necessary to read and appreciate those stories. And when I wanted to get inside someone else’s head again, there was memoir. The genre was still emerging then, and when it explored relationships, they were more likely to be those of youth than of marriage–that wasn’t so hard to take, and as I started to understand how the form differed from autobiography, I finally started to get the point of it.

When I was able to bring fiction back into my reading rotation, it was different, and some of those changes have stuck for over a decade now. I’ve grown lukewarm about a lot of “women’s fiction,” and fiction where infidelity or marital struggle is a central theme can still be difficult for me; this has pushed me to broaden my fiction-reading horizons, so I can’t really see it as a bad thing. What does seem like a not-so-good thing is that there are times I feel out-and-out bored with fiction. Perhaps at least part of this comes from nearly five decades of reading it, but sometimes I feel like I’m just seeing tweaks to the same stories I’ve read so many times before. Maybe that’s because there really are only so many stories in the human experience, but there are times I catch myself thinking that I’ve read some of them enough already.

As my fiction fever cools, I’m discovering that more and more of the books that excite me and jump onto my wish list are nonfiction. Narrative nonfiction, topical nonfiction, and cultural histories tend to grab me quickly, and I remain interested in biography and memoir.  My reading tastes have shifted before, and they may again; it’s all part of a reader’s evolution, isn’t it?  I doubt I’d ever quit fiction entirely, but at this stage of my reading life, I’m happier mixing things up.

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