Commentary · 11/19/2011

Should We Abandon Fiction in These Times of Crisis?

It’s hard not to read the title of Zoe Williams’ article in the Guardian No time for novels – should we ditch fiction in times of crisis? as trolling.

With comments like, “I didn’t really know why a low interest rate would suit a strong economy, and I didn’t understand the point of devaluation. I was too busy reading Martin bloody Amis,” it’s hard not to not feel an inarticulable anger towards her faulty premise: that fiction is in opposition to non-fiction.

Williams does have one caveat: “A novel that does take on big contemporary questions, even if it then hinges on an understanding of complex warfare, or politics, or industry, or finance, if it can do that and not be boring, not be full of what science fiction calls the ‘tell me, Professor’ moments, that will be more use to you probably, than any amount of explication delivered in factual, readable, lay terms.”

And there we have it: Williams wants a spectrum of “usefulness.” But where does Kevin Hartnett’s experience of reading IQ84 and his realization afterwards: “When life wears us down, great fiction gives us back our human shape,” fit on her usefulness scale compared to reading Naomi Klein?

Rather than contemplate the answer to that question, it’s much more interesting to look at fiction’s place in the libraries at (the now twice-destroyed) Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Austin, Occupy Oakland, etc.

The primer reading list for OWS includes only non-fiction right now, though they’re encouraging people to send in their poetry for an on-going anthology.

The Occupy London librarian Nathan Cravens said this of the collection: “‘The ones that are political or economic or historical go very quickly, it’s the novels that are left,’ says Cravens, suggesting that maybe fiction doesn’t match up to the present situation. ‘We’d like to see real things, and read about real things and apply real things.’”

Alexia Nader in the New Yorker seems to take a dig at anything not non-fiction as well, “But maybe more important are the books that take the protesters’ minds entirely off the matter at hand. Between rallies, Betsy told me, some of the protesters had begun holding poetry readings; and if I were to visit after sunset, I might see several of them huddled over novels, reading by candlelight.”

Library Thing is putting catalogs of the Occupy Libraries online if you want to take a look, though there’s no sense of what gets “checked out” most often.

I think I’m just a bit perplexed: many of the narratives of the Occupy movement and of these very real times of crisis use allusions to novels (Bradbury, Huxley, Orwell), so how doesn’t “fiction match up to the present situation?” Do we have an “obligation” to balance our reading of chapbooks, short stories, poetry, and novels with reading non-fiction? Aren’t most of us doing this already? Or if we aren’t, should we feel ashamed? What’s the “right” balance? Does any of this even matter, really?